More than Just the Man in the Mirror: MJ, Race and Social Justice
I was at conference when I received the news that Michael Jackson had transitioned to the ancestral realm and i immediately entered into denial. Telling my good friend, “No, you’re wrong, that’s just a rumor.” After I got over the denial and thought of all the jokes that were no longer appropriate I got to really thinking about Michael Jackson and what legacy his work had for me. It wasn’t just dancing hard and infectious tunes, his perspective on race and race relations was different from mine, but I learned a great deal from him.
I remember watching Michael Jackson’s skin tone lighten and nose narrow before my very eyes. As I came of age and was told, “The only two things you have to do are be Black and die” I watched MJ challenge on of those conditions … or did he? While many will point to Jackson as the prototypical case of self-hate and embodiment of lack of self awareness, I think Michael was painfully aware of who he was and made that message a continued part of his life’s work. Jackson was unequivocally a child of the Civil Rights movement and a humanist in his approach towards issues of inequality. While folks over look it, he was very much concerned with inequality and saw his stardom as a platform to infuse the political in the popular.
From his humanitarian work on “We are the World” to this treatise on personal and social responsibility “Man in the Mirror” Michael had a subtle way of asking his listeners to draw on commonality to increase human treatment and dignity. While I appreciate MJ’s public project now, I definitely appreciated it much less so in my younger days. When he released Black or White in 1991. While I thought the song was banging, I was becoming more politicized and felt that it did matter whether you were Black or White. The video presented race morphing which made many think about the commonality of humanity, but I saw it as an embracing of a post-racial worldview. This however was never the case for Michael. In my read of his work he desired that race would not carry meaning, but acknowledged it still did.
In his early and mid-career years, MJ remained publicly connected the Civil Rights establishment via his relationship with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. As a child of civil rights he advocated for a multicultural egalitarian world. In his later years, he developed a burgeoning relationship to Islam via his brother Jermaine Jackson and the Nation of Islam via legal support and management. I remember attending the Millions More March rumors floating that Michael was going to come out, perform and publicly announce his reversion to Islam, but this public day never came. MJ’s affiliations to Islam and the NOI undoubtedly lead to a more explicit racial lens which he later used to “call out” Tommy Mottola president of Sony. People wrote off his public outcry as a link in the media weaved “chain of insanity” and Jackson suddenly moved from “humanist” to “race baitor” in the public imagination. Unfortunately, Jackson’s career was already at a low point and his allegations were not taken seriously, but I’ve always wondered what would have happened if the world took MJ’s cry of unfair treatment seriously? What if the King of Pop was able to raise questions of equity within the industry that resulted in different representation, power, and access? Did his invocation of racial injustice invalidate him in the eyes of many who hung on his humanist messages of equality for all?
No matter whether old Michael or young Michael, he should also be remembered for his project of highlighting and challenging inequality of all forms. Even though to many he was considered “racially transcendent” he did not buy into this image. Instead, he used his popularity as platform to the political. Jackson was an amazing artist but his subtle genius around infusing a brand of social justice into his music should also not be forgotten. The media bonanza behind Jackson will soon die down, but I hope his legacy of social justice will not.