Rev. Barbara Kaufmann
December 24 - 2010
The past and Michael Jacksons part in it, his contribution
to the present and impact on the future, is not to be understated
Something important prompted this columna gaping hole
in knowledge. A friend and I were having a conversation about
Michael Jackson and his lifes work, and the song, lyrics,
and the short film "Black or White," came up in discussion.
Both of us grew up in the sixties, and our dialogue covered
most of the relevant issues and the discussion went on for hours.
I brought up Stevie Wonders equivalent, Ebony and
Ivory. She remembered. We spoke of The Black Panthers,
Abbey Hoffman, Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and
Michaels childhood during the turbulent civil rights movement.
We talked about John Lennon and the Beatles, Yoko Ono, Julian
and Sean Lennon because it was the anniversary of Johns
death. We spoke of the riots in Chicago, Viet Nam, and the Peace
Movement and flower children. I recall those days with a wistfulness
that I am not able to explain in words. Its a feeling.
I wish I could share it with you; its not possible..
At some point the phone heated up on my end as I realized that
my friend had just gone through some fresh, and still stinging
criticism, for speaking about the history within Michael Jacksons
work. It had raised the ugly issues of racism and white guilt.
And though she could speak with me about it, she was just too
weary to address it in ways I had previously suggestedlike
writing it, teaching classes or a podcast of our black-white
conversation. But when I brought up the subject again, all she
could say was: I cant. Ive paid my dues. I
cant pay them again. There was such a complete and
utter resignation in her voice, such morbid weariness! I completely
understand. But part of me got really angry as the tears in
my throat stung silent and sad. My friend holds a rich piece
of history that may never be shared.
You see, she is black. African American. Negro. And shes
been a lot of those other things that people say to differentiate
a shade of skin color, some of them not so polite. She cant
tell you the stories because when she brings up the subject,
some say she is rehashing a past that is irrelevant now or that
she has a secret agenda.
Well, I lived that same past and my stories too, could make
your hair stand at attention, but I never had to worry about
while black or trying to make
myself harmless or invisible or to keep pushing down my justifiable
DNA-cellular rage, like a beach ball underwater. I didnt
have to keep my radar on high alert or scan my environment in
perpetual motion to feel the vibe for safety, and test if I
was too presuming in just my presence alone. I can tell
you stories of racism from both sidesback and white. And
red. My partial Native American heritage is testament to my
ancestors similarly turned into non-humans and called savages,
which is every bit as hurtful as the N-word.
My friend and I have an intimacy that not many share because
it is safe talking about where we come from with someone who
understands where you came from, and what perils littered
the path that you took to get here. What you have overcome,
how hard it was to work your way here, and what it means to
land in the place called now. And just how weary and spent is
your soul now that you have arrived.
I confided to her that I loved not just music, but dance. I
remember that while Dick Clarks American Bandstand
was exciting, Soul Train was the happenin place.
(For the younger crowd- Bandstand was a kind of virtual music
and dance club for white kids on after school TV, but Soul
Train was the rockin black version.) So the natural
progression for mea blues, soul, and funk music and dance
addict, was to find my way to the reality version of
Soul Train, which meant the clubs on the north side of Milwaukee
and the south side of Chicago. Many times I was the only white
girl in the place.
So I understand my friends transverse fatigue. I lived
it too, but not in the same way. Its hard to understand
prejudice unless you have walked in those shoes, or in my case,
the white girl with moccasins. The intolerance
shown my friend for her grandmotherly, archetypal wisdom,
is an affront that just simply cannot stand. We need to acknowledge
and honor all those who came before. Remember Michaels
tribute to Sammy Davis Junior? It was homage to his paving
the way so Michael might follow.
The past and Michael Jacksons part in it; his contribution
to the present and impact on the future, is not to be understated
or dismissed. Not by meand now not by you. Nor will it
be made irrelevant on my watch by the ignorance in that glaring
vacuum of knowledge crushing the spirit of my friend. Michael
Jacksons life and how he lived it, how he and his life
were shaped by the times in which he and we lived, and how that
influence helped him shape the future, is very relevant to understanding
Michael, the man. It is also an essential piece of
how Michaels aesthetic informs his work.
