Race and Remembering Michael Jackson

[Editor's Note: Michael Jackson's life and death prompted much discussion about race. As the circus surrounding Jackson's death draws to a close, we asked Anti-Racist Parent columnists to weigh in on what the pop icon meant to them and what implications he had on discussions of race.]

Columnist Renee Martin:

I went to school with a young white girl named Amanda, who simply adored Michael Jackson.  Daily she spoke of wanting to be just like him, including his hair.  She told us that she begged her mother for a Jherri curl.  Finally, in frustration, I announced that she would never be like him because he was black like me.  There are not many instances in which black children are able to affirm their identities as good and this is why this incident will never be forgotten by me. 

Michael was such a complex figure.  He transcended race and was adored by millions.  Many of today’s current round of Black celebrities owe their careers to him and yet he was a man scorned as much as he was loved.   We considered him an embarrassment and I cannot tell you the many times I have heard him referred to as a frustrated white woman.  As I listened to Rev. Sharpton speak about him yesterday, both the good and the bad, I realized that we could not turn our back on him regardless of the many public tribulations he had endured.  I recalled that love is never is easy; it too comes with many sacrifices.

To embrace Michael we must think about both the good and the bad.  The charges of eccentricities, child abuse, and music stardom were all a part of who he was.  Even as we sing his songs and practice our moonwalks, we must take the time to honor his alleged victims.  Michael was our creation, our King of Pop and though it would be nice to blott out that which makes us uncomfortable, it would place his legacy completely out of comtext.  As I search for a way to mourn for a man who in my early years was a complete hero and a monster by the time I became an adult, I find that my feelings about him are as complex as the man himself.

Columnist Bianca Laureano:

I think the topic of skin color can be productive with the imagery we are seeing on television regarding Michael Jackson. As a woman of Color who is darker than the rest of her immediate family members (who racially identify as White but ethnically as Latino), I was often told I looked “dirty” because of how my skin changes color in various situations. I think immediately of my own skin. It is much darker in certain parts of my body, such as around my mouth, and just about everywhere I bend. I remember my family telling me to scrub the back of my neck and face harder in the shower because I still looked “dirty” without understanding that this is how my skin color is at this moment in time. This was also a topic of discussion when I began to get scars and acne on my skin that turned much darker than the rest of my body.

Yet, how to explain how his photographs become lighter over time? I look at myself in photographs over time and notice I have gotten lighter in some times and darker in others. As a woman whose gender identity is “femme” I’ve desired a more “even” tone on my skin, especially my face. I’m more than positive this has been influenced by hearing the commentary by my racially White family members about how I looked. The options available to me were to go lighter which I did not do. Here’s where I think some more teachable moments come about: understanding how to care for our skin.

I’ve learned that I can’t use many drugstore items available for my skin the same way my mother can. We have different skin and different needs. As I entered my 30s I realized that the SPF protection I needed was also different. I’m still learning how to properly care for my skin and think this will be a lifelong learning process.  I’d encourage parents who are of Color or who have children of Color to think about skin color in this way versus getting overwhelmed and distracted with the speculations and stories of what Michael Jackson did or did not do to his skin. Thinking about how to care for our skin, how comments we may make or thoughts we have about what appears “dirty” or too different to be “natural” is also important for me right now.

The other topic I see produced from the media representation are issues of power. How does/did Michael Jackson use his power to create social change? What is power when it comes to media images? What does power look like when a young man of Color is at the center? How are our choices informed by an excess or lack of power in our lives? How do we respond when we lose or gain power when we historically or recently never had it or had too much of it? What do people mean when they say “Michael Jackson is powerful?”

I honestly believe that we do not have conversations with young people and children about power. It’s not something that we as adults, mentors, parents, family members avoid, we just don’t discuss it at all unless we are talking about how powerless youth are because they are youth. What would such conversations look like if we did discuss power with youth and children? How would you define power for your family? How would you help your child/mentee/youth in your life discover and not misuse their power? How would you as an adult and person responsible for a child or youth negotiate your power with your child or youth? When are such negotiations appropriate?

Columnist Susan Lyons-Joell:

I was a child of the 80s, and grew up listening to the Off The Wall and Thriller albums. While neither my parents nor myself were hard-core MJ fans, we respected his talent as a performer, and especially as a dancer. It conflicted royally with the bizarre behavior, the scandals, and the abuse allegations and trials, which prevented us from being real fans.
Ironically, my parents were talking about Jackson a day before his death, because his children and he had been spotted without masks by the paparazzi. My mother is white, my father is black, and both grew up listening to Motown. My mother said that those kids could not biologically be his, because of their skin color in the photos. My father said that it was totally possible, and to look at the range of skin colors in many black families of mixed descent. Since this conversation was in progress when I called my parents, I provided the biological information that backed up my father – phenotypic skin color doesn’t tell you anything, since it’s multiple genes that control skin pigment. But the conversation stayed with me. And then the news broke the following day. I may remember the day Michael Jackson died as the day MTV started playing videos again. Or I may remember the day (or at least the 24 hours) as a time my mom revealed that she was still a little bit “color-struck.”
On Friday, an NPR show was interviewing people about Jackson’s life, death, and legacy. Commentator after commentator said that his music “bridged racial divides,” citing legions of white fans, his popularity in African countries, and referencing Live Aid. Now I have an ingrained distaste for making any one person a “bridge” – it’s a lazy way to avoid the heavy lifting required by all of us to reduce inequality in all forms. Beyond that, however, I really don’t know what they think Michael Jackson DID that specifically changed the way Americans and other people around the world discuss and consider race.
A black man in the entertainment industry, specifically dancing and singing – not new. A black man with white fans – also not new. A black man who becomes a story in and of itself because of scandals and outrageous behavior – alas, not new. I mean no disrespect to the man’s musical talents and media savvy. But how many of those rabid, usually-white, usually-female fans that you saw in pictures and film lived racially-integrated lives? My gut reaction is that Michael Jackson at the height of his popularity was, for many Americans of all ethnicities, an exception to he rule, an outlier, and an enigma. The last 15 years or so of scandals, trials, and declining fortunes made the man even more of a freak show than a role model. I really don’t think he represented “black America,” at least to white Americans with any real-world experience with African-Americans. And I’m not comfortable with the idea that there are white Americans who WOULD see Michael Jackson’s life and death as an example of what black Americans have accomplished. Not that I approve of how “black America”, or any non-European racial or ethnic group, has been seen and portrayed in the 80s, 90s, and now the 21st century. We, all of us, have got along way to go, and I’m honestly not sure where Michael Jackson’s “legacy” fits in.

