Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Postmodern American Tragedy

It is challenging these days to get folks to slow down, connect the dots, and step back until the Big Picture emerges. But here goes:

Michael Jackson's life and death is a quintessential American Tragedy, as epic, cinematic and paradoxical as that of the main character, Clyde Griffiths, in Theodore Dreiser's 1925 classic. The postmodern twist, of course, is that Michael was black, and that the desperate materialism and longed-for upward mobility that was Griffiths' undoing came not from Michael himself but from his father, Joseph. Overlay that with the peculiar black male fear of being viewed as "sensitive" or "weak," and an archaic belief in corporal punishment as an effective child-raising technique -- both of which are vestiges of our history of slavery in America -- and no one should be surprised that Michael eventually fell apart. Lots of regular black men fall apart from this stuff every day, we just don't see their drama splashed across the networks and cable news shows wall to wall....unless they do something spectacular like murdering family members of Jennifer Hudson.

A thick weight of self-hatred, internalized racism, and sexual identity crises are as much a part of the story of Michael Jackson as are his soaring artistic achievements, criminal troubles, and global cross-cultural appeal. Black people could sense the first part of that equation within Michael, even if we didn't share it with the world. But maybe now we will. The same kind of self-hatred and other internalized emotional toxicity that combined to take Michael Jackson down has largely proved too messy and complex for discussion in public, especially by the media. And in this, I will cut my colleagues a small amount of slack: How do you sound-bite the story of the continuing negative fallout of slavery and racial discrimination in America? And how can you do it in the context of the death of one of the biggest modern pop stars in the world, a black man born in the height of the post World War II boom, a millionaire many times over who "transcended race?"

Really, it is almost too much: a classic, layered narrative that doesn't fit this era of quicksilver, mile-wide-inch-deep InstaNews. But Michael isn't the first, and won't be the last to succumb to our history. May as well put it on the table right now.


I am in my mid-40s, and have learned the hard away that black men in America, even Michael Jackson, do have it rough. My late 20th Century Methodist upbringing conditioned me to forgive, always to forgive. But in this mean first decade of the new century, I struggle against losing patience with black men who cannot shake the worst aspects of the history of slavery that have unfairly defined them for so long in this country. I know it is not easy to just "snap out of it," when your father, grandfather and great-great grandfather failed you by abandonment, or withholding, or physically or emotionally abusing you.

Yet there are opportunities now -- real, tangible, call them on the phone and get an appointment opportunities -- for a brother to inch his way back from the brink of self-destruction, including the self-destruction of repeating the same unhealthy behavior with his own children. Courage is required, and that is in short supply.

By many accounts, including interviews with Michael over the years, Joe Jackson believed he could beat his children to teach them discipline. He was not alone in that belief, during that time, and clearly his boys did come away with an amazing amount of poise and professionalism. But the lasting, debilitating imprint on Michael, at least, is evident.

Even before Barack Obama appeared as a lanky example of how it is possible for black men to Overcome the insidious legacy of racist discrimination, lifelines for inching back from the precipice have been there. I know, because I found many of them, sussed them out, and published them nine years ago, in a book that unpacks the direct connection between America's second-biggest sin -- slavery, with the decimation of Indians being the first -- and the urgent contemporary matter of black folks' mental health. There are other resources now too, as some of the stigma around this subject begins to recede. But a surfeit of the pathological misbehavior persists.

And while the Intellectual me knows that it may take several more generations for masses of black men to find the courage to seek and embrace a profound, positve psychological breakthrough, the Emotional me is about done in. I don't know if Michael Jackson was a child molestor. But I know there is a big pile of research showing that children who are abused are at high risk of becoming abusers.


The soundtrack of Michael Jackson's story should contain as many blues standards as the pop, R&B, and rock'n'roll that earned him fame and fortune.

Look at this black and white video of Michael and his brothers, the footage apparently shot in 1968 or so, around the time Berry Gordy first met the young dynamos from Gary, Indiana. They are performing a cover of James Brown's barn burner, "I Got the Feelin.'" Notice that young Michael in motion is fundamentally a minature version of James Brown, with the same fly footwork and diamond-sharp spins as those perfected by the Godfather. Ten year old Michael is tearing it up at a lightening pace, and to watch him is breathtaking.

He was emulating, mimicing Soul Brother Number One, probably unaware that Brown's famous work ethic and discipline emerged from one of the most violent and repressive regions in America, Augusta, Georgia and nearby Edgefield County, South Carolina. Brown was born and raised there, and before his death, he wrote and talked extensively about how desperate he'd been, while growing up, to get the hell out of that poor and violent place. Also, if you read All God's Children, former New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield's account of one African-American family from that region, the Boskets, you get more heartbreaking, voluminous details of the lasting negative fallout of slavery, racism, and decades of Jim Crow segregation on generations of black men. The Bosket men are like uncounted others of black men in America, the great-great-great grandsons of blacks who endured cruelty beyond imagination. They continue to walk among us.

Michael learned important artistic lessons from Brown, and from the other black soul brothers he idolized, including Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. Those men were of Joe Jacksons' vintage -- and Joe Jackson came from a small town in Arkansas, another pocket of racist terrorism. You can't believe that, along with their artistry, the same desperation and blues that had infused those men's lives did not also get absorbed by Michael Jackson. As Stanley Crouch has observed, the blues is the purest expression of both the tragedy of America, and its eternally promising ability to improvise.


Finally, Michael Jackson most certainly understood the blues. I think he rather embodied the blues, under all the grotesque, Norma Desmond-style drama. Listen again to the Jackson 5's version of William "Smokey" Robinson's early hit, "Who's Lovin' You?"

On Friday night, I dug it out of a box of cassette tapes that had been gathering dust in the storage crawl space next to my laundry room. It is a reissue, from the crappy 1992 telemovie, "The Jacksons," that Susan de Passe produced. I had fallen upon the two track cassette in a music store in Boston, and bought it because it contains the original 1969 studio recording of the Jackson 5 version of "Who's Loving You?", and a re-mixed, re-mastered "Live" recording of it, too. (I don't know why the word "Live" is in quotation marks on the sleeve of the cassette but I suspect it means that the original recording, captured in front of an actual audience during a concert in the late 1960s, received some cosmetic work for this re-issue.)

Listen to 11 year-old Michael sing that song, and tell me he didn't know, at that young age, that life can be a motherfucker. That life can be rich, sorrowful, exhilarating, and cruel. The song was written by Smokey Robinson, who was, of course, Motown's greatest author. Back then, he was especially masterful at combining Tin Pan Alley ardor with roadhouse gut-bucket and then wrapping it in the sheen of Gordy's hit-squad of studio musicians, the Funk Brothers.

In this recording, Michael is as pure an entertainer as he would ever be, his delivery so precise, full, and plaintive that it raises goosebumps on my arms every time I hear it.

I found a cassette tape of the "Thriller" album in that box, too. But I'll be listening to "Who's Loving You?" this weekend. For now, anyway, it is my favorite blues record.

1 comment:

  1. On point, as always Amy! Thanks so starting us into a dialogue that we fight kicking and screaming. Or put another way, what would MJ have been like if he were white?