Black and White and Proud

by Rev. Barbara Kaufmann

December 24 - 2010

The past and Michael Jackson’s part in it, his contribution to the present and impact on the future, is not to be understated or dismissed.

Something important prompted this column—a gaping hole in knowledge. A friend and I were having a conversation about Michael Jackson and his life’s 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 Wonder’s equivalent, “Ebony and Ivory.” She remembered. We spoke of The Black Panthers, Abbey Hoffman, Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and Michael’s 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 John’s 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. It’s a feeling. I wish I could share it with you; it’s 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 Jackson’s 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 suggested—like 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 can’t. I’ve paid my dues. I can’t 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 she’s been a lot of those other things that people say to differentiate a shade of skin color, some of them not so polite. She can’t 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 “being… 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 didn’t 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 sides—back 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 Clark’s 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 me—a 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 friend’s transverse fatigue. I lived it too, but not in the same way. It’s 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 Michael’s tribute to Sammy Davis Junior? It was homage to his paving the way so Michael might follow.

The past and Michael Jackson’s part in it; his contribution to the present and impact on the future, is not to be understated or dismissed. Not by me—and 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 Jackson’s 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 Michael’s aesthetic informs his work.

Those younger fans or the newcomers to the MJ party, cannot fully appreciate Michael Jackson’s 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 Jackson’s 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 Michael’s 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 Michael’s frequently closed fist) first showcased by James Brown with his, “I’m Black and I’m Proud” lyrics. Brown changed a whole nation’s 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 enemy—Russians. 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 Tom’s 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 Jackson’s “antics.” They completely missed the message because it wasn’t intended for them. That may have been deliberate, for knowing Michael’s 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 images—the 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 ain’t 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 n’s (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 history.

"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 America—you 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 Jackson’s 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 folk.

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 “I’m Black and I’m 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 Power’s 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…White, Yellow, Black, and Red… in other words, It’s up to Kid Power …”

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 and corporations.

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 case study.