Editor Tami Winfrey Harris:

I’ve had a long love affair with music. My favorite songs provide a soundtrack for my life. My childhood was set to a mix of classic 70s rock, R&B, bubble gum pop and my dad’s old record collection–Motown, Chi-Lites and Spinners; my teen years were lived to the sound of the second British Invasion–the glam boys (Duran Duran, Wham) and the emos (The Smiths, The Cure)–plus the emerging stars of hip hop, before success killed it; my college earnestness played out to 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., U2 and John Mellencamp, with a dose of sex from INXS, and just enough Bell, Biv, DeVoe and hip hop to keep my black card. Post college, I re-discovered my love of R&B and embraced neo-soul, but came to terms with the fact that this black girl will always be a rock chick, no matter what anyone says. My tastes as I approach the end of my 30s is a hybrid of all these things, and throw in some folk, alt country and singer/songwriters like Ray LaMontagne. I suppose I’m not so different from my fellow Generation Xers. I’m currently reading Daphne A. Brooks’ exploration of Jeff Buckley’s music lover’s classic album, “Grace.” She says of our generation’s musical influences:

I was born in 1968, one year and 364 days after Jeff Buckley, and I feel as though our memories collide in the strange brew of sound and images that came leaping off the vinyl and jumping off the screen in the 1970s: Al Green and the Eagles. Big Bird and Laugh-In. The Jackson Five and David Bowie. Free to be You and Me and Morgan Freeman on The Electric Company. Elton John and the Spinners. Carol Burnett tugging her ear and Diana Ross all decked out in mink at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Froot loops and land sharks. Pam Grier and Diane Keaton. Jackson Browne and Thelma Houston. Earth, Wind, and Fire and the Fonz. Sammy Davis Jr. and Jose Feliciano. Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder. President Nixon and Fat Albert. Jimmy Carter and Chic. Schoolhouse Rock and Parliament Funkadelic. The Mod Squad and the Sunshine Band. Kasey Kasem and the Sweat Hogs. Linda Rondstadt and Jerry Brown. Jim Jones and Chico and the Man. The Jerry Lewis telethon and Steve Martin on SNL. Spielberg matinees and Quadrophenia midnight runs. Rocky Horror and The Wiz. Sweet, Sweetback and Sybl.

This is me. I was born in 1969. Perhaps this is why Brooks and I–two black women–are both captivated by self-proclaimed “mystery white boy” Jeff Buckley.

This week, my iPod has been churning out a strange brew of memorial music. Michael Jackson’s death has me digging into my catalog of Jackson 5 hits and MJ chart toppers. And as the music flows…”Got To Be There”…”Maybe Tomorrow”…”I Can’t Help It”…”Thriller”…”Human Nature”…”You Rock My World”…I’m remembering how much of my life soundtrack includes Michael. And how much this artist that I largely dismissed after “Thriller” is entwined with my life story. Like Michael, I am from Gary, Indiana. I went to Roosevelt High School, just like the older Jacksons. (Some friends even once found Jermaine or Jackie’s name in an old book.) I have seen 2300 Jackson St. many times–just another little steel town bungalow. The first concert I ever attended? The Jackson 5. My grandparents took me. I was all of 3 or 4. Pretty much all I remember was the screaming and Janet Jackson’s Mae West schtick. I am appreciating Michael because his music is woven all through my soundtrack.

Michael and race? I never thought much about Michael and race until his skin began to pale, his afro turned into a pressed and feathered shining coiffure, and his African nose began to morph into some grotesque facsimile of a European one. For this, people tsk and shake their heads at Jackson. Sell out! Self hater! We are aghast that his father ever made fun of his nose and skin. We take his tampering with his physicality to mean that he hated his blackness. Perhaps he did. But we are lying to ourselves if we think that Michael Jackson’s form of self hatred is any more pronounced than that of many, many black people. Michael is unique in that he had the money to erase features that are devalued in our society—even by the oppressed communities that are most likely to possess them. Have you not heard the “you so black” teasing on the playground? Have you not heard the mocking of “soup-cooler lips” and “big ole noses?” Have you not noticed that most black women will not be caught dead in public with “nappy” hair? Have you not seen the dearth of brown-skinned women with African features prized in videos on MTV and BET or heard the praise from current pop culture icons, like Kanye West, for biracial video girls whose African features are sufficiently muted?

I think in our rush to condemn Michael Jackson for equating whiteness with beauty and worth, we doth protest too much. Michael really is the man in the mirror. He reflected the hang ups of the black community back to us.


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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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