Prologue to Act II:
"...The black man should no longer be confronted by the dilemma, turn white or disappear...if society makes difficulties for him because of his color, if in his dreams I establish the expression of an unconscious desire to change color, my objective will not be that of dissuading him from it by advising him to "keep his place"; on the contrary, my objective, once his motivations have brought him into consciousness, will be to put him in a position to choose action (or passivity) with respect to the real source of the conflict-that is, toward the social structures."
Act II: Mask In The Mirror
"I'm hearing rumors that his coffin is coming, and that would be insane if it happened!"
--A giddy mourner/fan, talking to an MSNBC reporter, outside of the Staples Center, 7 July 2009.
Tuesday, 7 June 2009, 9:05 am, PST, and I'm tuned into MSNBC, watching the throngs of fans on the periphery of Los Angeles freeways and side streets cheering the quiet luxury armada of the Michael Jackson funerary motorcade. Minutes later, members of the Jackson family and other mourners file out of the Hall Of Liberty, on the grounds of Forest Lawn Cemetery. Funerals are the closest thing to slow motion in real-time; like falling through a bottle of invisible embalming fluid. We talk slow and move slower, as the life of the decedent scrolls across the reels of our revisionist recollection. Give your roses to the living y'all, because they can't smell them at the graveyard, or when the cremated ashes walk hand in hand with the wind.
On a split screen, Los Angeles councilwoman Jan Perry, is telling an MSNBC reporter that she won't speculate on the actual dollar amount Los Angeles County will be saddled with, for the manpower needed for the memorial service at the Staples Center. California is in a financial crisis, and though the King Of Pop is dead, the business of California needs to continue.
In another segment, entertainment reporter Nancy O'Dell wonders if the pomp and circumstance of Michael Jackson's memorial service is akin to the Oscars. Noted author and cultural observer Toure' has questioned the use of the terminology of "winning" a ticket to the memorial observance.
The talking heads on all of the networks have been parsing the Michael Jackson chatter with both scalpel and machete, in regards to carving out a thirty-second-soundbite-of-a-meaning to his life. Hyperventilating Republican New York Congressman Peter King posited that Michael Jackson was a low life, a pervert, and a pedophile. CNBC host and mega wealthy ad maven Donny Deutch remembered Michael Jackson being a good dancer. Music industry insiders have crassly speculated that Michael Jackson died to save a flat-lined record business, because sales of his records have rocketed into the millions, since the fortnight of his death. Still others wondered if Michael Jackson was drugged? How did he get Diprivan? Who gave it to him? Will that person be charged? Will they go to jail? And what about that will; who is getting what and when?
The other discussions have focused on Michael's appearance. I guess it's their clumsy attempt at separating the delicate, oily, and sometimes disfigured layers of The American Skin Game.
"It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear...The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement of him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves...What we really feel about him is involved with all that we feel about everything, about everyone, about ourselves."
--James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone" from the book,Notes Of A Native Son
Becoming increasingly overwhelmed by his growing mega-stardom, the libretto and musical score of Michael Jackson's life went from the happy bel canto of Off The Wall, to the gloomy gotterdammerung of Thriller.
Michael's attire during this time looked military, almost like a Commander-In-G-Clef: epaulets, metallic shirts which resembled a breast plate with spaulders, steel knee and shin guards, and a glittery glove that replicated a medieval gauntlet. Was this a Michael Magnus ready for battle? Was this Michael Jackson's--raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and a student of the Bible, the Koran, and other religions-- interpretation of what the Apostle Paul talked about in Ephesians 6 of the New Testament, putting on the whole armor of GOD? Was Michael's soldierly clothing, his way of protecting himself against the dark forces trying to aggressively invade his life?
Thriller was indeed, a dark masterpiece; Michael Jackson's declaration of war against his loss of childhood, the towering heights of insurmountable fame, the hordes of nobody's who clamored to become MJ yes-men (and women), the crowded grief of unfathomable loneliness, and the zombie-like corpus of emotional scars. Emotional scars he ripped opened with tunes like Billie Jean, Beat It, Human Nature, and the title track.
I often wondered--watching the ground-breaking long form video for Thriller, directed by John Landis--if Michael Jackson's portrayal of a werewolf, was his Freudian response to the psychic bruising at the hands of his father, Joe Jackson? A monster created by a monster? Watching Michael painfully describe his childhood travails to British journalist Martin Bashir in the controversial 2003 documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, is truly unsettling. Michael Jackson described a dysfunctional man who would beat him (and his brothers) with belts and ironing cords when dance steps were fumbled. A cruel man who ridiculed Michael's "fat nose"; a nose from "Kate's side of the family". "You didn't get it from me," Michael told Bashir in a trembling voice.
