For black America, Jackson was an icon who transcended race

Many African-Americans look past the controversies and cosmetic surgery to his achievements as a barrier-breaking musical star.

Dan Wood/The Christian Science Monitor
Elisa Gomez Taylor sits in a coffee shop in Los Angeles, Calif. "[Michael Jackson's] music reached out to every type of person around the world, and most of his message was about love and getting along and acceptance and respect," says Ms. Taylor, a singer and songwriter.
Chris Pizzello/AP
Host Jamie Foxx (r.) and Ne-Yo pay tribute to the late singer Michael Jackson during the 9th Annual BET Awards on Sunday.

Sitting alone in a corner coffee shop in the heart of black L.A., Elisa Gomez Taylor explains why the black community is so endeared to Michael Jackson and why that endearment will probably never stop.

"His music reached out to every type of person around the world, and most of his message was about love and getting along and acceptance and respect," says the singer and songwriter. On Sunday night, Ms. Taylor watched the 2009 Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards, which turned into a tribute show to Mr. Jackson, with host Jamie Foxx saying, "We want to celebrate this black man. He belongs to us, and we shared him with everyone else."

But, reflecting the contradictions of embracing a black icon who blanched his skin and altered his face, Mr. Foxx also joked, "Michael was all kinds of black. He was Wesley Snipes and Chico DeBarge at the same time."

Despite Jackson's cosmetic transformation and troubled personal life, it's hard to find African-Americans critical of him here – in part because many see him as a pioneer who transcended race, much like President Obama.

"Other black entertainers may have been loved in some parts of the world – Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole – but Jackson reached fans in Asia, Russia, China, and Japan," says Najee Ali, one of the city's leading black activists. "No other black ever reached that far before. He was a precursor to the Obama presidency in the sense that he didn't let race pigeonhole him."

It was the crossover success of the Jackson Five in the early 1970s – black, male teens from working-class Gary, Ind., – which launched Jackson and kept him in the hearts of fellow blacks, says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

"Four No. 1 pop singles right out of the box was really unprecedented, and black America took great pride in them," says Mr. Neal.

Jackson was one of the first black artists to get extensive play on MTV, with breakthrough videos such as "Thriller."

The fact that Jackson had to "break through" or "cross over" speaks to the unfair circumstances under which black artists functioned at that time, says Rickerby Hinds, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who works with urban high school students in hip-hop theater. He suggests it's ironic that Jackson is compared to icons such as Elvis Presley whose success relied partly on "the ability to sound black while looking white."

At Leimert Park in South Central L.A., where the black community celebrated Jackson last week, Osaris (who has no surname) plays the drum in the afternoon sun and strikes a note of dissent.

"[Jackson] gave away millions, but how much of that went to the black community?" asks the out-of-work builder and musician, adding, "He should have opened centers for black people in music and poetry centers for all people."

In recent years, says Duke University's Neal, some African-Americans had become critical of Jackson because of his cosmetic surgery and the speculation about alleged inappropriate behavior with children.

But there was never any question about the "blackness" of his music. "Jackson's art was always in conversation with 'blackness' and the black musical tradition that produced him," he says.

Songwriter Taylor says she doesn't care why Jackson changed his face. The bottom line "is that Jackson provided incredible music," she says. "Most people want to focus on celebrating him and holding him up.... He contributed and gave it all back to people of all ages all around the world. Why dig into the reason he tried to change his looks?"

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