The Man In the Mirror: The Double Consciousness of Michael Jackson (Guest Post)

By Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, there will be much speculation into just who Michael Jackson was. Already, media outlets scramble for any iota of information they can to report on his death and the subsequent legal battles over his children and estate. In this moment however, more attention should be focused on the music he gave us and particularly in how “the man in the mirror” was not just a reflection of inner revelation, but of the duality of black life in America.

More after the jump.

While some choose to focus on his more pop and disco works, in much of his art Michael was more than his music — he was a mirror to our souls. Tackling social issues and internal struggles just as often as he tackled the dance floor. It is in this where we see W.E.B. DuBois’ notion of ‘double consciousness.’ In his timeless treatise, The Souls of Blackfolk, DuBois proclaims, “One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

In Michael’s case, one could witness the shifting of that conscious. After the release of his Off the Wall album there were subtle changes in Michael’s appearance, such as his nose and chin. Then when Bad was released we saw that Michael was nearly four of five shades lighter. He was the living embodiment of the double consciousness. Though his physical form he had drastically changed, yet musically he was still able to maintain his soul. Did we ever see MJ dance and think he was still not one of us? Did we listen to him sing and feel that he did not understand our struggle?

Michael understood the struggle of African Americans in a most diasporic sense. In 1996, he released the single “They Don’t Really Care About Us” that was a social anthem centered on political dispossession and used the issues of hate and intolerance. Ironically enough the song created more controversy for being intolerant because some of the lyrics were seen as anti-Semitic. Outside of that criticism the song was a powerful statement against oppression and used the direction of Spike Lee to send an even deeper message.

Spike Lee’s vision for the video took two parts. The first version of the song used Brazil as a backdrop and placed Michael in the middle of Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. The imagery is made more powerful and indeed is baptized in the irony that although Michael had changed his appearance to be essentially “white” he was right at home surrounded by the darker skinned people who shared his African ancestry.

The second incarnation of the video was shot in a prison where Michael was cast as leading a prison riot. Through the production flashings of real world violence, war and oppression are shown as Michael sings and emotes through chains. He points to himself as he sings, “Black man, black man. Throw the brother in jail” even though, again, his skin is a ghastly pale and his hair, long, straight and black.

Both videos, speak to larger issue outside of the self-pity and self aggrandizing that Michael was accused of promoting. The “us” in the song speaks to what Fanon called the “wretched of the earth,” this global community of the mistreated and forgotten. Journalists and critics of popular culture found “us” to be symbolic of Michael himself. They were indeed mistaken. I cannot think of anyone who heard that tune who felt that Jackson was only talking about himself. If that were the case, why shoot the two videos? Why have Lee direct it? If Michael Jackson were just concerned with self he would have only had himself in the video. Think back to the video for “Man in the Mirror.” Jackson never appears in the video — we are only faced with the face of hunger, poverty, and social responsibility.

I am not trying to make Michael Jackson into the patron saint of social action or justice, a freedom fighter, or a martyr. As the saying goes, “Dead men make convenient heroes.” I am concerned however with making dead men into demagogues of insanity or social deviance. Michael Jackson was, in the end, a man. A man filled with the same flaws that many of us have. He was an entertainer and an artist who was not divorced from the world in which he lived no matter how others may try to think otherwise.

Michael Jackson represented in so many ways the tortured spirit that resides in all African Americans at some point in our lives. That is not to say that he did not find voice and commune with the kindred spirits of those who struggle for justice outside the African Diaspora, because he certainly did. The fact is that some of us still wrestle with the demon of white acceptance, an emissary of white supremacy. Some privately seek validation of who and what they are through the eyes of the oppressor. Sometimes it is in the form of a white mate to as evidence of some warped form of success. It can manifest itself in our denial of certain cultural traditions and forms of expression as not to “embarrass” ourselves in front of those who do not understand.

