Michael Jackson: The Man in Our Mirror

Black America's eulogies for the King of Pop also let us resurrect his best self

From Compton to Harlem, we've witnessed grown men broke-down crying in the 'hood over Michael; some of my most hard-bitten, 24/7 militant Black friends, male and female alike, copped to bawling their eyes out for days after they got the news. It's not hard to understand why: For just about anybody born in Black America after 1958—and this includes kids I'm hearing about who are as young as nine years old right now—Michael came to own a good chunk of our best childhood and adolescent memories. The absolute irony of all the jokes and speculation about Michael trying to turn into a European woman is that after James Brown, his music (and his dancing) represent the epitome—one of the mightiest peaks—of what we call Black Music. Fortunately for us, that suspect skin-lightening disease, bleaching away his Black-nuss via physical or psychological means, had no effect on the field-holler screams palpable in his voice, or the electromagnetism fueling his elegant and preternatural sense of rhythm, flexibility, and fluid motion. With just his vocal gifts and his body alone as vehicles, Michael came to rank as one of the great storytellers and soothsayers of the last 100 years.

Furthermore, unlike almost everyone in the Apollo Theater pantheon save George Clinton, Michael now seems as important to us an image-maker—an illusionist and a fantasist at that—as he was a musician/entertainer. And until Hype Williams came on the music-video scene in the mid '90s, no one else insisted that the visuals supporting r&b and hip-hop be as memorable, eye-popping, and seductive as the music itself. Nor did anyone else spare no expense to ensure that they were. But Michael's phantasmal, shape-shifting videos, upon reflection, were also, strangely enough, his way of socially and politically engaging the worlds of other real Blackfolk from places like South Central L.A., Bahia, East Africa, the prison system, Ancient Egypt. He did this sometimes in pursuit of mere spectacle ("Black and White"), sometimes as critical observer ("The Way You Make Me Feel"), sometimes as a cultural nationalist romantic ("Remember the Time"), even occasionally as a harsh American political commentator ("They Don't Care About Us"). Looking at those clips again, as millions of us have done over this past weekend, is to realize how prophetic Michael was in dropping mad cash to leave behind a visual record of his work that was as state-of-the-art as his musical legacy. As if he knew that one day our musical history would be more valued for what can be seen as for what can be heard.

(Having said that, my official all-time-favorite Michael clip is the one of him on Oprah viciously beatboxing [his 808 kick sound could straight castrate even Rahzel's!] and freestyling a new jam into creation—instantaneously connecting Michael in a syncopating heartbeat to those spiritual tributaries that Langston Hughes described, the ones "ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins." Bottom line: Anyone whose racial-litmus-test challenge to Michael came with a rhythm-and-blues battle royale event would have gotten their ass royally waxed.)

Samantha Lewis


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George Clinton thought the reason Michael constantly chipped away at his appearance was less about racial self-loathing than about the number-one problem superstars have, which is figuring out what to do when people get sick of looking at your face. His orgies of rhino- and other plasty's were no more than an attempt to stay ahead of a fickle public's fickleness. In the '90s, at least until Eminem showed up, hip-hop would seem to have proven that major Black pop success in America didn't require a whitening up, maybe much to Michael's chagrin. Critical sidebar: I have always wanted to believe that Michael was actually one of the most secretly angry Black race-men on the planet. I thought that if he had been cast as the Iraqi nativist who beat the shit out of Marky Mark in Ridley and Russell's Three Kings while screaming, "What is the problem with Michael Jackson? Your sick fucking country makes the Black man hate his self," Wahlberg would have left the set that day looking like the Great Pumpkin. I have also come to wonder if a mid-life-crisis Michael was, in fact, capable and culpable of having staged his own pedophilic race-war revival of that bitterly angry role? Especially during those Jesus Juice–swilling sleepovers at his Neverland Plantation, again and again and again? I honestly hope to never discover that this was indeed the truth.

Whatever Michael's alienation and distance from the Black America he came from—from the streets, in particular—he remained a devoted student of popular Black music, dance, and street style, giving to and taking from it in unparalleled ways. He let neither ears nor eyes nor footwork stray too far out of touch from the action, sonically, sartorially, or choreographically. But whatever he appropriated also came back transmogrified into something even more inspiring and ennobled than before. Like the best artists everywhere, he begged, borrowed, and stole from (and/or collaborated with) anybody he thought would make his own expression more visceral, modern, and exciting, from Spielberg to Akon to, yes, OK, smartass, cosmetic surgeons. In any event, once he went solo, Michael was, above all else, committed to his genius being felt as powerfully as whatever else in mass culture he caught masses of people feeling at the time. I suppose there is some divine symmetry to be found in Michael checking out when Barack Obama, the new King of Pop, is just settling in: Just count me among those who feel that, in Michael Jackson terms, the young orator from Hawaii is only up to about the Destiny tour.

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