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To the world, he was a star who transcended boundaries

Michael Jackson, in the same storied tradition as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Barack Obama, was an American icon, a touchstone for a nation revered for the possibility it offers.

July 08, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — Michael Jackson was a pop star whose talent, like that of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, turned him into a global wonder and the epitome of the ideal that a man's singular gifts make irrelevant the color of his skin.

The embodiment of eccentricity and child-like escapism, Jackson may have been ambivalent in his skin as he slipped across the color chart from black to pale. But the planet to which he endeared himself for 40 years saw in him an African American unbowed by racism and uncontained by national boundary with music and moves that struck at the core of the human spirit.

Jackson lived on a ranch called Neverland, and perhaps that is fitting: Since he died, the world, not one country, has claimed him. He was -- in the same storied tradition as Ali, Jordan, Tiger Woods and Barack Obama -- an American cultural icon, a touchstone for a country that remains revered for the possibility it offers. Each of these men is black, carrying the echo of a nation's past sins, the struggles and successes of its present, and the promise of the future.

Tucked inside their fame is a world intrigued by America's history of slavery, discrimination and the 1950s segregation euphemism of separate but equal. Even today with a black president, America, viewed from afar, carries a nearly imperceptible unease over skin color that is regarded as hypocrisy for a land that preaches democracy and human rights. That same unease is a mirror to the world's racial and sectarian prejudices, many of which run deeper and are often bloodier than those in the U.S.

From Africa to the Middle East and from China to Latin America, the inspiration of American minority icons continues to tantalize, giving hope to all who dream. Ali was brash and poetic; Jordan iron-willed and balletic; Woods persistent and graceful; Obama eloquent and charismatic; Jackson magical and ebullient.

They have, as much as Coca-Cola, JFK, Elvis and Hollywood, defined America to the world. Their names are inescapable, even along dirt roads in far-off villages and in eerie silences between battles in the woods.

During the war between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998, ragged men with bandoliers and Kalashnikovs darted out from the trees and stopped a journalist traveling in a car. Guns raised, the men whispered tensely to one another, and one of them walked around the hood to the driver's side. He tapped on the window, demanding to see documents. A U.S. passport was pulled from a pocket. The man with the gun relaxed, leaned on the car and lighted a cigarette. He listened to the sound of shelling in the distance, wiped a light rain from his face. He breathed out.

"How about Michael Jordan's jump shot?"

Then, he smiled, handed back the passport and led his armed men back into the forest. He didn't mention then-President Clinton; he didn't mention the Constitution or Washington. What connected him to the journalist, what defied the limits of language and culture, was a man who could float so beautifully toward a basket. That image was captivating and insoluble, a shorthand understood by all, belonging as much to an ethnic Albanian guerrilla as to an American wandering in a nasty place.

Jackson commanded that same international appeal. From the moonwalk to "Billie Jean" to the sequined glove to the voice that could both sting and soothe, Jackson needed no subtext. Like many black music stars, such as Aretha Franklin and the Supremes, he resonated with white audiences. But Jackson -- aided by a technological age and theatrical flair -- pushed it beyond that to encompass just about every nationality.

The world at times embraced America's black legends long before their native land accepted them. Jazz musicians in the 1940s and '50s found respect and repose from discrimination by traveling to the clubs and haunts of Europe. And jazz, ironically, was one of the art forms the American government used during the Cold War to lure those in the communist East toward the West. Hip-hop is marketed much the same way today; turn on an Arab music video station and the rappers may not be mouthing off about guns and whores, but they're rolling with attitude and scatting with verve.

Obama has turned the American race rubric yet again. His election was a sign -- a re-affirmation for many across the world -- that the words scrawled on the United States' founding documents have meaning. Not just for black entertainers, musicians and athletes, but for a statesman who reached the most powerful office on the planet. The latter didn't seem possible to the world four decades ago when a little boy with a big Afro, bell-bottoms and a voice with wisdom well beyond its years danced and sang about love and ABCs.

It's difficult to escape Jackson's likeness these days, whether of him or those who strike his pose. The other night on Dubai TV, a commercial came on: An actor in profile held two delicate fingers to a tipped fedora, his foot arced on a lighted stage as if ready for dance or flight. The ad was selling shampoo, but the image was instantly universal, more recognizable than anything on the shelf.


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