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Style & Culture

Hello, blackness

Michael Jackson, like other celebs in dire straits, is suddenly embracing his race.

February 01, 2004|Todd Boyd | Special to The Times

The words weird, increasingly weird and weirder don't even begin to account for the carnivalesque aura that has long surrounded Jackson everywhere he goes. He was a walking Barnum & Bailey circus act in "highwater" pants, sequined socks and zippered red leather jackets. But he was allowed to indulge all his weirdness, even celebrated for it, because he was Michael, the star of stars, a pop icon for the ages.

In addition to all this, he was also a black man -- at least that's the way he was born. This is relevant because one could argue that no black person had ever achieved the level of success or the universal acceptance that Jackson did. Coming along in the early '70s -- only a hop, skip and jump from the Civil Rights-defined '60s -- Jackson moved up the ladder to success like a NASCAR driver on speed, and by the late '70s, with the release of his best work, the Quincy Jones-produced "Off the Wall," he was destined for unsurpassed greatness. With the dawn of MTV and the music video age, Michael took the crown and refused to relinquish it, going on to sell more than 26 million copies of "Thriller" in the U.S. alone, while redefining the music industry and pop sainthood in the process.

Jackson seemed to have accomplished something that was otherwise considered impossible in America: He seemed to have transcended race. He was neither black nor white; he was simply Michael, a race, class and gender unto himself. Not only was he in his own world, he was this world and all its inhabitants.

Racially ambiguous

In a society where one's race is often a burden and seldom a benefit, Jackson seemed to erase all of that, creating and following his own racial rules in the process. This was especially true in terms of his physical appearance. With each passing year, his skin seemed to whiten before our eyes. Jackson appears to have enlisted Pinocchio's plastic surgeon for his cosmetic enhancements. His hair, once a fly but still kinky Afro, became straight as the line a drunken driver is forced to walk when pulled over by the cops.

Then he somehow reversed the genetic cycle and produced babies who, from the little we have seen, look about as white as John Ashcroft watching reruns of Lawrence Welk. Not only was Michael a great entertainer, he was a walking human genetic experiment.

No wonder it was once rumored that he wanted to buy the bones of the fabled Elephant Man; it now seems they were related. Either that, or Jackson was the Elephant Man in a previous life.

One of the lasting remnants of the Simpson trial is the now commonly used phrase "the race card." I cannot abide this phrase because it assumes that race is like a card game, and in this construction, the race card is akin to the trump card, a privileged card that, when played, stops all the action. Yet anyone who is defined by race in this nation knows all too well that race is not a game. One's racial identity is not something that can be turned on and off at will. Race and its troubled history in this nation is real, and the experience of it is visible across the bodies of all those who exist outside the white mainstream.

Jackson has gone from raceless to race man, seemingly overnight. What he has done now in his alleged affiliation with the Nation is far beyond playing the race card, though; he has pulled out a deck of race cards, kidnapped the dealer and taken over the casino.

Is one's racial identity for sale in this nation of cultural entrepreneurs? Can someone like Jackson go back and forth denying and embracing his identity, changing from black to who knows what to black again, as though he were just changing his clothes?

In a contemporary environment where the explosive popularity of hip-hop and its particular brand of blackness has made Uncle Tomming no longer necessary, Jackson's racial ambivalence is simply out of style now. Yet, like a church taking a wayward sinner back into the fold, it seems that the many African Americans who seem to stand in strong support of Jackson have offered little resistance to his opportunistic move back to the black side, no matter how hypocritical his actions have been.

Jackson, ever the performer -- even with his freedom at stake -- could not resist the urge, so at his recent arraignment hearing he jumped on top of an SUV and stood in full view for all those adoring and equally clueless fans of his who are drawn to his every antic like moths to a flame.

Don't be surprised if Michael turns up on next on "the Shaw," Crenshaw Boulevard that is, in a black suit and bow tie, though still wearing his trademark "highwaters" with his straight locks gone, replaced by a closely cropped "Quo Vadis" haircut, selling bean pies and the Nation of Islam's newspaper, the Final Call.

Imagine the sound of his ever-so-distinct voice, as he walks up to an unsuspecting driver's car window and inquires, "Bean pie, my brotha?"

Todd Boyd is professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinema-Television. His latest book is "Young Black Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion and The Transformation of American Culture."

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