Jackson's Complicated Ties With Black America

Michael Jackson: Full NPR Music Archive

During his long career, Michael Jackson shattered some racial barriers in the entertainment world. But the pop idol also had a complicated relationship with African Americans. Now, as his fans prepare to say goodbye, much of black America is ready to reassert its claim on him.

Every year, people come from all over the city to attend the jazz festival in Leimert Park, the cultural heart of black Los Angeles. There are always African drums and barbeque galore. Last year, there were a lot of Obama T-shirts. This year, it's Michael Jackson. Myra Jackson — no relation — is wearing one. "We love michael — we loved him, and it's very hard for us to let go," she says. "Like he said, it's very hard to say goodbye; never, never say goodbye."

But some have wondered about the radical transformations Jackson put his body through over the years. A lot of people have said, "He's getting paler, he's trying to turn away from the black community." But Myra Jackson says she doesn't believe that.

Marvin Hurrell thinks the transracial look was part of Jackson's appeal. "He was just a natural artist, sharing his soul," he says. "His soul didn't have no color. He was colorblind."

But Jackson's increasingly pale visage, his two white wives and his legal troubles in the latter part of his career did not go down well with some black fans. Chad Robeson, manning the pit at Dray's Barbeque, says he understands why Jackson might have pulled away from the black community.

"I think he had a little bit of a reason to, because a lot of black people started talking about him once he got into all the child molestations and how he started changing his face and stuff like that," Robeson says. "So I'm not mad at him if that's how people feel. I don't feel that way."

Jackson's death has revived the conversation about his life's ups and downs. At the BET Awards a few days after Jackson died, host Jamie Foxx wanted the world beyond the black community to understand that Michael Jackson was family — however he looked. "We want to celebrate this black man," Foxx said at the awards. "He belongs to us, and we shared him with everybody else."

Even many blacks who weren't Jackson fans were outraged at the rampant speculation the media engaged in about the singer's personal life and past legal troubles. In Los Angeles, visiting pastor Al Sharpton publicly chastised the media at Sunday's service at First AME Church. "When you had had other entertainers that had questions in their life, you did not degrade and denigrate them before their funeral like you've done Michael Jackson," he said.

The media should be focusing on Jackson's contributions, not his idocyncracies, Sharpton thundered: "We know that Michael fought and made a way and opened doors for us. And Michael wasn't no freak — he was a genius."

Some people thought Jackson was both. Greg Braxton is an entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Times, who has covered Jackson extensively. Braxton says Jackson's kaleidascope of hues — from brown to ghostly pale — both intrigued and puzzled the public.

"Obviously, color did play a part in Michael Jackson's persona," he says. "And it remains one of the most fascinating paradoxes of his whole legacy."

In the aftermath of Jackson's death, many black fans are concentrating on celebrating the man and his achievements. They're taking a page from Jackson's own song book: "I'm not gonna spend my life/ being a color/ so if you're thinkin' of being my baby it don't matter/ if you're black or white."

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