Michael Jackson and Race

It has been more than a week since Michael Jackson was found near death in his rented home in Los Angeles and was pronounced dead at the emergency roon. I haven’t written about Jackson because I couldn’t quite figure out an approach. I have to admit that I liked the Jackson 5, admired “Thriller” and “We are the World”, but never really got into his post-Thriller music. And like everyone else, I spent years watching the horror show that was his life.  Now we are all picking though the comments and observations of everyone who can get air time.

I don’t know for sure if he was physically abused or not. His father says not, but some of his brothers say otherwise and I’m sure they are right. He was clearly psychologically abused.  Jackson used to say he had no childhood because he had to work all the time but I heard Barry Gordy describe pick-up basketball and baseball games with the Jackson kids, his kids and other children of the Motown family. I’m not sure we will ever know the truth. But we did watch him have extensive facial surgery so that his nose almost disappeared and we watched his skin turn paler and paler. (I don’t believe anyone who says he had a skin condition – no one else in his family seems to have a similar problem.) He tried to make himself Caucasian.  I couldn’t look at him anymore.

I heard someone say he sheltered his kids so they would not have a public upbringing. They point to Diana Ross as his role model – she raised kids and few people knew she had them. But he didn’t “shelter” them. He exploited them. The famous balcony scene with the baby, “Blanket”, being held over the edge; the kids – all white, by the way – being dressed up and paraded around. No one can tell me he was trying to shelter them. And now we learn that none of the three have any of Jackson’s DNA.

Patricia Williams  has put this all together for me.  In her column in the Nation, Williams writes

To me, the most arresting image of Michael Jackson was President George H.W. Bush citing him as a role model for young black men. It was 1990 and Jackson was at the height of his fame. “Man in the Mirror” had been released two years earlier. Jackson had not yet gone into full white-face disguise, but the handsome little brown boy of his first album had long since entered the bizarro phase of rhinestone gloves. I wondered then what on earth about Jackson could ever be a role model for anyone. Musical savant though he was, Jackson was, almost from the beginning, a tragic figure–so obviously trapped in that mirror, forever reflecting what others wanted him to be.

In the wake of his death, many have hailed his “crossover appeal.” There is no doubt that his musical acumen led to the integration of MTV; but that “appeal” had a more sinister undertone. If Elvis was “the White Negro,” so Michael fashioned himself into “the Negro Caucasian.” He literally erased himself before our eyes, his nose slowly disappearing, his skin fading to ghostly pallor, his voice growing higher and whispier, his body evaporating to a dry husk of barely a hundred pounds at the time of his death. It was hard not to be fascinated by him as he molted through all possible confusions of gender, race and sexuality. But his transgressivity was more than just theater; he mimed a narrative of constant paradox and infinite suffering.

I can understand the need to appear “lighter”, “whiter”.   I had one grandmother who despaired every summer when my sister and I turned browner and browner.  She believed, as many Japaneses did, that pale skin was a sign of upper classeness and dark skin of being a peasant.

Williams again

But in the longer term, the question of Michael Jackson’s children is challenging in other ways. Like his demands for plastic surgery or painkillers, their conception was accomplished as a made-to-order, cash-on-the-barrelhead commercial transaction. According to TMZ.com and other entertainment news sites, Jackson is not biologically related to any of his three children. Reportedly, the women who gestated them carried anonymously donated eggs fertilized by sperm from secret donors. Apparently the children were all crafted to be “white” enough to match Jackson’s artfully devised if pathetically alienated image of himself. Deborah Rowe, Jackson’s ex-wife and the surrogate who carried his oldest two children to term, describes being inseminated “like a horse”; she then received around $9 million to give up any claim to them. On the birth certificate of Jackson’s youngest child, the space for “mother” is left blank.

It’s hard to imagine that Jackson would have been found fit if he had attempted to adopt children. It is interesting to contemplate the eugenic ends to which in vitro fertilization and surrogate birth are being put these days, often as a kind of end run around the formal inspection of the adoption process. How much more common will the purchase of “the perfect child” become when bioengineering for specific physical traits becomes easier and less costly? It’s not a new problem: “colorism” (preference for lighter skin) is an old problem within the African-American community. Choosing trophy spouses is a cruder version of the same game. Nevertheless, it is troubling that the law of sales is about the only context for debating this rapidly developing area. Shouldn’t we think harder about the degree to which a free market for eugenics is enabled by easy-payment contract clauses conferring parenthood through the immaculate conception of biotechnology?

We can only hope that Michael Jackson leaves a legacy that is more than his music and that through his children we can begin a serious dialogue about genetic engineering.  This would be a very positive thing to leave behind.