The Joseph Jackson Michael described sounded almost like Joseph Stalin. The Koba The Dread of 2300 Jackson Street, whose mere presence could send Michael into a convulsive wretch. Was Michael Jackson's self-imposed facial perestroika--his restructuring by way of cosmetic surgery--a way to never remind him of the dictator with whom he shared an undeniable DNA?
As Michael Jackson looked at his reflection in the mirror in the 1980's--during the Reagan Epoch, that Mourning In America for African-Americans, minorities, and yes, even poor whites who would never be rich, white, and Republican--and when Thriller was selling a million copies a week (and going on to rack up almost 20 million copies in less than a year, outdistancing Sinatra, Elvis, and The Beatles combined), was it then he decided to convert to Caucasianity?
An apt student of cultural history, Michael Jackson knew that Sammy Davis--Mr. Entertainment--was the Original Greatest Entertainer Of All Time. Sammy--or "Mr. D" as Michael humbly referred to him, as he asked him for tapes of his Vegas shows to study for his own extravaganzas--had big dreams of the Crossover, too. Sammy Davis was more than just a one-eyed schvartze to Milton Berle, or a waiter in a rib joint to Ol' Blue Eyes. Berle and Sinatra thought these remarks were terms of endearment to Sammy, who would smile and grin in their presence, but seethe with hatred and frustration in his solitude.
Quite possibly, Sammy marrying Mai Britt and his conversion to Judaism was both personal and business. Sammy loved Mai, but it was also the move to get him inside with the insiders, not unlike what Michael did with the daughter of the King Of Rock, two generations later. I truly believe Michael Jackson loved Lisa Marie Presley. This was a woman he poured his heart out to, when the pressure of the business boiled over onto the floor of paranoia. Michael knew the daughter of Elvis could relate. But Michael--like Sammy--wasn't stupid, either. Ambition doesn't discriminate in The American Skin Game. However, Sammy's ambition was still shackled by Jim Crow. The laws of the land were way behind the curve of Sammy's drive to the top; he crashed into the guard-rails of racism.
Michael on the other hand, was the beneficiary of the forced beneficence of LBJ's Great Society, and Dr. Martin Luther King's dreamy march to the mountaintop of a color blind America. Or at the very least, a more racially tolerant America. The laws had changed, but our finite vision had remained the same: race matters. Raised by a man who was brutally razed in an era that cut black men's virility with the razor-sharp fear of prejudice--literally and figuratively--I'm sure Michael was hit with the race issue from all sides, every single day, figuratively and literally.
You're big Mike, but you'll never be Elvis. Or The Beatles. You can sing and dance, you have the number one album in on the planet, but you're still a...well, you know
You didn't get that nose from me. That's Kate's side of the family.
Michael's 1980's Man In The Mirror saw a rising entertainment supernova staring right back at him, but a supernova who was...black. His buddy, the legendary Paul McCartney, was white. So was Elvis. Sinatra, too. White was not better, just as black was not inferior. Michael loved his blackness, but in the Eighties, white was-access. Decisions, decisions, pressure like you wouldn't believe. Stress that might've indeed triggered a minor case of real vitiligo. Did Michael Jackson view this vitiligo as a divine sign? Or would his adoring fans look at him as if he was cursed; like a leper? The mad fame of Thriller was already making him a pariah of sorts, but Michael Jackson, the super-competitor wanted more. And once Michael saw that lightening of the skin, well...who knows? He needed that edge over the Beatles, and Elvis, and Sinatra, and McCartney. And only one color--in the 1980's--could break through the glass ceiling, into the platinum skies of Pop Icon Everlasting.
Would an America of the 1980's accept a African-American King Of Pop?
Could the vitiligo be a heavenly door to a whiter shade of pale?
Maybe all of this played out in Michael Jackson's interior dialogue, and maybe he felt he had to make that change.
Of course, all of this is pure supposition. And as of 7 July 2009, this hypothesis is moot. The issue of race became a non-issue the moment a little girl named Paris Katherine Jackson walked onstage at the Staples Center, and took a look at the casket a few feet away from her. A casket which was the symbol of the only parent she had ever known. Wrapped in the loving embrace of the Jackson clan, it didn't matter that she didn't look African-American. She was black, she was white, she was Latino, she was Asian. And when Paris broke down and tearfully said: "I just want to say, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just want to say, I love him-so much," her tears were the color of U.S. all.
(To read all three acts of Michael Jackson Agonistes, along with a four-part mini-documentary of Spike Lee's Michael Jackson Birthday Celebration in Brooklyn, NY's Prospect Park, click on this link.)
Follow Barry Michael Cooper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BarryMichaelC