CNN Senior Executive Producer
The first thing I did when we learned Michael Jackson died was to put together a series of YouTube links from the Jackson 5 and solo Michael for my children. Michael Jackson was the soundtrack of my childhood in the 1970s. I wish he were my young childrens’ soundtrack. Aside from screening out that one dance gesture that he latched on to later in his career, and doing my best to shield them from the details of his biography, I will be sharing with them a treasure trove of his performances and music videos. I will also share with them the roots of his music.
BLACK & WHITE
Despite the fact that Michael Jackson has been the biggest cross-cultural, trans-national, multi-generational singular sensation in the music world, there is one thing that many African Americans are saying about him right now that, as a white man, I am not in position to say. I hear it from my African American friends on the phone, on their Tweets and on their blogs. “Michael was ours,” they say. Based on his record sales, you could say he was all of ours. But not in the same way.
“I’m in shock,” was the Facebook entry from African American teacher/singer Kristi Budd, a friend of mine in Atlanta. “Today,” she says of herself and her black friends, “our Facebook entries feel like we’re signing a guest book."
“He Made Us Dance” was the headline of the obit on the African American website The Root, written by a twenty-something Yale grad named Jonathan Pitts-Wiley.
“Let us not forget,” said Pitts-Wiley, “that once upon a time, Michael was the very best of us.” He writes that his father “tells the story of a workshop in which he was required to bring in something representative of his culture. Some brought in flags; others sacred books. My father brought in Off The Wall, still in its original album cover, beaten and bruised from many a nights sweatin’ hairdos out. This was no collector’s item; this was an artifact for his generation’s zeitgeist. As he put it, “We were young and black and beautiful and everybody loved us.” Michael Jackson accomplished that, once upon a time.
Like all minorities, African Americans had a lot vested in their crossover sensation. As Jackson’s behavior became stranger and stranger, Kristi Budd says, “first, we were mad at him. Then we realized something was wrong with him, so stop being angry. Then we felt sorry for him. Now, I feel like he’s our brother.” One of Budd’s daughter’s asked her “why did his skin turn white.” Budd did her best to explain. Tell the truth. Don’t volunteer too many details. Get back to the music.
One of my closest friends, a former colleague at ABC News named Carla Mikell, is an African American woman who is an astute observer of popular culture. She says: “No matter what he did to his skin or his nose, he was ours.” She says she looks at so many of today’s pop stars and thinks “they wanna move like him, they wanna sing like him, they wanna be as cool as him.” And then, she captured the power of Michael Jackson with her humor: “Only one person in America could make white socks cool.”
He was so frail, the commentators are saying. So sickly looking, for so long. But it’s pretty easy to get that image of frailty out of your head when you listen to Don Cornelius, former host of Soul Train, and an icon himself. Upon learning of Jackson’s death, Cornelius, recounted the first time he’d met Jackson. Jackson was only eight. At the time, according to Cornelius, “The prevailing thought process, among local R&B stars in Chicago, with respect to this very young group of entertainers known as the Jackson 5 had become “If Michael Jackson and his brothers were booked … don’t go on that show and get completely blown away by young Michael and the Jackson 5!!’”
Cornelius refers to Jackson’s “personal, crescendo of amazing power as an entertainer,” which, he says, never slowed to the very end.”
Michael Jackson could certainly repulse us. But, as the writer Toure, a close observer of African American culture, twittered this morning for those people who, understandably, have a hard time bracketing the strangeness of the adult Jackson: "Over the last two decades Mike's musical legacy has gotten overshadowed by his weirdness. It's time to liberate the music and celebrate that."
It is true, as The Root observed, that Michael Jackson made us dance. All of us. Perhaps the magic can be traced, in part, to something Jackson said in an interview CNN dug up from when he was only 10 years old. "I don't sing it if I don't mean it."
So many African-Americans say "Michael was ours."
To them I say thank you for sharing.
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