Michael Jackson and the 2oth Century Black Experience

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Michael Jackson was a complex figure who meant many things to many people, one story of the Black experience in the United States in the 20th century.

by Pancho McFarland

The iconic and influential Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009. I, among many, mourned his passing as I celebrated his life. We watched his memorial service on MSNBC and played his music loudly. He was musician, singer, performer and composer. To many he was an inspiration. For many Black people in the United States Michael is a source of pride. Michael’s story resonates strongly with many of their stories. His music and dance style represented the height of their creativity and was the latest in a long line of Black musics in the Americas. At the same time, for many non-Blacks Michael symbolized a possibility of a post-racial world in which everyone is “beautifully human” (as Brother Ali says on his latest compact disc). Michael was a complex figure who meant many things to many people. Even so, his story is a story of the Black experience in the United States in the 20th century.

Joe Jackson , Michael’s father, worked at U.S. Steel in Gary, IN. Jackson from Arkansas was one of many southern Blacks who moved to the Chicagoland area between the 1920s and 1940s. The Great Migration, beautifully and powerfully rendered in painter Jacob Lawrence’s, Migration Series, brought tens of thousands to work in the steel industry being established all along Lake Michigan. Rapid urbanization and proletarianization brought changes to Black culture in the North. The Jackson family, like many in the Chicagoland steel industry, was poor. They were Black in a society that had still not seen fit to provide equally and adequately for them. Racism and segregation meant Blacks suffered lower wages, poorer living conditions and violence from Whites.

In this political economic climate, by the 1950s and 1960s Chicago Blues, Jazz, gospel and Rock and Roll coalesced in the new music of James Brown and the soul singing of Smokey Robinson and Jackie Wilson. By the early 1960s Joe Jackson had a large brood to whom he could teach Black music. The Jackson 5 quickly gained national fame for their interpretations of popular 1960s Black music, their good looks, choreography and creativity.

Of course, we all know what happens next. In the 1980s Michael Jackson became an international superstar on the power of his unique, Thriller, album and spectacular performance videos. He was changing dance and performance as he was changing popular music. Michael brought the experience of the Chicagoland Black working-class to his music. The dance styles of James Brown were adapted and adopted by Michael. His reliance on heavy bass sounds and drums pays musical homage to African and Black American music. His vocal stylings brought to mind Jackie Wilson’s balladeer-style and the gospel sounds of Black churches. While many Black musicians throughout the 20th century found large White followings, Michael crossed-over to unprecedented superstardom. Many, including Tammy Johnson, a commentator on ColorLines, lament that Michael’s success was a result of assimilation; Michael was accepted because he became lighter and played “acceptable” Black music that whites liked. Michael couldn’t be Michael, Black kid from Gary and “this was written all over his face” as Johnson puts it. In her video essay, “Michael Jackson’s Mark On Black or White World,” Johnson argues that Jackson’s story reflects the insidious nature of assimilation and the White beauty standard and overall aesthetic.

I believe we should see Michael’s success not so much as a result of assimilation but of the power of Black music to be transformative. In addition, the story of Black struggle told in Michael Jackson and in black music is an extremely human story of triumph over incredible odds. This is why Michael resonated with the world. His story was an utterly beautiful human story and he told it uniquely and well through his music and dance. He touched people because he empathized and emoted and his music steeped in Black tradition allowed him to show this to us. If anything Michael brought Black consciousness and aesthetics to the world. In other words, the world “assimilated” to him and his culture. The world, especially “White America,” allowed Blackness into their identities, aesthetics and value systems. Michael was not so much Whitened as America was Blackened. Michael’s on-going physical developments can not be understood as simply an embrace of Whiteness or distancing from Blackness. It likely results from a number of sources including Michael’s self-identity stemming, in large part, from his volatile relationship with his father. I caution against seeing Michael’s skin whitening and facial changes as a result of his acceptance of a White beauty standard. Especially since his music, dance and performance suggest a foundation in and love of Black culture. His music can also be seen as an engagement with peoples and cultures from all over the world.

In the post-Civil Rights era after Blacks kicked down many of the doors of segregation, racial prejudice, and unequal rights and privileges, Michael represented the possibility of healing. He as a Black man who knew poverty and dispossession as well as wealth and fame could bridge races and classes and transform our world. He came to represent all of us in a way unlike any other figure in history. All of us saw our self in him. Not only Blacks and Whites, but Chicanas/os and Asians were influenced by Michael. His moonwalk entered the dance routines of many Chicana/os in the Southwest. In Pueblo, Colorado and Raton, New Mexico we moonwalked and popped and locked. Michael’s cool and fashion entered the aesthetic vocabulary of many of us. If Michael may have been Whitened, we were undoubtedly Blackened. We assimilated his sense of rhythm, timing, vocality and emotion. I mixed Jackson with my Southwestern Chicano culture and interactions with White culture to create an identity that like Michael’s transcended boundaries. His aesthetics, values and personae allowed me and others like me to craft a unique sense of self.

This is one of many tales of engagement with Michael and the Michael Jackson phenomenon. Michael affected many people in many ways. Michael did not reach non-Blacks because of his fascination with Whiteness or his hatred of Blackness but because he was quintessentially a product of Black communities and Black culture. His rootedness in Black values, his authenticity and genuineness, appealed to all peoples who long for or identify deeply with their own cultures and the humanistic values of Black culture. That he lived an often troubled and tragic life only affirms the universality of his story.

Pancho McFarland is an activist, assistant professor of sociology at Chicago State University,and Michael Jackson fan. His book, Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence in the Postindustrial Barrio is available from the University of Texas Press.

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