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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Black or White: The deracination of Michael Jackson

In the grab bag of oddities that is the second half of Michael Jackson’s biography — the seclusion at Neverland, the child molestation charges, the short-lived marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the dangling of an infant over a balcony parapet, the illnesses, the addictions, the money problems, the unlikely friendships with Arab sheikhs — none is weirder and more troubling to some than Wacko Jacko’s increasingly deracinated physical appearance.

Michael Jackson's FaceAs the young star of the Jackson 5, Jackson — the enigmatic and reclusive megastar who died yesterday of cardiac arrest at the age of 50 — began his career with medium-brown skin, African features and a flowing natural hairstyle, the very picture of a handsome young black male. Sometime in the early 1980s, however, Jackson’s skin began to grow lighter, and within a few years he appeared as pale as Robert Pattinson’s vampire inTwilight. At the same time, he underwent a series of plastic surgeries, including several rhinoplasties — which whittled away his nose until, by the end, it barely existed — and the addition of a cleft in his chin. His lips grew noticeably thinner, and his brow and cheekbones also appeared to have been surgically altered. 



For many, the overall effect of these changes was to make Jackson appear more Caucasian than African American. It was difficult not to suspect that his ongoing physical transformation reflected a desire to escape his racial identity.

This was particularly disturbing to many blacks, for whom the specter of internalized racism remains an ongoing concern. Fats Waller’s 1929 jazz standard “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” later featured in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, was a pointed and poignant reminder of how the racism from outside can turn inward: “I’m white inside / but that don’t help my case / ’cause I can’t hide / what is on my face.” InDreams from My Father, Barack Obama — a close contemporary of Jackson’s — writes about being shaken by a Life magazine article featuring a black man who had tried to bleach his skin white.

Jackson knew exactly what was being said about him, and he went out of his way to refute it. In his 1988 autobiography, Moon Walk, he admitted some of the plastic surgeries but denied others, attributing his evolving facial structure to, among other things, hairstyle changes and stage lighting. Far from bleaching his skin, as was widely rumored, Jackson later claimed to suffer from vitiligo, a condition that disrupts skin pigmentation; his paleness, he said, was caused by treatments for the disease and makeup used to even out its blotching effects. In addition, he said, he had been diagnosed with lupus, which, combined with the vitiligo, resulted in a vampiric sensitivity to sunlight.

This was not entirely convincing. There are many shades of makeup, after all; if he did have vitiligo, Jackson could just as easily have chosen to darken the affected patches of his skin rather than lighten his naturally dark skin to match the pale blotches. And if his first rhinoplasty occurred after an injury to his nose, as he claimed, why continue with a wholesale surgical onslaught that left him with the nose of a Norwegian supermodel, the chin of Kirk Douglas and the lips of Lord Voldemort?

Jackson’s apparent drive to transcend his race, if not to obliterate it, also expressed itself in his music and his performance style. From his beginnings as a wunderkind of Motown — whose desire for crossover success found its ultimate expression in the career of Jackson’s friend Diana Ross, with whom he co-starred in a rare racially tinged project, 1978’s The Wiz — his persona was never closely connected to his race. As he branched out from the Jackson 5 into a solo career, his music became increasingly detached from the traditions of R&B. He was the self-anointed “King of Pop” whose worldwide legions of fans — black, white, brown, whatever — didn’t seem to relate to him as a young black man. He was simply Michael Jackson, Superstar, a demographic of one.

Even much of his dancing seemed unmoored from the contemporary styles performed by the teens on "Soul Train"; his famous moonwalk was explicitly alien and, well, lunar.

If Jackson had a personal anthem, it was probably “Black or White” (1991), an ode to the irrelevance of race, or at least the longing for such a state: “It don’t matter,” he chants like a wish-fulfillment mantra, “if you’re black or white.” But it might also have been “Beat It” from Thriller (1982), in which Jackson counsels young men to stay alive by running away from fights and not being fussy about principles: “No one wants to be defeated / showin’ how funky strong is your fight / it doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right / just beat it . . .”

For all his apparent efforts, Jackson never “beat” his race and its legacy of suffering. His critics — some of them white racists who mocked his ever-changing physiognomy as the antics of just another uppity Negro — would never allow it, for one thing. More important, as perhaps the example of Obama shows, a successfully integrated human personality is one that comes to terms with all its parts. That which is stowed away or covered up — even with the help of the best plastic surgery and cosmetics money can buy — will tend to simmer and ultimately boil over in unexpected forms. You can hide who you are but never fully erase it. “I’m starting with the man in the mirror,” Jackson sang in his 1987 single, “I’m asking him to change his ways.”

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