I never was much of a Michael Jackson fan, although I do remember the first time I saw him perform. It blew me away. His talent was undeniable. Truly he was the King of Pop.
And yet I felt much of the initial coverage about his death downplayed his extraordinary talent and the effect he had on millions of people worldwide. Many news articles referred to him as the “self-proclaimed King of Pop.”
Elvis could be the undeniable King of Rock and Roll.
But a black man who would be king was just delusional.
A lot of articles following his death talk about how Jackson “transcended” race. But they don’t talk about who he was: a black man. Michael Jackson was a black man who was the King of Pop. Not the “King of Pop” or the “self-proclaimed King of Pop.” Simply the King.
And that made him a target.
Much has been made of Jackson’s physical transformation over the past twenty years. But what really strikes me is how the discussion reveals how we think about race, about blackness and whiteness. In Jackson’s early years, he is described as having an afro and, sometimes, a broad nose. This is compared to the “Nordic” nose and the straightened hair of his later years.
As if having an afro and a broad nose is the only way to conceptualize blackness. Or perform as a black man.
Jackson is undeniably a black man in the Thriller era; he wears the Jheri-curls that were popular among many African Americans of that time. His nose has obviously been reshaped. Is he therefore no longer a black man? His love interest in the record-breaking video is African American. (And I wondered about the imagery of him turning into a beast–was that intentional? Or a later video in which he is a sometimes-invisible tiger?)
For many people, his rhinoplasty and hair style are the beginning signs that Jackson “wanted to be white.” But there are two problems with this assumption. First is the idea that white people can own certain features. durgamom once commented on this with regard to adoption agencies advertising that children from India have “Caucasian features.” Certainly slender noses and straight hair can be found across many racial groups. Yet they are assumed to be “white” features.
The second problem is obviously that “white” features are assumed to be so universally desirable that any change away from the “natural ethnic” is because of self-hatred or a desire to be white. To me this speaks of a deep underlying belief in white superiority.
When white people straighten their hair and dye it black, nobody insinuates that they are trying to become Asian. Yet if an Asian person streaks his or her hair, they are trying to be white. Because of course this is the standard we have all been raised to accept. This is the obvious desired result of any intentional physical improvement. (For that matter, it’s also a way to demean and denigrate people of color who are intelligent or educated–they’re trying to be white as well. Because education and intelligence are the province of white people.)
But even in those Thriller days, some would have you believe that Jackson wanted to be white.
And yet he was smashing down racial barriers at that time. He was an unprecedented cross-over artist. It’s entirely possible that he was one of the first African American artists to be shown on MTV. His hit was reportedly played every hour.
It was that popular.
The news articles after his death talked about how he was the romantic dream for “little black girls” everywhere. Because of course it is only acceptable for black girls to want black men. Not those screaming white girls you see in the concert footage.
I remember a friend hung a poster of Jackson in her bedroom along with other teeny-bopper stars. And I remember the way her mother came in and furiously, without a word, ripped the poster off the wall and tore it to shreds. Even at my age I knew what it meant. But as an adult, I wonder about how the racism Jackson faced affected him.
Some years back, a friend of mine somewhat sadly wondered out loud what achievements my family might have accomplished had racism not been a factor. I think about that with regard to Michael Jackson’s phenomenal success. He was a black man in a white world. He was a superstar. It’s hard to conceive of somebody being a bigger star than he was.
But I think it could have happened. He had the talent. And he apparently carefully crafted his image. It was a performance of blackness (and black maleness) that appealed to a white audience. He was described as “soft spoken” and “gentle” and he allayed all the fears we have lurking inside our racist subconscious.
The problem is that the performance of blackness often is directed by its white audience. It is only acceptable in certain stereotypical ways.
Oh, and the skin. Jackson explained that he had a skin disorder that caused extreme mottling. I’ve know people who have had this; I can only imagine it is extremely difficult to cope with. Yet again here’s the assumption of white superiority. Because everybody wants to be white.
Did Jackson want to be white? I only know that any answer I might give would be steeped in my own entrenched belief of white superiority. Because I never knew the man. Never talked to him. Don’t know much about his work. And yet, every time I would catch a glimpse of him in the past few years I would just feel terribly sad.
When Jackson no longer performed within what white people considered acceptable limits, they turned. And they were vicious.
Now he is dead. And people are still using him to talk about how blackness and gender should be performed. And revealing the white male superiority at the heart of it.
I read in the paper of a teen who hanged himself after years of bullying. And I think of Michael.