DuBois argued that African Americans “simply want to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.” While we reminisce about great tunes like “Thriller”, “Beat It”, “Off the Wall” and so many others, let us take time to analyze the totality of Michael Jackson’s work. Then too, hopefully we can learn something from his life and his look. The question is, how many of us, if we had the resources, would have taken the measures to reconstruct our physical bodies as he had?

Looking back at Michael’s life, his appearance and any socio-psycho-economic, political, historical, musical, critique that may be written (including this one) I turn again to DuBois. “Throughout history,” he soberly writes, “the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.”

Michael’s brightness is being shone all throughout the world. I am hopeful we can learn more from him than just his music, but learn more about the men and women we see in the mirror.


Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is a doctorial candidate for the Department of History at Cornell University and the author of the blog Negro Intellectual.

25 thoughts on “The Man In the Mirror: The Double Consciousness of Michael Jackson (Guest Post)

  1. Very few people are making Jackson into one of the "demagogues of insanity or social deviance," so you don’t have to worry, which sounds so judgmental by the way. We simply admire his amazing talent and contributions.

  2. Alas, dukedraven–you have not seen/heard some of the vitriolic stuff I’ve seen and heard in print and elsewhere. I wish I could agree with you!Applause to the Author, Mr. Mitchell. A most thoughtfully written piece.

  3. Through his music he has touched the hearts of so many. From a child, he GAVE to the world….His Love, his Music, His Vision. ..His Childhood. The World Took so much more….his dignity, his pride, his innocence. They will never take his LEGACY. Many misunderstood him, for he was eccentric ….-But we all FELT him through his music. A True Artist causes you to feel , but a GREAT one forces you to think. The way the MSM disrespected this Brilliant man is sickening and highlights the worst in humanity. He was Great , He was Humble. He was special. I hope he may finally rest in PEACE.

  4. That’s precisely my point, Devessel. I’ve seen the "vitriolic stuff" on TV and in print. And Mitchell said he’s concerned that we’re making a god out of MJ, a tribute to "insanity and social deviance." I don’t believe this is true, for most of us. Spike Lee said yesterday that it’s circle-the-wagons time for black people in defense of Jackson. That’s what I feel like doing, protecting the man from excessive criticism.

  5. @ devessel: I’ve seen some of the same hate you have. It seems to me that 90% of that ish is coming from folks – white and black – too young to know Jackson as anything more than a tabloid punching bag. The kind of cretins who think anything older than them is irrelevant.And half the other 10% are just pure trolls who are in it to kick over anthills.

  6. you can hear it in the mainstream media….just in the wording they choose. The questions and speculation they raise.They pry into his speculation of his debt why??? are they paying it or getting some of his money…..They try to speculate aout the paternity of his children…WHY?? he was the father to these children. PERIOD. watch people come out of the woodworks claiming this and that ,.now that he is gone and can not dispute anything. It is really sad.

  7. "While we reminisce about great tunes like “Thriller”, “Beat It”, “Off the Wall” and so many others, let us take time to analyze the totality of Michael Jackson’s work. ""Tackling social issues and internal struggles just as often as he tackled the dance floor."You’re absolutely right! I think people tend to forget about how much of a humanitarian and social activist he was. In addition to the great music that he shared with us, it’s time that more people honor him for his tireless efforts to "heal the world" through his music, money, and time.GREAT POST!!

  8. I believe that it has been reported that Michael Jackson is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most generous celebrity in history. While I was surprised by that admission I was not. Over the years we have all watched the news coverage of Michael’s antics. In the early 80’s it was the home he built and his pet monkey. In the 90’s we couldn’t help but notice the drastically lighter features and uber-processed hair. And of course the allegtions of child molestation particularly little boys. We all immediately pointed to his need to appear white. I’ve heard two other theories. Theory one: he wanted to look like Doris Day. Theory Two: he no longer wished to favor his father. Now we know the entire family has hacked off at least half of their noses but the second theory seems the most likelly even if it is made up by some imaginative gossip monger. As we’ve all heard Joe Jackson was left out of his will. That leaves alot of us to ponder what kind of relationship they had or didn’t. The truth is unless we hear from Michael’s mouth we will never know why he butchered his face. What remains is what we can interpret the amazing collection of songs he gave to us to dance, celebrate, challenge and change. He genuinely cared about the plight of others and proved it by digging deep in his pockets as I mentioned before. There will never be another like him. And that my friends is a shame. If you’re on facebook Lenny Kravitz also wrote a wonderful piece on MJ’s genius.

