Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson's Legacy to Black Cultural Identity

A number of top performers have scrambled to revise their performances for tonight's BET Awards, which are now dedicated to the memory of Michael Jackson.

For Jackson, who was arguably the world's most famous entertainment personality at the time of his death, it might be surprising to find simmering controversy over the late singer's cultural legacy in the black community. But a couple of stories today indeed indicate how the career of this man reflected the same kind of divisions found among black Americans today. Especially important are the same kind of questions of "authenticity" that Barack Obama first encountered in the 2008 pre-primary period; but also key is to the extent that the eccentric Jackson put the lie to the African-Ameican community's historic "
blood-of-martyrs" cult of victimology. Michael Jackson's pioneering work in develop dance routines - drawing on diverse influences, from Fred Astaire to local urban moonwalkers - came as the result of a personal ethic of achievement and excellence that is downgraded in today's postmodern culture, where "acting white" can be a mortal danger to a young black's life.

Here are a couple of stories on Michael Jackson's legacy in the black community.

From the Los Angeles Times, "
Jackson's cultural identity remains a sticky debating point." And from the Boston Globe, "For blacks, Jackson’s struggles mirrored their own."

From the Times' piece:

One of Michael Jackson's most famous lyrics proclaims, "It don't matter if you're black or white." But when it comes to the late singer's identification with African Americans, that declaration becomes much cloudier.

Jackson's massive popularity was continually shadowed by his evolving physical makeover from a dark-skinned boy with obvious ethnic features to a lighter-skinned man who had extensive plastic surgery on his face and nose, prompting concerns among African Americans and others that Jackson was trying to deny his heritage.

His high-profile relationships with white actresses, his marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe (who are both white) and suspicions that he wasn't in fact the biological father of his light-skinned children further divided African Americans. Some felt alienated by the singer's actions; others dismissed them as the acceptable eccentricities of a creative genius.
Also, here'a bit from the Globe's story:

In 1993, Jackson told Oprah Winfrey - and, by extension, the entire planet - that he struggled with a skin condition called vitiligo that drained the pigment out of this skin. Regardless of whether this was actually the case, his face itself told the story of a torn soul. By the time of his death, he had become the perverse personification of the “double-consciousness’’ that W.E.B. DuBois described more than a century ago in “The Souls of Black Folk.’’

“It is a peculiar sensation,’’ DuBois wrote, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. . . . The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, this longing . . . to merge his double self into a better and truer self.’’

Through his ongoing plastic surgeries and increasingly pale skin, Jackson took this longing to a kind of tragic extreme. The African features of his youth that he had been conditioned to loathe - through his troubled upbringing, through the limiting funhouse lens of popular culture - steadily disappeared. His wide bulb of a nose became a precariously slender triangle. His ice-cream-scoop Afro and, later, his juicy Jheri curl dried into cascade of straight, ravenous hair. And his bumpy brown skin became a chalky mask with a model’s cheekbones, a starlet’s doe eyes, and a matinee idol’s cleft chin. Jackson had grafted America’s white beauty myth (for both genders) onto his face.
It's hard to deny that in all of this, for Jackson, there was some racial self-loathing. Like black men of the pre-Civil Rights era - many of whom "pomaded" their hair with a nylon stocking-cap overnight, Jackson took efforts to minimize his blackness and make integration into the dominant white society easier. In so doing, his political message was a pop-culture version of the great '60s era of black Civil Rights: Racial integration was the last best hope of black American upward mobility. Economically, Jackson's phenomenal wealth, especially in the years prior to his personal decline, illustrated that the American dream was indeed available to those of talent and effort, irrespective of race.

Younger generations of black youth, raised on 50 cent not "Thriller," might do well to keep this larger cultural significance in mind as the nation moves to a post-post-1960s era of racial achievement - one now most clearly personified by the presidency of Barack Obama.


The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

I'm still waiting for such times as when people will seize to be so race and ethnicity-obsessed.

This infuriates me, to no end. That these racist bozos put a group's interest ahead of America's interest, and based on nothing more than the superficiality and divisiveness of race; and loyalty to a specific ethnic culture over the general American culture.

shoprat said...

The sad thing was that when he was a black man, who happened to be an entertainer he was loved by virtually all. When he tried to er . . . caucasianize(?) himself the white people started calling Whacko Jacko. His racial difficulties were largely self-inflicted and unnecessary. Let's see a Sliders episode of a world where he remained himself and rose to even greater heights.

Dan Collins said...

To paraphrase "Man in the Mirror", "If you want to make the world a better place,/Take a look at yourself and change your race."

Anonymous said...


Michael Jackson had a disease called Vitiligo. Look it up.

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