Thursday, June 24, 2010

One Year Later Michael Jackson Still Provokes Controversy

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Pop king Michael Jackson has been dead exactly one year. But the controversy that surrounded his life didn’t end with his death. On the eve of the first anniversary of his death June 25, Latoya Jackson loudly declared that her brother was murdered. Why, because he had grown to rich, powerful, and posed a threat. Sister Latoya didn’t say who or whom the unknown he posed the threat too. But then she didn’t have to. The charge that Jackson was the victim of foul play has been bandied about by Jackson family members, legions of fans, and hotly discussed and debated on blogs and websites since that fateful day a year ago.

The murder conspiracy theories are just the tip of the iceberg of the Jackson controversy. On the eve of the first anniversary of his death, news reports were filled with rampant speculation and guesswork about Jackson’s financial woes, squabbles between his attorneys and former attorneys over who represents who and what in divvying up Jackson’s estate, and reports of more finger-pointing by Joe Jackson about Jackson’s death. This is no surprise. Jackson made news even when he didn’t do anything to make news during his life.

Jackson's infamous child molestation trial in 2005 for a time was the centerpiece of much of the chatter back and forth about Jackson’s actions. The acquittal didn’t end that. Debate still rages over whether Jackson was an innocent victim of greedy, media hungry parents, or of his own actions. Then there was Jackson's on again, off again, quirky, ambivalent relationship with African-Americans and his seemingly confused racial identity. For many blacks, 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.

Jackson for the most part stayed about the controversy. He always seemed to want much more, and that was to be thought of as much more than an entertainer, a musician, and certainly not a polarizing figure. Jackson was much more. A year later it’s worth remembering what exactly that was. The first inkling that Jackson was more than just a pampered, oddball recluse came after the burn accident he suffered while filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984. Jackson quietly forked over the $1.5 million the Burn Center at Brothman Hospital in Southern California that he got in the accident settlement. He drew accolades 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. But that was pretty much what was known about the other Jackson.

Few knew then, and many still don’t, about Jackson's charitable giving and the list of the peace and social justice related activities he was involved with. The list numbered more than fifty known charities and organizations that he 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.
In the months and years after his 2005 child molestation trial 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. Even that debate, though, 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.
A year later Jackson’s reported financial troubles, the murder-conspiracy allegations, the looming manslaughter trail of Dr. Conrad Murray, and the occasional faint whispers about his alleged questionable child relations, still badly cloud the Jackson legacy. There’s still the other Jackson, though. ; The Jackson who unselfishly gave his money, time and name for humanitarian causes. A year after his death this is undoubtedly the Jackson that he wanted the world to know and remember. It’s the Jackson that we should remember too.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).
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