"Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much."
When Paris Katherine Jackson tearfully spoke those 26 words at Michael Jackson’s memorial service, she did more to humanize him than any other speaker at the service. But she also turned on their heads the uncomfortable public conversations Americans have been having these last two weeks about Michael’s complicated relationship with his blackness and black folks’ complicated relationship with him.
Suddenly, once seemingly pertinent questions—Are those children really his? Are they even biracial?—no longer mattered. Well, at least not as much. What mattered was that a child, clearly in pain, stood before 20,000 people and millions of television viewers, and expressed in a profound and simple way that Michael Jackson was her dad, that he loved her and that she loved him. We could see that her love for him was real; that she probably couldn’t care less that he could moonwalk, that he sold millions of albums, that his performances made young girls around the world faint and cry with joy, or that he could probably afford to buy her anything she wanted and probably did.
“… And I just wanted to say I love him so much.” Paris buried her head in Janet Jackson’s chest after uttering these words. Hearts melted. She became everyone’s child. The Jackson group-hug on stage showed a real family in real pain. We all wanted to hug her, to wrap her in a “We Are the World”-type collective embrace.
The sight of a young, white, or cream, or olive, or tan-colored girl—it’s a matter perspective now, I guess—being comforted by her very brown uncles and aunties was something that seemed at once unsettling and perfectly normal. At that moment, I was struck by the thought that perhaps Michael Jackson had finally accomplished, in death, what he’d tried so hard to do throughout much of his life—to blur racial lines, to make them so amorphous that they no longer act as barriers to people seeing each others’ humanity. Maybe it was only in that moment, but what a powerful moment it was and who knows what kind of lasting effect it might have.
I still have to admit that it bothered me that Michael didn’t choose a black woman to bear even one of his children. I know I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed. It was a decision that signaled he had no interest in dark-skinned babies. (And to think I considered myself his secret girlfriend for much of my adolescence.) He sang “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white,” with such unmitigated joy that you almost believed he meant it, even though you knew better. How could he when he seemed to so badly crave a Eurocentric facial aesthetic, a white visage?
And yet I never doubted Michael loved black people. I just never believed Michael loved his black self. I know, we all know, that the reasons are varied and complex, and we don’t need to belabor them anymore. It’s not like we are going to wipe away those sweet memories of young Michael in bell-bottoms and suede vests belting out “Who’s Loving You?” and “ABC” and “Rockin’ Robin” and other hits with so much heart.
That’s why on Tuesday, with young Paris’ help and hearts heavy with loss, black people had a collective racial reconciliation with Michael and gave him a pass for not being more like his musical hero, James Brown, who told the world in song and deed “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Paris being comforted by her black family helped us see that her father had not really “transcended” race—not that most black people believe such a thing is even possible—but that the love he poured into his music and showed his family and friends was truly transcendent. I hope Michael left the world knowing that he was loved by his diehard fans of all colors and nationalities, but that he was especially loved by an extended black family of millions who grew up on his songs and embraced him long before he became world famous and colorless.
Maybe now his tortured soul can finally rest in peace.
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.