Posted by admin | Posted in Afro-American News, Black Entertainment | Posted on 30-08-2010
On the birth anniversary of the King of Pop today, Charudutta Nugegoda reflects on an icon who tried to beat the American system until it beat him
The other day I found myself watching Beat It, one of the many old Michael Jackson video clips we were treated to as the anniversary of the singer’s death rolled by. I recalled that Beat It was probably the first music video I’d ever seen. I’d have been about three years old and watched it in the flat in Noble Park where we were living after recently migrating from Sri Lanka.
I still remember being drawn to the video by the bright blue of Michael’s t-shirt and the bright red of his jacket. But there was more to it, something that I would become more conscious of only a few years later. Michael Jackson looked like someone we could know, he looked like one of us. Even as a child, I was very conscious that we were different from ‘suddho’, the Sinhala word for white people.
From ages 5 to 8, Michael Jackson would develop into my hero. After being a fan of He-man and Knightrider, MJ was my first real-life idol. He presented a different image of what to look up to, not like my other muscle bound hyper masculine heroes. Michael defined my earliest sense of ‘cool’. It was an alternate kind of hero, possessing both masculine and feminine traits, suave, sophisticated and glamorous, forceful yet sensitive. The epitome of style.
Michael Jackson was essentially a product of African American culture. As Jamie Foxx said when hosting the Black Entertainment Television (BET) awards after Michael’s death, “he belongs to us, and we shared him with everybody else”. Michael Jackson was a combination of various aspects of black America. Some had the indisputable black culture stamp, like his incredible sense of rhythm. Others were less well known, like the sensitivity to visual aesthetics. He presented something new to the white mainstream, quite different from what they had known, but still attractive.
It was this difference though, that led to both his rise and his downfall. Middle class America let him in because he was a palatable black man, soft and sweet, remembered for his days in the Jackson 5 -Far from the militant angry black man image of the 1970s and the New York mugger stereotype of the 1980s. Jackson was the first black artist to get air time on MTV. Once on the inside, it was his own creative genius that allowed him to reach heights unheard of by both black and white artists.
He took the soul and uber-creativity of the black ghetto, added his own flavour to it and presented it to white America. Creatively, and in terms of popularity, he reached the zenith of this career in the mid 1980s. It was soon after this that he began to mistakenly think that his popularity and wealth had allowed him to break free of the rules dictated by middle class America. He started to challenge the dominant dichotomies of American society – black and white, male and female, adult and child.
Jackson changed his skin tone. Why, we don’t know, possibly in response to his vitiligo. But whatever the reason, the effect was the same, he became whiter. Some African Americans saw this as a betrayal, while others maintained that he had had no choice due to his condition. He had plastic surgery on his face, perhaps due to the negative self image he had developed as a child.
Jackson’s transformation from black to something else struck at one of the deepest divisions in American society. He blurred the lines of race.
Jackson also challenged a division that would grow in prominence with the rise of the Religious Right in America in the late 80s and 90s – the division between man and woman. He defied American society’s rules of what it is to be male and female, what constitutes masculinity and femininity. It was a time when relatively new stereotypes were becoming imbibed with notions of timelessness and ‘god given-ness’. There was one way a man should be and this is the way it always was and always should be. Jackson smashed these stereotypes out of the ballpark. He embodied more flexible and nuanced notions of the masculine and the feminine, those that had been around in subtler forms in black American society for some time, but had not been exposed to the white mainstream in such a way.
His defiance of gender stereotypes touched a nerve as this was also a time when the Right was waging a culture-war over the issue of homosexuality. Now there are many celebrities who have identified themselves as gay without anyone deeming it newsworthy. But it was the very fact that Jackson’s sexuality was ambiguous that was especially enraging to the Right’s moral watchdogs. See, they couldn’t categorise him. They couldn’t slot him into their custom made pigeonholes of ‘normal straight man’ or ‘heathen bound-for-hell homosexual’. Jackson set an example that you did not have to be one way or another, you could just be. And be he did, with style.
The final boundary Jackson dared to cross was that of age. This was a boundary so entrenched that most people were barely conscious of it. Jackson wanted to be a child. He was into childlike things. He turned his ranch into an amusement park and had Peter Pan statues throughout his mansion. He hung out with a chimp. But of course it was his hanging out with children that concerned most people.
While we will never know whether the accusations of molestation against him were true, it is clear that there was an aspect of Jackson’s persona that resulted in him being judged guilty by Middle America before being proven innocent.
Child molestation was a charge so completely despicable that it could be used to taint all other unrelated aspects of his persona, particularly his ambiguous sexuality. Coverage of Jackson took on dark undertones. He was portrayed as a freak, a strange, warped man who used his wealth to prey on innocent children. When hard evidence of molestation was not forthcoming, Jackson’s antagonists would fall back to their standard line of reasoning ‘no normal adult would befriend children like this, so he must have had sinister intentions’.
It was outside people’s imaginations that Jackson could have actually liked hanging out with kids simply because he had innocent fun with them; that he was searching for the childhood he never had; or that he simply appreciated the joys of childhood. No, to assume this, you had to be off with the fairies. It was largely ignored that Jackson had consistently given to charities, those focused on children and other causes, and was ranked as one of the most generous celebrities.
And so over time, Jackson’s star was brought crashing down like so many black celebrities of the era. The masses were shown that you couldn’t get away with being beyond race, beyond gender and beyond age. You would be brought down. And of course you wouldn’t want to be like that anyway because those people were bad, morally bad, sinister even.
The tragedy of Michael Jackson’s tale is that it is not an uncommon one for African Americans. A childhood sacrificed for a family to escape poverty. He used entertainment, one of the few avenues available to his people at the time. He sang and danced himself to stardom, to incredible wealth. But he could not escape the reins of the dominant society in which he found himself. Towards the end of his life, we saw Jackson becoming close to some prominent black political figures. He was seeking comfort in his family and his community. His black American community, which had always maintained a soft spot him.
It was also striking how much love for him there was in Sri Lanka, and with the Sri Lankan community here. Michael Jackson was standard-issue for kids in Sri Lankan-Australian households. You had to have liked MJ as a kid, no matter whether you preferred Tupac or Nirvana as a teenager. Around the globe his fans stayed true, they stayed loyal. It was their immense love for him that allowed these alternative viewpoints to be told, if only after his death.
The African American community may rightly feel that it has been wronged. Its beloved son, whom it shared with the big, wide, white world, was one far too fragile. Like so many others before him, he was taken in by Middle America and celebrated for his uniqueness. But like so many more, it was only to be chewed up and spat out when his flavour soured. In his death, we could see not only black America’s warm embrace for a prodigal son returned, but perhaps tears of regret for sharing him with a world that did not understand.