The quandary of being Michael Jackson
What does his life say about being black in America?
Whatever one thinks of Michael Jackson the person, he was unquestionably an extraordinary artist and public figure—hugely talented, more famous than most presidents, wealthy beyond measure and idiosyncratic in ways most people can’t begin to fathom.
Chico State professor Sherrow Pinder has thought long and hard and read voluminously about the entertainer, and Monday night (Dec. 12), before an audience of perhaps 75, she shared her insights in the form of the keynote lecture, “Michael Jackson and the Quandary of a Black Identity,” at the College of Behavioral and Social Science’s annual colloquium, held in the BMU Auditorium.
Pinder, who grew up in the small South American nation of Guyana and received her doctorate in 2003 from the New School for Social Research in New York City, is an assistant professor in both the Political Science and Multicultural and Gender Studies departments. She’s the author of three books, the most recent of which, Whiteness and Racialized Ethnic Groups in the United States: The Politics of Remembering, is scheduled for release this week.
Pinder’s vast reading in the literature of race and ethnicity was evident from the beginning of her talk, which began with a quotation from Frantz Fanon’s seminal 1967 work, Black Skin, White Mask. Fanon’s proposition—that the black man “not only must … be black; he must be black in relation to the white man,” thus creating a profound crisis of identity—applies fully and obviously to Michael Jackson, Pinder argued.
This crisis leads to what W.E.B. DuBois calls “double consciousness,” Pinder said, “wherein Jackson, like all blacks in America … has difficulties in developing his sense of ‘self’ in a culture that normalizes whiteness as an ontological neutral category and upholds the subject as raceless and unmarked.”
Whiteness, in other words, is made synonymous with being human, and blackness is “the other,” a constructed identity that “relies on an absolute contempt for the lived complexities of blackness ….”
Jackson’s violent reconstruction of his face and skin was the product of a desire “to anchor himself in racial particularity, neither black nor white,” Pinder stated. His longing was not “to undo blackness and retrieve toward whiteness but toward a form of racial ambiguity.”
And yet there was no escaping his blackness, she said, and “he continues to be seen through what Fanon calls the ‘corporeal malediction’ of his unavoidable blackness.” Like every black person in America, he had to “live the color line, the racial divide, which bears witness to the existential dilemma that inhabits the very core of his sense of ‘self.’”
That dilemma played out in the most public of ways. With every appearance he made, Jackson left behind a video record of his gradual transformation. Pinder quoted the scholar Cynthia Fuchs: “[H]is history is recounted through visual imagery, reconfirming that his body is the site of a visible identity, an effect of erasure, repetition, and resurrection.”
By changing his appearance, Jackson was challenging the dominant notion that natural bodies and fixed identities are prearranged and controlled. It was for this reason that society had to resist, restrict or, worse, punish and humiliate him in order to safeguard the realm of normality, Pinder said.
The ultimate example of that occurred when, during his child-molestation trial, the prosecution displayed a photograph of his penis, Pinder said. Noting that the penis “is a metaphorical substitute for the black man,” she said the display played “into whites’ fears, vulnerabilities, and hypersensitivities of the imaginary dangers of black masculinity.”
To black men, of course, whites’ association of them with dangerous sexual masculinity produces an understandable fear of castration.
Ultimately, Pinder stated, Jackson wanted out of the constraint of identification in racial terms, “begging society not to ‘black or white [him].’ ” But the “polymorphous ambiguities” that resulted from his effort to avoid categorization led people to think him “weird,” and ultimately to his demise.
Professor Pinder’s essay is scheduled to be published in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle (Ashgate Press), edited by Christopher Smit and appearing next year.