Thursday, June 25, 2009
Remembering the Other Michael Jackson
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Near the end of the first week of Michael Jackson’s infamous child molestation trial in 2005, a large group of African-American community activists and leaders gathered at a community center in Los Angeles to talk about Jackson, the trial and whether he was a target because he was a rich, successful, and famous African-American. This is the slightly paranoid tinged chatter heard whenever a black celebrity, and there have been a lot of them, wind up in the court docket for real or alleged crimes or are lambasted in the media for bad behavior.
The discussion quickly took two surprising turns. The first was an impassioned message that Jackson delivered to the group through a personal emissary. He pleaded his innocence and asked for support. This brought a hush to the room. Then there was the second turn. The discussion shifted from talk about Jackson’s trial and his sometimes on again off again, quirky, ambivalent relationship with African-Americans and his seemingly confused racial identity, to a reminder from the Jackson surrogate that Jackson wanted everyone to know that he took great delight in his charitable work. There was no message from Jackson about his media and self anointed title as the King of Pop, his musical icon status, the Grammys and platinum records he won, nor anything more than the perfunctory mention of his legal woes.
He clearly wanted the group to think of him as much more than an entertainer or a musician. Some present vaguely remembered that Jackson had made a splash in 1985 when he and Lionel Ritchie wrote “We Are the World” and performed the music as part of an all-star cast of singers and celebrities to raise money for African charities.
A few others vaguely remembered that Jackson forked over the $1.5 million that he got in a settlement from Pepsi in 1984 for the burn accident he suffered while filming a Pepsi commercial to the Burn Center at Brothman Hospital in Southern California. But that was it.
There were puzzled looks at the mention of Jackson’s charitable giving and even more at the list of the peace and social justice related activities Jackson was involved with. At that point, most in the room listened in rapt attention at the names of the more than 40 known charities and organizations that Jackson gave to during the 1990s, both individually and through his expansively named Heal the World Foundation. The foundation was mired in a messy organizational and tax wrangle that briefly made headlines in 2002. Yet, there was virtually no press mention when Jackson jumpstarted the Foundation again in 2008 with a fresh wad of cash.
This was all new news to most of those in the room about Jackson. In fact, good news for more than a few of those who had bitterly scorned, ridiculed, and mocked him. To them Jackson was little more than a Casper-the-ghost-looking bleached skin, nose job, eye shade, straight hair and gyrating hips ambiguous black man who had made a ton of money and had been lauded, fawned over, and adored by whites. This was more than reason for some blacks to view him with a jaundiced eye.
For others, though, Jackson’s wealth and fame didn’t immunize him from being tarred by the press and many in the industry as a child molester. They felt some empathy for him and his legal battle.
In the months and years after his acquittal debate raged over whether he was a washed up, health challenged, damaged goods, and financially strapped one time pop star who desperately wanted to snatch back a glimmer of his past glory. Or, whether he still had some of the trademark Jackson flare and talent left. But even that debate seemed to pass Jackson by since he knew that his every word and act was still instant news, and that there were still hordes of fans who would heap dreamy eyed adulation on him.
The quest to seal a legacy as more than just the Pop King told much about Jackson’s desire that the small but unseen and much neglected part of his life, that is his charitable work be known and remembered. That he be remembered as more than just a black man who made his living grabbing his crotch before millions. Or a man who’s other claim to notoriety was that he delighted in surrounding himself with packs of children.
The community gathering during the Jackson trial was the last time I heard in minute details the extent of Jackson’s giving and the names of the organizations that he had endorsed and helped. I was glad for that moment. This is the Jackson that not only he wanted the world to know and remember. It is the Jackson that I want to and will always remember. This is the other Michael Jackson.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard weekly in Los Angeles Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com