Michael Jackson and the toxicity of American culture

The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.

All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair – to all of which may now be added the bitter need to find a head on which to place the crown of Miss America.

Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated-in the main, abominably -because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”

—James Baldwin (1985)

As we memorialize Michael Joseph Jackson today, clearly Baldwin’s prescient hopes for Joe and Katherine’s “golden child” were not realized.

It has been nearly two weeks now, and it is still hard to believe that Michael Jackson is no longer among the living. Yes, as so many have written – including this writer – his music will live forever, but Michael is gone.

And while thousands of journalists around the world are covering MJ’s life and death, this story of rare magnitude, few will even begin to scratch the surface of the larger breaking news: Michael Jackson was America’s metaphorical “canary in the coal mine.”

You’ve probably heard how miners, before the advent of more sophisticated technology, would place a canary in a potentially dangerous coal mine to test for toxic gases. If the bird lived, they knew that they need not worry. But if the canary died, they knew that it was not safe to enter the mine. Thus, before proceeding, they had to take steps to rectify the problem.

Well, Michael – America’s grossly misunderstood canary – died. And Americans need to see his life and death for what it is: a warning about the toxicity of American culture.

Then, in this land, we must begin to honestly confront the lingering, festering problem of white supremacy, which is fueled by racial hatred and fear. To do nothing is to risk further damage.

James Baldwin, with knifelike precision, in the above passage – taken from his 1985 essay “Here Be Dragons,” in The Price of the Ticket, an updated version of his 1965 Playboy article “Freaks and the Ideal of American Manhood” – cut straight to the chase.

Many before me have posited that Jackson was the embodiment of internalized Black self-hatred, to the extreme. What sets his case apart, I submit, is that MJ had the financial wherewithal to physically change his Blackness. In other words, Jackson unwittingly externalized Black self-hatred, on steroids. That is, he took an extreme approach to “passing”, the practice of very light-skinned Blacks trying to pass for White in Jim Crow America.

Without question, his is the textbook case of Black self-loathing. What MJ failed to realize is that Blackness goes to the core.

But Jackson’s saga doesn’t just speak to Michael’s psychic dysfunction. There is also the question of what his parents and this sick, twisted, materialistic, sensationalistic Western culture did to him.

Determined to escape the poverty of urban Gary, Indiana, Joe Jackson, himself an amateur musician, made the fateful decision to shape his sons into a boy band. At the tender age of five, Jackson and his older brothers were forced to take center stage in the very adult, all-consuming world of entertainment, in the process amassing great wealth, and stealing the hearts of fans around the country, and later the world.

And in the end, Michael left an estate that I believe will one day top the $1 trillion mark, even after all his debts are settled. But at what cost?

As Michael’s star continued to rise, and as his father reportedly teased him mercilessly about his looks, particularly his nose, he began the downward spiral of self-mutilation. It started with altering his nose, progressing to complete skin de-pigmentation, and God only knows what else.

Perhaps most tragic, if media reports are true, is Michael’s choice to have children by non-conventional means, opting not to sire any progeny, and thus not planting the seeds of future musical genius. This is what the American experience did to our beloved Michael Jackson. Just think about that for a moment: to hate one’s image so much that one cannot even bear to continue one’s own bloodline.

Mind you, it is not my intent to indict Jackson or his parents. For he suffered from an acute manifestation of the pathology known in Black psychology as post traumatic enslavement syndrome, as do the vast majority of African-descended peoples. Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary delineates this concept in her very important book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (2005).

Leary correctly asserts that we can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand with regard to the devastating and durable effects of enslavement on the psychic apparatus of African Americans and, I say, as well White Americans.

In a 2006 interview with In These Times, Leary states that “the root of this denial for the dominant culture is fear, and fear mutates into all kinds of things: psychological projection, distorted and sensationalized representations in the media…to justify the legal rights and treatment of people. That’s why it’s become so hard to unravel.”

And, who can deny that the MJ story is Exhibit A when it comes to demonstrating the existential damage that The Holocaust of African Enslavement, colonialism, and racism have done to the African psyche and to the world?

Here’s a prime example. Everyone frequently points out how some Blacks try to lighten their skin or straighten their hair, but far less attention is focused on the multi-billion dollar global industries that exist solely to provide the products and services needed to cater to the compulsion of many Whites to attempt to colorize – or blacken – themselves: tanning salons, lip enhancers, butt implants, sunless tanning products, etc.
So, in essence, on the one hand you have scores of Whites, both historically and contemporaneously, maintaining that Blacks are inferior and ugly, while at the same time going to great lengths to emulate their darker counterparts even at the risk of skin cancer from excessive tanning.

Then there was the activist Michael Jackson, God rest his soul, just hours before his demise, in the AEG rehearsal filmed at Staples Center – ironically, where his family, friends, and fans will gather today to mourn his passing – performing “They Don’t Care about Us,” even as his visage was paler than most of the White people who presumably represent the “they” of which he sang.

As David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun said recently on CNN’s State of the Union Michael Jackson “embodied the contradictions in our culture like no one else.” And Jackson was tortured, thanks in large part to the relentless pursuit of a vampire press. Sadly, his physical metamorphosis and eccentricities, along with numerous unproven allegations, and now his untimely death, only serve to make him a perennial, irresistible ratings bonanza for the world press.

In life, he was a prisoner of his own “carnivorous” success, in effect, caged like the canary because of his beautiful songs. In death, he continues to be the subject of scurrilous speculation, and for every one minute of media tribute, I would wager that there are two dedicated to lurid, unfounded rumors.

When all is said and done, Michael’s passing is nothing less than a tragedy of epic proportions. Those of us who have loved him have been shaken to the core, as evidenced by reports of 1.6 million people globally vying for the 8,750 free tickets to his memorial.

Unfortunately, Michael’s ticket was not free. He paid the ultimate price: his childhood. And his life. May his soul rest in peace.