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.
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.