  9. "The question is, how many of us, if we had the resources, would have taken the measures to reconstruct our physical bodies as he had?"Great point! Although Michael’s transformation was drastic, particularly with the actual lightening of his skin, he is certainly not alone in using his money and resources to alter his appearance to look more white/european. Of the many black celebrities to have had nose jobs, I’ve never seen any go for a wider nose…And of all the lace front wigs that are rampant in the industry, outside of Erykah Badu I haven’t seen any sticking with the kinky texture of their natural hair…I believe it’s the same thought patterns that influenced MJ are at work behind many of those decisions as well. Again, Michael just took it to the next level with the skin lightening.,,

  10. Michael Jackson is probably the most misunderstood and lied man that ever walked this earth. There are a lot of things that disturb me when it comes to the willful ignorance and plain stupidity people have toward Michael and his life. At this point in time, if you still misinterpret or question his boyhood, skin disease, relationship with children, and general lifestyle, then it’s truly a sad thing. Aside from so called ‘fans’, to still hear Black folks of all people fall into the traps set forth by White corporate media to further diminish his reputation makes me loose hope in our deliverance. Michael Jackson was a child of the revolution and a system buster by all accounts. He didn’t define his life by socially constructed rules and American biases. And as sensitive and insecure he may have been at times, he was most definitely a very head strong and confident individual who knew what he wanted and knew he had the right stuff to execute his plan. Michael and his family have been on everyone’s shit list since the seventies. A rich, talented, powerful and influential Black family is a huge, yet dangerous commodity. People have been trying to Black list them for decades, including their brightest, most advanced star – Michael. Michael was a message singer sent to help awaken folks; too bad his message fell on deaf ears. I mean, listen to his songs, watch his interviews, read his autobiography. Learn from the man, not the caricature. He’s trying to tell ya something, folks. Michael was too spiritually and politically mature for the White power structure and fellow powers that be. There are forces in this world inextricably linked through the media, politics, the music industry, etc. And those in power don’t want us to build and grow. But how can one educate the public when they are ruled by fear? How painful it must have been for Michael to watch so many people develop slanted opinions of him, which were mostly based on fabricated rumors and a general lack of research. The truth will eventually come out and Michael Jackson will forever be remembered as a musical, business & marketing genius… and I only hope the masses can catch on.

  11. I agree with everything Annabella said, I’ve been listening to his music a lot this past week I can see why their were forces thatt worked overtime to destroy his reputation not only did the Jackson family represent Black success but MJ’s music was definately too politically mature for the powers that be and it makes me mad that a lot of Blacks were quick to walk in the traps that the media placed however I do find solace in the fact that they were never really that successful at supressing his message

