Michael Jackson : From ‘being’ to ‘becoming’


So many millions of words have been written about Michael Jackson [MJ] over the past 10 days most of which I confess I have avoided. However I feel compelled to respond to a recent post by Blackman Vision [BMV] “Michael Jackson did not want to be white”. The post is draws on a chapter “Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson” by Kobena Mercer in “Welcome to the Jungle” and on the politics of pigmentocracy.

Mercer explores the idea that Michael Jackson changed his skin colour not to be white, but to be a light-skinned Black man. Jackson’s whole remodelling of his hair, face and skin was to make him more lovable and marketable to a wider audience. Did Jackson believe it was easier to sell himself more successfully as ethnically androgynous than ethnically unambiguous to a global pop audience? The pop charts are not usually dominated by dark skinned Black men.

BMV goes on to say that those who believe that MJ was trying to be white are missing the point and fail to understand the politics of pigmentrocracy within the African Diaspora whereby the desire is not to be white but to be light. She also comments on MJ’s move towards an androgynous gender which raises it’s own particular challenges in the largely “plastic hypermasculinity” which exists in the “African American / Caribbean family. Whilst I believe both these points to be true, my response is to the former for which I feel there is the need for a deeper reading.

What are the signs of Blackness? Is skin colour sufficient or do we as Bell Hooks writes in “Reel to Reel” need to look beyond the body to political and [cultural] consciousness? Quoting filmmaker Isaac Julien she writes

“Blackness as a sign is never enough. What does the Black subject do, how does it act, how does it think politically…… being Black isnt really good enough for me. I want to know what your cultural politics are”

Although, here Julien is speaking about “radical representations of black subjectivities” in film, I am comfortable in using this to examine the meaning of MJ’s transformation from black to light. If we take political and cultural consciousness as one of the ‘signs of Blackness” where then does this leave MJ’s slow physical transformation. A transformation which because it was always juxtaposed against his dance moves and music which is wholly rooted in Black American musical tradition, speaks to the complexity of race and representation. How does political consciousness work side by side when feeding into pigementocracy and the desire to be light skinned and delete one’s Black features?

BMV’s makes the point that MJ’s father, Joe Jackson, told him he was ugly with a big nose and that he was also teased by his brothers. This abuse together with the physical punishment he experienced must have had an affect on MJ. Absolutely, I am sure it did. But how many Black kids at home and in the playground have not had similar experiences of growing up with parental and peer jokes and slurs about their skin tone and features, having to deal with internalised racism in a wash of whiteness? If we are truthful the abuse is everywhere – too “black” or too “light”. We all have the choice of feeding into these racism’s or refusing. MJ in particular, as a ‘star’ of immense talent and success, was in a far better position to overcome the politics of colour than most others. I don’t accept that in remaining his original self would have impacted on his success.

By the time “Off The Wall” was released in 1979 he was already heading for the pinnacle of stardom. Are we saying that musically the album, Thriller (released 1983) was not sufficient enough to raise him above his peers past and present and that he had to remodel himself to make him “more lovable and marketable to a wider audience”? We also need to see MJ’s transformation in the historical context of Black American musicians and actors who underwent various “whitening” processes such as Nat King Cole whose straightened hair and use of make up and photography to lighten his skin and thereby make him more acceptable to a white audience. James Brown and Miles Davis are other musical icons who changed their appearance by straightening their hair but their blackness was never under question. How could it be? The difference with MJ is he is of a much later generation plus his transformation was a far far more radical one with drastic changes to his hair, face and pigment. There is some element of repression and self-abuse in the actions MJ chose which caused him, so we are told, to rely on pain killers and anesthetics.

MJ made a personal choice and I am not prepared to make judgment or cast any slur on the choices he made as to the degree of his Blackness. I believe them to be entirely personal – we define ourselves, how we perceive our bodies and our heritage. In “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” Stuart Hall argues that there are two kinds of cultural identity – identity of being which is part of a belonging to a shared, identity….

“…. collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’, which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common.

The second type of identity is the identity of becoming, an identity of the future. Whilst recognising our similarities as in identity of being, the identity of becoming relates to the

critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute ‘what we really are’; or rather – since history has intervened – ‘what we have become’.

The point of Hall’s argument is that it is only from the “second position” of identity as an expression of discontinuity that we can begin to understand “the traumatic character of ‘the colonial experience. In this instance, the transformation of MJ from being black/ black to becoming black / light but always remaining a Black man – a fusion of the ‘being” and the ‘becoming’.