What is wrong with Michael Jackson?” I asked so many times it became a punch line. Like most jokes, it overpowered the anxiety that I felt when looking at Michael’s thinning body and ghoulish face.
Now that he’s dead, I can ask what happened to him and why I didn’t stop joking. Maybe I couldn’t afford empathy while he was alive. He might release another desperate album, dangle his toddler over a hotel railing again, a new photo of his face would make the news, or another boy would leave his bed singed by handprints.
But I still followed the news because before he was “Wacko Jacko” he was simply Michael. He achieved a first name intimacy with the world.
Everyone loved him, and because he came from us, his stardom meant we could be loved. He was skinny and coy and he moon-walked. He glided over sidewalks, spun and never fell. That’s what I loved most about him.
I was only seven years old but already knew that color meant weight. We lived in the projects of Harrisburg, Pa., where poverty was a daily pressure; eyes watched me and I watched myself. I was told to lock the door because junkies might break in, to close window shades so people didn’t see what we had and not to talk about our business in the street. Danger, real and imagined, surrounded us. But at night, we watched TV, and Mom pointed over my shoulder at Michael in the “Billie Jean” video, dancing through trash-strewn streets as if free from our weight. “He’s the first black man on MTV,” she said. And I saw the city glow beneath his feet.
Michael also taught me how to be ugly. At school we divided the playground into Good Clothes versus Bad Clothes. The Good Clothes kids had name-brand sneakers, pressed hair and sports team shirts. They laughed at us with our knock-off Velcro shoes, threadbare pants and checkered shirts. They laughed until “Thriller” hit and we were pushing each other out of the way to do the zombie dance. But the Good Clothes were too careful, trying not to scrape their shoes or stain their pants and gave up as the Bad Clothes kids took over. We already looked like zombies, gaunt, tattered and exuberant. We rolled and kicked our feet and thrust our arms around our heads because we had nothing left to lose. We weren’t worried about wrecking our clothes. Our ugliness was power and we never let them forget it.
Michael was left behind when we leapt into adolescence. In high school, music was currency from the adult world, and we traded it like cigarettes in prison. “You got Motley Crue?” We’d look around. “Yeah, you got NWA?” “No, but I got Ice-T.” “Alright, hit me.” The more loud, angry, funky and obscure the music was, the higher one’s reputation. No one traded Michael. He was too falsetto, too boyish for those of us posing like the tough asses on “Yo! MTV Raps.” By the time Michael’s 1987 Bad record came out he was a target of scorn. We scrawled on the album posters in the subway, Bad Nose Job, Bad Skin Cream, Bad Music. Somehow we sensed that however eager we were to leave childhood, Michael was content to stay in it.
Over the years he flashed his glove on TV and it seemed that his shades, military jacket and boots were a sarcophagus. He created a fantasy world called Neverland. He purchased llamas and monkeys. He bought whiteness. He brought children into his bed. Each new headline was a police-linedo- not-cross tape across memories where a wonder-man danced free and the city could glow under our feet.
MICHAEL JACKSON'S MASK
He was a joke, an embarrassment, until I saw the 1999 satirical war drama Three Kings. The film, which is set during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War, features a trio of greedy U.S. soldiers who steal Kuwaiti gold. One soldier, Troy Barlow, played by Mark Wahlberg, is caught by Iraqi soldiers and taken into a basement to be tortured. The Iraqi officer asks him coolly, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?”
The Iraqi holds up his hand as if it’s the glittering glove. “He come to Egypt. Hello I’m Michael Jackson with my chop-up face. Your country make him chop up his face,” he says.
“That’s bullshit; he did it to himself,” Wahlberg says. The Iraqi officer slams him. “It is obvious! A black man make the skin white and the hair straight and you know why? Your sick fuckin’ country make the black man hate himself just like you hate the Arab and the children you bomb over here.”
I paused the scene and thought, “Yeah, Michael is a symptom of America. He’s not a joke, but a warning.”
I pulled the 1903 The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois off my shelf to read his definition of “double-consciousness,” to help me understand how the man who sang soul and neo-soul could destroy his own. His classic line gushed from that split between who we are and who others want us to be: “This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
In 2007, I walked into the classroom where I taught an African-American literature course at SUNY Old Westbury. The students sized me up as I handed out papers and said, “Please flip them over.” They did and saw photocopies of Michael’s face spanning from beautiful brown to ghostly white. Also included were photographs of Lil’ Kim from sullen pout to bulb-cheeked mannequin.
“We assume,” I intoned, “ideas are immaterial. But hopefully these images show that ideas are real and can determine our lives.”
They gawked at the photos.
“How many of us have been called too fat, too thin, too dark or too nappy and stood in front of a mirror wanting to be different?”
Everyone raised their hand, including me. “So did they; except their self-hate had a budget. Part of the goal of Black literature is to shift the questioning from our self-worth to question the worth of the ideas we believe in. Ideas of beauty. Ideas of power.”
We read Du Bois and began to see the invisible eye that floats above us, watching us watch ourselves. A young man sitting mid-row shook his head. “They called me Zulu, shadow, and remember that Dave Chappelle skit?” He swallowed slowly. “Darkness. Darkness. They were on me with that. Darkness.” People hummed “yes” as the student’s words flowed over shame like a stream.
After class ended I stared at Michael as I stacked papers. “You’re not going to last long,” I muttered.
When the news of his death hit, I was sad, but not shocked. He looked dead already, a waif spirit looking for an exit out of the world.
In the midst of the eulogies, I remembered when he was killing himself slowly in public and most of us, me included, made jokes about it. Although his music is the gift most celebrated, it’s the lesson he couldn’t learn that I keep.
At some point, to survive, we have to take off the mask we wear for others and demand to be loved without it.