For Some, It Did Matter if Jackson Was Black or White

LOS ANGELES ~ At the height of his stardom, Michael Jackson shot to the top of the charts around the world with the sanguine message, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white.”

In his death, as in his life, the reality has been more gray.

Cultural institutions of Black America – from Harlem’s Apollo Theater to the Black Entertainment Television (BET) awards in Los Angeles – witnessed an outpouring of grief since the King of Pop died last Thursday.

But for some residents in South-Central Los Angeles, Jackson leaves a deeply complicated legacy – an African-American who tore down racial barriers with his phenomenal success but also came off as uncomfortable in his own skin.

“Michael Jackson was loved and will be missed around the world. But for black people, the views are mixed because he changed the colour of his skin,” said Bill Layne, 61, as he waited for a haircut.

Jackson, the son of a steelworker in the industrial city of Gary, Indiana, started as a child singing sensation with unmistakably African physical features. By the 1990s, his skin was much paler and his nose a different shape.

Jackson said he suffered from vitiligo, a disorder involving a loss of pigmentation. But Jackson faced constant accusations that he bleached his skin, a practice uncommon in the United States but better known in parts of Africa, notably Ghana.

Lawrence Tolliver, who has run a barber-shop in South-Central Los Angeles for four decades, noted that Jackson’s two ex-wives were white and said his three children did not appear to have any African blood.

“There’s nothing wrong with that – there are black folks who do different things – but it’s just further proof he didn’t like being who he was,” Tolliver said as he worked on a customer with an electric razor and barber brush.

“I don’t know why; maybe it’s tough being famous. But when he saw ‘the man in the mirror,’ he didn’t like who he saw,” Tolliver said, referring to the title of one of Jackson’s hits.

Yet Jackson was always intensely conscious about being African-American.

In 2002, he displayed unusually open anger by accusing long-time Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola of racism. Late in life, Jackson dabbled in the Nation of Islam, which emphasizes African-American pride.

In turn, many African-Americans have rallied around Jackson during his highly public woes. Tolliver said he even received threats when he criticized Jackson during his paedophilia trial.

After all, for much of the world, Jackson was arguably the most influential African-American until President Barack Obama.

“He’s one of the reasons why Barack Obama’s president,” hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs said at the BET awards. “He started the change in the world about how African-Americans are perceived.”

The reach of Jackson, who sold more than 750 million records, was phenomenal even in the globalization age. Influence Communication, a Canadian firm that monitors media in 160 countries, said his death made the front page in all but a dozen countries, including China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Jackson was the first African-American to appear on MTV, although he is now remembered with helping create the music network.

“In many ways, he as a person represents the possibility of transcending the idea of race,” said R. L’Heureux Lewis, an assistant professor at the City College of New York and expert on race relations.

“At the same time, Michael Jackson knew that his own transcendence as a person did not mean race was no longer important,” he said.

Lewis said Jackson was in his own way a political artist – not as a polemicist but as a humanist who conveyed his hopes through danceable tracks such as 1991’s “Black or White.”

Whatever the misgivings about the lightening of his skin, Lewis said African-Americans were overwhelmingly positive about Jackson on his death.

“You see large numbers of African-Americans celebrating Michael Jackson, which is something I think people on the outside often miss,” Lewis said.

“Though we critiqued our brother, we loved him dearly.”

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