  12. Justsaying, you genuinely believe the media pushed hype that Michael actually lightened his skin in the event to look more White? Wow, after all these years I can’t believe people think he did that and more so that it’s even possible. Mike never became White for two reasons as 1) his dna never changed, thus he would always be a Black man and 2) his skin itself was never a white color, but a stark porcelain; he was void of any color and pigment cells within his skin. The world has never produced another person with such pale, colorless skin that didn’t have vitiligo. You even got fools still running around thinking it’s possible to ‘bleach’ your skin, which is scientifically impossible, so you get an F minus. Smh. However, when it comes to the idea of cosmetic surgery, that once again tells me there are some very different, troubling standards when it comes to Black community. A white person can get surgery and it’s just surgery, while a Black person does the very same thing and it’s listed as an attempt to look white, no matter how proud that person actually is to be Black, or how much they’re engrossed in black culture/history. When White people get nose jobs do we ever say they’re trying to look whiter? No. And even at that the media and simple-minded people will overstate the amount of surgery MJ had b/c it fits their agenda. There are individuals who fall in line with those who believe MJ’s had everything on his face reconstructed and filled with implants. He’s had his nose done a few times and an inexplicable dimple put in his chin. Yeah, the rumors of his ‘surgeries’ are greatly, greatly exaggerated. Look at any photo of him and his high cheek bones, square jawline, and huge eyes. They’re real, inherited from both his parents. Heck, you can see them forming in his childhood. I’m working with logic. People are only reacting to the paleness of his skin, which isn’t his fault. I can see that it’s that paleness which supposedly makes him look so different, it’s an illusion. I, personally, am not mystified by lighting, costumes & make up, pale skin or 20 years time.

  13. Annabella I believe that Jesus Christ is the most lied about about and misunderstood man to walk this earth. If people talked about and lied about a perfect Man then they will surely talk about and lie about a flawed human being like Michael Jackson.

  14. Annabella I believe that Jesus Christ is the most lied aboutand misunderstood man to ever walk this earth. If people talked about and lied about a perfect Man then they will surely talk about and lie about a flawed human being like Michael Jackson.

  15. I don’t know if you could counter a tangible, once living person of the modern media age with someone who is often looked at as a mythical being such as Jesus Christ. Plus everybody isn’t religious let alone Christian. That’s like saying, "well the Bible says…" It just doesn’t work for everybody.

  16. people are so fickle. for the past few years, so many people were saying accusatory, attacking, and critical things about jackson, and as soon as he dies…..every is talkin about how they love him and how he was a wonderful person, ect.

  17. Mr. Mitchell, I have read so many thoughtful, well written pieces about Michael’s life, struggles and triumphs. Your post is one of the most powerful, and I especially love how you included Dubois excerpts, particularly this: “Throughout history the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.” And your last line making a parallel to Michael gave me the chills also, as someone else has mentioned. I look forward to reading Negro Intellectual.

  18. Far be it from me to come off sounding like a conspiracy theorist–however I, too, have been listening to his music with more grown-up ears, especially the music released since ‘Thriller’. It is VERY message-heavy. Recall also that his videos became much less light-hearted, the imagery almost hauntingly stark. The choice of Spike Lee to direct ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ was *not* coincidental, as Spike himself recounted. It was Michael’s clear choice. We should not miss the fact that Michael was at the center of any decisions made about how his music was put out. Likely moreso than anyone else in the business save Prince nowadays, he had –plenty–of control over what he did and how he was portrayed. As few have noted here, that will get you something a bit more than rolled eyes in some circles. As we see almost every day, a powerful black man can drive certain folks completely twisted as they attempt any and all means to discredit him. I’m glad that Snob readers overall seem to be have their eyes open to that level of trickery. @Anabella and @Deana, i’m giving you an air high-five!

  19. but his children are 100% white. skin bleaching/disorder aside if michael jackson was even the slightest champion of the black experience he would have used his own sperm…

  20. It’s very funny that I ran into this article. I am a History student at Howard and this past semester I wrote a paper comparing the double consciousness, the wretched of the earth and Black Skin, White Mask. Excellent Article!

  21. Well said Cuz….well said. This piece is an excellent way to put MJ’s life into perspective where we as black people can begin to understand that his struggles were not all that far fetched from some of our own struggles in dealing with being black in America.

  22. @mikoYou don’t know why or why not a person does something, so don’t start with the weak judgement a la skin bleaching. And until you produce a DNA test along with proof you’re a geneticist, lets not accuse Mike’s children of being 100% anything other than his.

  23. I never thought this man has supported so many foundations. That’s something the public never realized when he was still alive. How can we judge the man by what we see in him.

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