In a tribute to his status as a global icon, Michael Jackson’s memorial was streamed all over the world, but if there was ever any doubt, we know with absolute certainty that he was, in the end, a black man.
The memorial turned the Staples Center into a home-going like the world has never seen, the biggest black funeral ever. Commentators on every channel seemed bemused and flummoxed at the same time. (“No reports of any incidents,” they said with great surprise.) But I could look at the screen—from the gospel choir to all the tales out of school about the deceased. And the obvious: Middle America got dosed with a little black church on Tuesday. There was no denying, as evidenced by all the black royalty that lined up to pay him tribute, that Michael Jackson belongs to black America.
With all of his problems, we were right there for the ride. We have known that while white America is quick to love a singing and dancing black man, it has been just as quick to hang him out to dry at the slightest provocation. Michael’s soul never recovered from allegations of child molestation, and many were reluctant to believe his side of the story. Blacks ribbed him, but didn’t take kindly to jokes from others. We never gave up on him, never turned him away. It was ironic to watch the coverage, to hear all the testimony, and see Michael Jackson humanized in death more than he was in life.
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press did a study in which it was revealed that most white Americans have no idea why Michael Jackson’s death is such a big deal. After all, said Rep. Peter King, “… this guy was a pervert.” I’ve heard that sentiment expressed in certain hipster circles, and I realized that for much of America, he was just the skinny black guy who looked like a skinny white guy.
For some of us though, even with all the shots we took at him, he was a child of the Midwest—where dreams go to die—who dared to take his show on the road. He was a little black child with a dream almost no other black child could imagine. Michael was an ordinary man with extraordinary talents, but he possessed many of the same frailties and foibles as the rest of us—the same propensity to make bad choices and missteps, the same uncomfortably, dichotomous relationship with the reality of race. It may be that black people will miss the man and that white folks will merely miss the music. Because he is a black American success story, with most of it still yet to be told.
We didn’t “discover him,” like white folks did with America and breakdancing and Dave Chappelle. It seems like he was always with us. Like many other black celebrities, we know on a first-name basis, Michael grew up in our households. He was as eccentric as any other cousin at the dinner table.
We all have that family member with strange, hard-to-articulate ways. We love to make fun of them, but strangers better not, because love them we do and love them we will. No matter how they treat us, we’d never deny them a thing, whether they are just out of jail or out of the hospital or off a nod, they are still family. Our people. And you love your people, no matter what. That was Michael Jackson—our people.
He was strange, funny-acting at times, and even if we weren’t always sure where he stood, we never stopped standing by him and claiming him as our own. We loved him first, best, last. And always.
He was not just the most exciting entertainer in the history of popular music, not just a song and dance man, not merely the embodiment of human conflicts and contradictions. He was all of those things. He was loved all over the world.