Those younger fans or the newcomers to the MJ party, cannot
fully appreciate Michael Jacksons work until his courage,
his boldness, and the depth of his love for humanity is fully
comprehended. It was his stealth that saved him much because
to out overt racism was politically incorrect; it was his boldness
and the silent screams that made him a target for those who
awoke to what he was doing.
To put some perspective on the times: The Vietnam War was ongoing
and Kent State was fresh in the collective memory. (At Kent
State, protesting university students had been shot and killed
by the National Guard, an incident which pitted a generation
of idealistic youth against their own government. John Lennon
was on the FBI watch list for being a peacenik
and troublemaker. There was an attempt to deport
him and ban him from the United States. Michael Jackson was
on lists that we may never hear about and never know. So forgive
me the history lesson, indulge me and permit the white girl
to tell you
Michael Jackson was a civil rights activist. Michael, the Jackson
Five and the Jackson family, grew up in troubled and racially
charged times. Prejudice was prominent and permanent, and the
black man (meaning the collective race) was a second class citizen.
Much of the south was still segregated when Michael was born
black people had to stick to their own kind in schools,
neighborhoods, public places, and even rest rooms. The doors
of restrooms invited colored to separate and frequent
sub-standard facilities. Black entertainers like Sammy Davis
Junior, Little Richard, Louis Armstrong and others, were tolerated
and a bit more acceptable because of their talent, but often
had to come in through the kitchens and garages of fine hotels
and public venues because the front door was off limits to coloreds.
You may recall hearing that MTV refused to play Michael
Jacksons music video short films, simply because he was
African American. Michael single-handedly broke that barrier,
and I have to wonder if it is behind the question he asked when
he won his second Grammy: Can you hear me now? That
may have been meant for the blacks in the audience as much as
the music industry itself. And Michaels work was bold.
After Thriller, Michael made Bad to
be relevant, and to give African Americans the message that
they could and should go to college, and that being bad as in
educated, was good and relevant to them too. And in "Black
or White," Michael not only takes on prejudice in America,
but in the whole world.
He shows us the prejudice and racial rage in America by demonstrating
it boldly in his "Black or White" artistry. The symbols
are unmistakable. The black cat, which is a black leopard or
Panther as it is commonly called, is a reference
to the Black Panthers and black pride (as is Michaels
frequently closed fist) first showcased by James Brown with
his, Im Black and Im Proud lyrics. Brown
changed a whole nations youth with that song. He made
it cool to be black; something until then uncommon. In "Black
or White," Michael dances with all ethnicities: African,
Asian, Native Americans, and with the United States greatest
political enemyRussians. He is saying, this is the
dance of life and it encircles all humans.
Michael then begins the Panther Dance with a routine
of tap dancing that is a direct reference to racism and especially
slavery. Tap dance began as a mockery of slaves with blackface
comedy, in which white men painted their faces black and
mimicked slave farmhands working in the fields; depicted them
as clumsy, as buffoons, and attempting to run away in tap dance
movements. In the sixties, Sammy Davis Jr. featured tap dancing
on stage and TV, but for some African Americans it was too Uncle
Tom and controversial. 'Uncle Tom refers to the novel
Uncle Toms Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, where
the lead character is Negro, pacifist, and subservient to whites.
Michael makes a bold statement in code by incorporating tap
and eroticism in "Black or White." The message about
prejudice continues as he visibly touches himself and re-zips
his fly. Those gestures are an unmistakable statement of contempt
that only blacks would recognize. Whites wanted blacks to be
quiet and not propagate while they used many methods of population
control, and employed forced racial mixing by impregnating black
women to lighten skin color. The white community was aghast
at Michael Jacksons antics. They completely
missed the message because it wasnt intended for them.
That may have been deliberate, for knowing Michaels famous
sense of humor, he must have chuckled all the way to infamy.
Themes that emerge in the smoky cloud he punches through, are
also iconic racial and cultural imagesthe burning cross
which refers to the Klu Klux Klan, the original (American) terrorists
who strike fear in hearts and homes with burning crosses. The
nuclear cloud is an indictment of governments and an arms race
out of control. The lyric I aint afraid of no sheets
is a direct reference to the Klu Klux Klan who wore white sheets
and cone-shaped hoods with cutout eyes. The Klan was known for
its vigilante justice, and many accused ns (n-word) were
victims of lynching- impromptu death by hanging. The sheets
covered them, and kept the criminals anonymous while white law
enforcement looked the other way.
