Black Americans Embrace The King Of Pop

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Black America has long had a complicated relationship with Michael Jackson. While hailed as a star who crossed color lines, Jackson has endured much criticism for his eccentric behavior and physical transformation. But in the wake of his death, New York Times journalist Marcus Mabry says, African Americans are embracing the King of Pop without reservation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to spend just a few more minutes now talking about the King of Pop. Fans, family members and fellow entertainers paid tribute to Jackson at last night's BET awards. Here's host of the program, Jamie Foxx.

(Soundbite of "BET Award show")

Mr. JAMIE FOXX (Actor): No need to be sad. We want to celebrate this black man�

(Soundbite of people shouting)

Mr. FOXX: �this black man, he belongs to us. And we share him with everybody else.

MARTIN: Since Michael Jackson's death last Thursday, the outpouring of well wishes to the Jackson family, and fond memories by fans, are also accompanied by some ambivalence, what with lingering questions about his ever more eccentric behavior over the years. African-American fans may have been among the most ambivalent, as Jackson repeatedly altered his appearance and was accused of inappropriate conduct toward children. But that ambivalence seems to have washed away now, at least with African-Americans, in the wake of Jackson's death, New York Times reporter Marcus Mabry reports. He wrote a piece in today's paper titled �Black Reverence for Jackson Is Now Unreserved.� He's here with us to talk about it. Welcome Marcus, thank you for talking to us.

Mr. MARCUS MABRY (Reporter, New York Times): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You wrote, since his death on Thursday many African-Americans have embraced Mr. Jackson without ambivalence. In scores of interviews across the country over the weekend, few expressed the kind of resentment some once had for his strangeness, his changing appearance, his distance from the cherubic Michael of the Jackson 5. What caused you to notice it? Were you surprised by sort of the outpouring of emotion directed toward Michael Jackson, since as we discussed, his last couple of years have not been easy ones.

Mr. MABRY: Absolutely. I was both surprised and not surprised, Michel, because on one hand, we know, certainly those of us who are black or who are familiar with the African-American community, that we have this kind of phenomenal capacity to forgive. And it often comes out whenever we feel that someone, particularly from our community, is assailed or under attack by the larger community or by white America, in particular. We saw that certainly with Michael Jackson when it came to those child molestation charges. And many African-Americans at that point, they're already feeling distant from Michael, said, well, you know, he's being used here, he's being abused here, he's being a victim of a kind of white power structure or white opportunist.

And that actually was something we kept finding in our interviews over the weekend. So I was not totally surprised, �cause we do that. We protect our own when times are hard and the chips are down. And certainly in death, we often, you know, don't speak ill of the dead. But what really struck me was you could see it in the commentary, from the time he passed. There was always - with a huge number of the white commentators and white journalists and white entertainers.

Even those who were close to Jackson. No, not the closest to Jackson. But amongst a lot of those white commentators, there was this celebration of his achievements and his pioneering role in pop culture and pop music. And there was always almost an inevitable but, afterwards, in which they would then hold forth about the negatives in his life and the accusations. We did not see that amongst African-Americans. Now there were a few black voices who did have that but in there, too, said that, well, we've to look at this man's whole life here and positive and negative.

But Jamie Foxx so captured what really has been the predominant feeling amongst African-Americans since Mr. Jackson's unexpected demise. When he said what -that sound you played at the beginning - when he said that at the beginning of the BET Music Awards last night, it was amazing, it was emphatic, it was unequivocal. This is a black man, he said. And he repeated it.

MARTIN: So my question to you, Marcus, is this outpouring toward Michael Jackson a reflection of him or is it more a reflection of the African-American culture, which says that accomplishments are to be celebrated, particularly amid tragedy? And that the troops will rally, as it were, when a member of the community is perceived to be under attack?

Mr. MABRY: I think it's exactly right. I think it's largely, largely a reflection of African-American culture and the way that we have this ability to do this - and we often do it, and have over history. I think that's absolutely true. On the other hand, though, I do believe, as you were saying with Reverend Jackson, we have rediscovered kind of the pioneering role of Michael Jackson. And again, this is not just African-Americans but throughout all the commentary, I think that's been made, all the comments that's made since he passed away.

We've rediscovered his role as a black pioneer in entertainment, everything from - as you were saying - he kind of broke the - he was a Jackie Robinson of MTV, he broke down the color barrier there. And it's a ridiculous thing - it makes you angry, really, that MTV ever had a color barrier. If it weren't for African-American artists, imagine what revenues would look like at MTV and then Viacom. And you know�

MARTIN: And�

Mr. MABRY: �makes you crazy.

MARTIN: I'm going to have to leave it there. I'm going to just quote one more line from your piece. And we'll have a link on our Web site, if you want to read the piece in its entirety. You wrote that Mr. Jackson was to music what Michael Jordan was to sports and Barack Obama to politics - a towering figure with crossover appeal, even if in life, some of Mr. Jackson's black fans wondered if he was as proud of his race as his race was of him.

Marcus Mabry is an international business reporter for The New York Times. He joined us from our studios in New York. As I said, we'll have a link to his entire piece on our Web site. Marcus, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MABRY: Thanks for having me.

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