June 26th, 2009
10:28 PM ET

The innocence of Michael Jackson

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/SHOWBIZ/Music/06/26/michael.jackson/art.michael.jackson.gi.jpg]

Michael Schulder
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.


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.

soundoff (68 Responses)
  1. Mey

    Michael is the best singer, dancer,composer and performer in my life. It was the most isolated day in my life and I now still wonder why he died so suddenly like that. I really want to know the real course of the death. All the time I listen to his songs, I can feel the peace he brought to this world, his loneliness and sadness. Since I was young till now, I had wished to meet him one day, but I know my wish will never come true. Although he's gone, he always be the greatest in my world and no one can replace him. We all miss you, I do miss you Michael and I will never forget you. Good bye my angel, pleace rest in peace.

    June 29, 2009 at 7:50 am |
  2. Fancy B

    I agree with you Hugo. Obama is so FREAKIN CLUELESS!!

    June 29, 2009 at 12:07 am |
  3. Mr. Britt

    He was a magical person, his music helped many people in many ways, saying that, the man still had alot of issues. But that should not take away from the fact that he was alot of things to alot of people, and he will be missed.

    June 28, 2009 at 11:14 pm |
  4. Danica Kombol

    Excellent commentary.

    June 28, 2009 at 10:20 pm |
  5. Mr. Britt

    Now its Billy May's???!!! WOW, 4 celebs in a week. Unreal, but i guess were not here to stay forever

    June 28, 2009 at 5:48 pm |
  6. ABF

    I find the media and public obsession with his death frankly scary.....he is being portrayed as a god and members of the public speak of him as though they knew him personally....this is an example of celebrity obsession at its worst....he was a good singer and dancer but that is all...he owed everything to his producers namely Quincy Jones who was the true artist who created the Jackson sound. And what does it mean to be the "King of Pop"? Pop music is merely a musical genre – he was not the king of any nation or peoples – it shows that he also had an unhealthy attachment to his own fame which ultimately led to his downfall....

    But to me the most disturbing thing is that our Congress gave this person a moment of silence while our troops are risking and laying down their lives for our country everyday! Our Congress should give a moment of silence for each and every one of our armed forces who gave their lives for our country – but would they consider a lone soldier giving his life for us as important as a has-been entertainer? It appears not....

    June 28, 2009 at 3:14 pm |
  7. sia fallah

    What a loss to the whole world. Believe it or not the death of MJ has created all dimensions of feelings including emotional, and physicall.
    i was dropping my two girls to school when i heard on the radio that MJ is in coma and possibly dead but unconfirmed. I was speechless, staunted and angry. went home then CNN confirmed his was dead. I burst in to tears shaking and sweating. I have never shed tears for a celebrity's death before. He was an icon, a singer and voice of the best, an entertainer and a writer of his music.
    No one in the whole word would ever replace Micheal's music. he was a very kind hearted man with integrity, and love. He brought change in the universe ,cared for disadvantaged children. He was a fine human being looked very innocent and believed in peace

    June 28, 2009 at 1:47 pm |
  8. Vicki, Canada

    Rest in peace dear Michael...we love you and your spirit will live in each one of us.

    June 28, 2009 at 10:38 am |
  9. April Adams

    I just wanted to say that I give the entire Jackson family my sympathy. I also feel it’s ironic how all of the sudden a Cardiologist is hired right before this tour of his, and then MJ dies a cardiac death….I just think there is something that is being hidden.

    June 28, 2009 at 7:22 am |
  10. janette

    Hugo you be you and let the Pres be himself.If he went on and on
    about Michael you'd be griping that he wasn't focusing on the
    important issues.Stop hating !!!!

    June 28, 2009 at 2:40 am |
  11. Hugo

    I don't know if this is the right place to comment , but to me Barack Obama seems out of touch with the American people and world, his statement reminds of George Bush and Katrina. The president should honour and celebrate MICHAEL

    June 26, 2009 at 4:13 pm |
  12. Juanita

    Mike worked hard, entertaining us, his entire life. Now he can rest, I just pray his burial is not drawn out like James Brown or Elvis'.
    Never be another like him!

    June 26, 2009 at 3:49 pm |
  13. Sharon

    Very nice article. My prayers are with his family and friends. RIP, Michael!

    June 26, 2009 at 3:24 pm |
  14. earle,florida

    "all the greats have their idiosyncrasy's,as they eclipse the mundane,it is their eluicidation to unmasking genius; he plagarized God's exogenous gift of poetic lyrical verse,a melodic naivete'; he made us empty our minds of the world's troubles,and filled it with the bliss of song,the sweet song of our time; he touched the world with a uniqueness,which only comes once in a generation; what we had,what we lost,will always live in spirit,for the individuality of Michael had no quota's;... God Bless you, "Michael Jackson",...PS.My empathy to his children,and family

    June 26, 2009 at 3:04 pm |
  15. frieda vlet

    The same media that crucified him is now singing a different tune.It is too late,media. he needed your lofty words when he was alive not in death!Everyone but geraldo belived that he molested kids.Nobody start molesting at age 45.A pedofile at age 45 has done much damage allready.If he really did molested the boy they would not have accepted money.They would scream jailtime.They have blood on their hands,and god will judge them!Everybody wanted a piece of the pie.The pie belongs to him not anybody else.

    June 26, 2009 at 2:52 pm |
  16. Cat B'Yahni

    Homeward bound... Somewhere over the rainbow... Michael was a vessel, a visionary charged with a quest for spiritual change. If we listen... If we open our minds and our heart we shall hear his message.

    June 26, 2009 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Charmaine R

    Rest in peace Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was a consummate perfectionist. A World Icon. He united the world and all cultures through his gift of music. Let us keep the focus on the genius and the wonders of the talent of Michael Jackson. We all should know the mystery and power of genius is what defined Michael Jackson in his own way. We can only be thankful for years and memories of some of the best music ever. There will never be feelings and experiences of the Michael Jackson frenzy phenomenon.

    We Never Can Say Goodbye. Gone Too Soon.

    June 26, 2009 at 1:18 pm |
  18. Rotem (Toronto)

    The world is empty of genuine love for everything now that you’re gone.
    You’ve changed the world Michael, you really did! I wish I got the chance to shake your hand and tell you that your calling as a human being has been fulfilled by your kind eyes, beautiful smile, generous loving heart and amazing capability of expressing yourself through writing and performing. The trials you’ve experienced throughout your life are unfair and undeserving for you gave so much to the world.
    You were way ahead of OUR time.
    I just really really love you and I thank you. RIP
    June 25th, 2009 – THE DAY THE MUSIC really DIED.

    June 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm |
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