The anger, the smashing of windows, the sparks and fire of the
neon signs are references to the Chicago riots after the assassination
of Martin Luther King. The deaths and damage from fires set,
and shootings, was extensive. The African American rage at the
injustices in employment, housing, police brutality, mistreatment
by whites, and the rampant lack of humanity and respect accorded
them because of skin pigment. Michael has taken much heat over
the years for the violence demonstrated in "Black or White,"
but that violence is an illustration of a factual part of
"Black or White" is a video that is filled with symbolic
imagery that I am working on for Inner Michael, in an essay
about the hidden messages in the film. The "Ghosts"
film has a startling reference to the Klan with its burning
torches and marching mobs. That illustrates the facts of being
black in Americayou were a target for violence at the
hands of those who wanted you to know your place
in the social hierarchy. As a black, you understood that you
were considered a bottom-feeder. Michael Jacksons aesthetic
and work helped to change the minds and hearts of a generation,
but not without conflict. He was both loved and hated; he received
both affectionate accolades and death threats. And Michael absolutely
understood that in order to keep his pulpit for social change,
he needed to stay bold and controversial to sustain his relevance.
His courage in music as a message, is unparalleled.
The times Michael grew up in were ripe for his arrival on the
youthful scene. It was time for change. From the 1940s until
the protests of the 1960s, entertainment had featured characters
like: Little Black Sambo, Bosko, and Inki, which solidified
the stereotypes of blacks in the minds of audiences. Hollywood
prescribed and perpetuated the stereotype of black people as
being non-human, by featuring African American performers in
cartoon caricature. People like Cab Calloway, Fats
Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Bill Bo Jangles
Robinson, served as archetypes for a host of animals (yes animals)
and people in animated features. This slanted depiction of blacks
served to reinforce the animalistic and primitive (because of
the natural affinity for dance and rhythms) nature of black
Until the 1960s, blacks being subjected to ridicule and stereotype
was the cultural norm. The Black Panther Party was
a political revolutionary movement that began in 1966 and lasted
until 1975. It expanded to a social and cultural revolution
with contemporary symbols like the closed fist. The Afro
hairstyle became a symbol of the African American pride initiative
begun by the Black Panthers, and punctuated by James Brown in
Im Black and Im Proud, released in 1968.
Michael publicly declared his allegiance to James Brown as the
artist who influenced him most.
In a progression of television programs, the ingrained stereotype
was diffused over time. The cutting edge programs included Josie
and the Pussycats, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the Kid Power
series, which featured a cultural diverse group of eleven
children. Kid Powers theme and premise was that
multiracial and multicultural kids who worked together collectively,
had the power to change the world socially and politically.
The idea of 'Kid Power,' reflected concepts of participatory
democracy and bottom-up social movements of the 1960s and 1970s
that emphasized ideals like: Black Power, Brown Power, Red
Power, Woman Power, and Power to the People. The series
theme song, Kid Power
Red, Yellow, Black, and White
Yellow, Black, and Red
in other words, Its up to
Michael truly did believe that the power to change the world
lies silent and untapped within children; he grew up within
the kid power cultural message, and it explains
his loyalty, affection and attention to children. He believed
in youth. And it was in a unique time that Michael Jackson wove
his magic into the social tapestry of his life and our history.
Who Michael was, and what he contributed to civil rights in
the social and cultural fabric, was relevant then and deserves
to be celebrated today. While Dr. King said it in words and
actions, Michael Jackson said it in music, lyrics and the images
of film. Michael Jackson, like Martin Luther King before him,
was a prolific and vocal freedom fighter.
© B. Kaufmann 2010
Reverend Barbara Kaufmann is an award winning writer, poet and
author. She is a member of the Wisconsin Society of Sciences,
Arts and Letters; Wisconsin Regional Writers; and Fellowship
of Poets. A minister, shaman and nurse, Barbara is active in
the healing arts and is a longtime human activist and peacemaker.
She has written for: anthologies, magazines, newspapers, journals,
poetry collections, specialty books and programs, grants, businesses
For the Words and Violence education packet , Barbara initiated
the project, acted as executive chief writer and editor, and
wrote the following: Dedication; Introduction; Preface: "Weapons
of Mass Destruction: New Violence and WMD;" "Sensationalism,
Inflammatory Words and the History of Tabloid Journalism;"
and "The Princess and the Toads: A Fairy Tale," a