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Monday, June 29, 2009

RIP Michael Jackson: Were You Ever "Comfortable in Your Own Skin"?

Sorry, faithful readers, for the gap since the last entry--I've been pre-occupied with family of origin duties.

I thought I'd weigh in on the death of the "king of pop," seeing as every other writer or commentator and their grandmother is doing so.

My first memories of Michael Jackson are this: I had a friend my age who in his preteens (perhaps because he had older sisters) was into the Osmonds (as white bread as they come) and the Jackson 5 ("bubblegum soul" I heard it called recently). I thought at the time I was much cooler than him because I, on the other hand, due to the influence of an older brother, was into the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Looking back, my groups were much more prepackaged and inauthentic.

But Michael Jackson, bless his soul, became less authentic, in my view, as time went on. His transformation in appearance has been well-documented. While he would have had us believe it was entirely, or principally, due to an unfortunate, painful skin condition (or perhaps stemming from the Pepsi commercial fiasco), those hardly explain the racial and gender-related ambiguity that characterized his later life. His speech went from unremarkable to a babyish, womanish talk that was teased unmercifully by comedians (was he trying to imitate his idol and mentor, Diana Ross?). And the transformation of his nose, his lips and, yes, his skin tone certainly gave rise to the question: was he trying to become white?

There is a long history of products and promised "remedies" to help African Americans appear whiter: from hair straighteners like Afro Sheen (at least it was less painful than the process Malcolm X described in his autobiography!) to skin bleach products that often left users scarred and disfigured, such desires reveal the pain and disadvantage of being part of a visible, oppressed minority. It really is important , it would seem, to be "comfortable in one's own skin" to achieve happiness in life. Despite his fame, fortune, and undeniable talent and appeal, Michael Jackson never seemed to achieve it. Even his marriages and sex life were bizarre caricatures of authentic love relationships. Where his history of being abused by his father fits into this sad picture is hard to know in full.


One postmortem account called Jackson something like the first African American superstar with massive crossover appeal. I thought that inaccurate. In music, there was Nat "King" Cole (who might arguably have sold his racial heritage to achieve that appeal to whites). In sports, there were Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, and Wilt Chamberlain, to name a few.

Michael DID break down racial barriers, however. Before Thriller, MTV--the fledgling music television cable network--was refusing to play videos by almost all black artists (Rick James' "Superfreak" being one notable example). MTV's excuse was that they were a "rock" music station, not a "rhythm and blues" or "soul" station. Jackson blurred those racially determined categories, especially by collaborating with white rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen on "Beat It." He also knocked the socks off the production values of previous videos so that MTV could not ignore his work and remain viable in the marketplace.

Rest in Peace, Michael Jackson. May you serve as a warning to all, of any race, to learn to accept yourself as God made you, and demand that the world do the same. And may you, in the next life, find that self-acceptance which you so movingly sought in the song "Man in the Mirror."


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