Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.
Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.
Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.
Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?
The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”
Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.
That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.
As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.
As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.
That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.
Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?
Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.
There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”
Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.
Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 17, 2020