Michael Jackson's Complicated Ties With Black America Without question, Michael Jackson shattered some major racial barriers in the music and entertainment industry. But the pop idol has had a complicated relationship with African Americans. Now, as plans are finalized for Jackson's memorial in Los Angeles on Tuesday, many of the old racial rifts, if not gone, at least seem to be fading.

Jackson's Complicated Ties With Black America

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During his long career, Michael Jackson shattered some major racial barriers in the entertainment world. 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 Michael, as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

(Soundbite of music)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: 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's always African drums…

(Soundbite of music)

GRIGSBY BATES: …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.

Ms. MYRA JACKSON: We love Michael. We loved him and it's very hard for us to let go. And like he said, it's very hard to say goodbye. Never, never say goodbye.

GRIGSBY BATES: Then I asked Myra a question that has come up often.

A lot of people said he's getting tailored, he's trying to turn away from the black community. Did you believe that?

Ms. JACKSON: No, I did not, not at all.

GRIGSBY BATES: Marvin Hurrell thought the trans-racial look was part of Jackson's appeal.

Mr. MARVIN HURRELL: He was just a natural artist sharing his soul. His soul didn't have no color. He was colorblind.

GRIGSBY BATES: 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 understood why Jackson might have pulled away from the black community.

Mr. CHAD ROBESON: I think he had a little bit of a reason to, 'cause a lot of black people started talking about him once he got all into the child molestations and how he started changing his face and stuff like that. So I'm not mad at him if that's how people feel. I don't feel that way, but you know…

GRIGSBY BATES: 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.

Mr. JAMIE FOXX (Actor): We want to celebrate this black man. He belongs to us, and we shared him with everybody else.

GRIGSBY BATES: 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.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Leader): 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.

GRIGSBY BATES: The media should be focusing on Jackson's contributions, not his idiosyncrasies, Sharpton thundered.

Mr. SHARPTON: We know that Michael fought and made a way and opened doors for us. And Michael wasn't no freak, he was a genius.

GRIGSBY BATES: 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 kaleidoscope of hues - from brown to ghostly pale - both intrigued and puzzled the public

Mr. GREG BRAXTON (Los Angeles Times): But obviously, color did play a part in Michael Jackson's persona, and it remains one of the most fascinating paradoxes of his whole legacy.

GRIGSBY BATES: 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Black or White")

Unidentified Man: I'm not gonna spend my life bein' a color.

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) If you're thinking of being my baby, it don't matter if you're black or white.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Black or White")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) If you're thinking of being my brother, it don't matter if you're black or white.

MONTAGNE: And you can watch videos of black comedians on Michael Jackson over the years at NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Black or White")

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