Michael Jackson's Mirror.

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[A. Serwer]

Ya'll can't get mad at me, because I haven't done a Michael Jackson post yet. This will be my only one, barring unforseen developments.

On the bus yesterday, I was reading Newsweek and found this article from David Gates on Michael Jackson:

Why did he feel so deeply uncomfortable with himself? The hopeless task of sculpting and bleaching yourself into a simulacrum of a white man suggests a profound loathing of blackness. If Michael Jackson couldn't be denounced as a race traitor, who could? Somehow, though, black America overlooked it, and continued to buy his records, perhaps because some African-Americans, with their hair relaxers and skin-lightening creams, understood why Jackson was remaking him-self, even if they couldn't condone it.

I think this misunderstands what Jackson was going through. I can only speak for myself, but I didn't see Jackson as rebuking or hating black folks by mutilating himself. I didn't see him as someone who was deliberately reinforcing the notion that white is inherently beautiful, I saw him as an example of how a number of factors, like racism and a really fucked up family life, can make a person go so crazy that they'll cut up their own face.

Contrary to conclusions of late-night comedians and even some journalists, I don't think Jackson wanted to be white. It's not like he started signing like Frank Sinatra or dancing like Fred Astaire. You don't get down with Al Sharpton or pick your bodyguards from the Fruit of Islam if you want to be white or you hate black people or "blackness". I think Jackson was after something far more elusive.


When I was in high school, the fact that I was lightskinned and had curly hair gave me a complex, partially because people couldn't seem to stop commenting on it. My senior year I kept my head in cornrows because I was tired of hearing shit like "you have good hair" and "your daddy got some strong genes." It wasn't that I was ashamed of being biracial, I just wanted to be like everyone else around me. I didn't want to be unusual, I didn't want to be the exception, I didn't want to be a freak. Sometime during college Danzy Senna and August Wilson convinced me I wasn't actually the unique tortured snowflake I thought I was, and Anatole Broyard made me realize that denying or suppressing who I was in any way would only lead to creative misery.

In any case, I'm not trying to say I knew exactly what Jackson was going through. What I'm saying is that I don't think Jackson wanted to be white. I think he wanted to be "normal". Despite the peculiarities of my experience, I think everyone, especially teenagers, go through that at some level. Jackson, because of his psychological problems, acted in a more drastic fashion.

I think, despite the jokes and the sarcasm, we all knew what the plastic surgery was about. There was the stuff that MJ did that we joked about because it was weird, and there was the stuff he did that we joked about because it made us uncomfortable, because it told us something really ugly about the way things are and about ourselves too--I'm not talking just about white people, it's 2009 and "good hair" hasn't gone out of style quite yet. I think things are different from the way they were in Jackson's heyday. But not so different that it's funny.

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Adam Serwer is a staff writer for The American Prospect.

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