Explaining Michael Jackson

[Editor’s note: Not surprisingly, pop icon Michael Jackson has come up more than once in ARP discussions of race, self-esteem and Eurocentric beauty standards. How does one explain to children a young, black man seeming to morph into a white woman? How does one explain to children an icon of black music–a Motown star no less–that seems to hate his blackness? With the passing of pop icon Michael Jackson, we thought we would re-post some pieces about him, written by ARP contributors. Next week, columnists will weigh in on how to address the King of Pop, his passing and the ensuing media circus with children.

The following post was written by ARP columnist Liz Dwyer in January 2008.]


About a month ago my husband came home with the December issue of Ebony magazine. I grew up seeing copies of Ebony around the house and so did he. But neither of us really read Ebony these days, so I was curious when I saw the top of the magazine peeping out from under a bag of apples.

I picked up the magazine, saw the whole cover and immediately understood why my husband bought it: Michael Jackson was on the cover.

My immediate reaction was to furtively hand it to him and hiss, “Hide that thing before the kids see it!”

He immediately understood me and tucked it into his bag.

This may seem like an odd reaction, but Michael Jackson has been a mythical figure in our household for a good part of this year.

It all began one day when I was watching VH1 Classic and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” came on. My sons, ages four and six, were completely hypnotized. They stared at the TV with their mouths hanging open. And as the video played, they both wanted to know, “Mommy, who is THAT?”

“That’s Michael Jackson,” I replied.

“Michael Jackson,” they breathed reverently. And I knew how they felt. That era, the “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” era of Michael Jackson was simply amazing.

“I wanna see that again,” my youngest demanded. He didn’t care when I told him that I couldn’t just make the TV channel replay a video. And before long, his demands escalated into a tantrum and he got sent to timeout. Twice.

Later on I heard him saying, “I’m Michael Jackson,” and singing, “Beat it! Beat it!” to himself over and over again.

When my husband came home that night, the boys were eager to tell him about their latest obsession. And my husband was happy to dig through a closet and pull out a dusty VHS tape of ancient Michael footage. The tape had videos for songs like “Rock with You” and “Beat It” as well as footage from TV performances like “Motown 25” where Michael first did the Moonwalk.

But, by the time my boys began viewing the video for “Smooth Criminal”, they were confused. Those of us who’ve been alive during the past thirty years have witnessed Michael’s changes gradually: skin color lightening, hair straightening and facial features morphing. But for a couple of kids to see it within the blink of an eye, it’s really confusing.

Plus, in “Smooth Criminal”, Michael’s wearing a hat and his hair is longer than in the previous videos. And the skin tone on his hands isn’t the same as what you see in “Beat It”.

“Are you sure that’s Michael Jackson?” my six year-old queried. I could hear the disbelief in his voice.

“Yes, that’s Michael Jackson,” I answered. But I wanted to say, “Nope, it’s not,” and shut the tape off. I’d never imagined that I’d need to strategize around how to talk about Michael Jackson’s physical transformation. How to explain something that most of us adults are still trying to come to terms with?

“No. No, that’s not Michael Jackson, mommy,” my son insisted and his little brother agreed, proclaiming, “Michael Jackson looks like me!”

Both kids wanted me to immediately turn off “Smooth Criminal” and rewind back to their favorite, “Beat It”. I was happy to comply; happy to go back to a Michael who seemed to have already had some work done but still resembled a black man.

I’m not one to debate whether or not the man really has vitiligo and has chosen to go through a de-pigmentation process. But I do know that his hair becoming less kinky and his nose becoming a shadow of its former self has nothing to do with a skin disorder. Those things point to someone running from the hallmarks of his own blackness, and that’s not something I want my sons, with their fledgling black identities, to see.

And so in our home Michael Jackson’s appearance has been frozen in time. My sons have gone along these past few months thinking Michael still looks like he did in the early 1980s.

Inevitably though, my husband left the copy of Ebony sitting in the bathroom. My six year-old marched into the living room a couple of days ago holding it. He curiously asked me, “Mommy, who’s this?”

I felt a little like a parent who must finally tell their child that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy don’t really exist.

“That’s Michael Jackson.”

My son started laughing. He found my response so funny that he called his four year-old brother into the room and said, “Mommy’s trying to trick us!” He pointed to the picture and continued, “Mommy said that’s Michael Jackson!”

“Well, it is Michael Jackson!” I answered back.

There was more uproarious laughter as my son proclaimed, “Mommy, that’s not Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson’s not a white lady!”

They laughed even harder and the little one fell to the floor and began to roll back and forth while clutching his tummy.

And it would have been funny if I’d been joking. I mean, who’d have thought that “Beat It” Michael would turn into the image that’s on the cover of Ebony?

I wished I could tell them that it was merely a mask and that an unaltered Michael with a proud, wide nose and beautiful kinky hair awaited them inside the pages of the magazine. But that’s not the case.

I reminded them of the “Smooth Criminal” video and how they didn’t believe me then and didn’t want to watch it. I told them that Michael just kept on changing himself after that.

Of course, they got really quiet and wanted to know why and how.

I made the decision not to bluntly tell my sons something like, “Well, because of the insidious effects of racism, Michael hated being black so he cut and pasted himself into what you see on the cover of this magazine.” I could already see they were shocked and I didn’t want them to start feeling like there was something wrong with them too.

So, I told them that Michael says he has a skin disease that makes him lose his skin color. They had a lot of questions about that, particularly around whether or not they would also get this disease.

And then they asked about the nose and hair. I told them that Michael does what a lot of people do when they’re unhappy with the way they look: He changes his appearance with makeup, wigs and surgery.

It became another opportunity to talk about how to love and appreciate the skin, hair and body that you’ve been born with.

My sons ended up feeling sorry for Michael and wondered if doctors could change him back to the way he was before. I told them that I didn’t think so.

My savvy eldest wistfully touched the magazine cover, sighing, “Do you think he wishes he could still be brown like me?”

I wonder if any of us will ever know the answer to that question but I told my sons what I hope in my heart: Yes.

Liz Dwyer lives in Los Angeles with her husband of eight years, Elarryo Bolden and her two sons, ages six and three. Her great sense of adventure and desire to learn about diverse cultures took her to Guangzhou, China where she taught English to third and fourth graders, picked up some Mandarin, and managed to get into seven bike accidents. Liz taught in Compton, CA for three years and later worked for national education non-profit Teach For America. Liz has written and reflected on the world around her for the past three years at Los Angelista’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness. She’s currently freelance writing and working on her first novel.

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