We live in fascinating times, as witnessed by the media’s gnawing and gnashing of teeth after the death of Michael Jackson. For the record, I still can’t believe the media response. He was even celebrated beyond the death of an all-American blonde bathing suit icon in the form of Farrah Fawcett.
Her death was an afterthought, an “Oh BTW” compared to the grief tsunami that transpired over Michael Jackson. The mind boggles.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama continues to fascinate with every speech, every gesture, and every press conference. One still can’t look at the TV when his visage appears without saying, “WTF!”
Two men, both Black, who have garnished untold amounts of anonymous love, energy and overall goodwill from a dazed, confused, and rapturous public? What gives?
Both Michael Jackson and Barack Obama are masters of self-deconstruction who possess enormous shape-shifting talents.
Michael started as a young Black child from Gary, Indiana, with prodigious talents. His talents far outshone his other family members to the extent that he suffered the wrath of enormous jealousies from brothers and father alike.
Michael’s father, Joe, was in the home but from all accounts was a distant, cold-hearted, disciplinarian figure. Michael performed to his utmost ability to escape the beating of his father’s belt and to acquire the paternal love and respect that he would never receive otherwise.
It’s a sad tale but one we see played out every day in America. Joe Jackson was there, but he was never really a father. Unfortunately, without Joe, there wouldn’t have been a Michael Jackson.
Barack Obama never really knew his father. He was hardly ever around, and then he disappeared altogether. Barack was raised by a White mother and grandparents and grew up outside of the cocoon of the Black community. He never really felt an affinity with a particular ethnic group, which enabled him to find family with the greater human community.
If all Blacks grow up in a White world, then Barack literally grew up in a White cocoon: always the outsider, always the other. He had to find creative methods to build bridges between people.
Later he worked in the trenches of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods, joined the Black church, married Michelle, a descendant of African American slaves, and through these actions was made whole. He was blessed with and nurtured a plethora of intellectual and creative skills. All he needed was an outlet.
Michael Jackson was intensely teased during his childhood about his weight, the width of his nose, and the color of his skin. Haters can be cruel. So when he became a man he decided to change it, shape-shift it, fuggidaboutit. If his nose were too wide, he could pinch it, lift it, and turn it up. If his skin were too brown, he could lighten it. If he were too fat, he could stop eating.
If his hair were too nappy, he could straighten it.
He could deconstruct his male self to create a quasi-female self basking in the incongruity of androgyny. He could even put a Kirk Douglass dimple in his chin. He could do what he damn well pleased, and “F” everybody else. After all, it was his body to deconstruct at will.
Barack Obama already started as a deconstructed Black man. Born of a White Midwestern mother and an African immigrant father, raised in the Midwest, Hawaii, and Indonesia, everything about Blackness as we’ve come to accept it in this country was antithetical to Barack Obama’s life narrative. So Obama had to deconstruct his life as lived to reconstruct it as a “typical Black man from Chicago” and then later to sell his narrative as an originally deconstructed Black man to White America for mass consumption.
After Michael’s cosmetic deconstruction, he then went on to make the greatest selling albums in the history of the recording industry. After Barack Obama’s deconstruction, he became the first Black President of the United States of America.
In a way, this is nothing new. Jimi Hendrix did it not so long ago to become arguably the greatest guitarist ever. Prince’s talents for deconstruction are legendary. The film Purple Rain was a literal celebratory orgy of Black deconstruction.
And perhaps one could say that life in the Midwest or other various Black cultural outposts help to engender deconstruction affinity. As a Black artist in Minneapolis, or an artist who happens to be Black — take your pick — I’ve often felt as if I lived a life in exile.
Having been born and raised in the Black streets of West Philly, I was in the thick of it; anything could pop off at any time: “He was shot.” “He was arrested.” She got raped.” “He robbed a liquor store.” “That White boy called me a n***er!” You were always ready to go and armed for battle. That’s just the way Black life was in the cold wilderness of North America.
Then when I lived in Europe as a soldier in the U.S. Army, I learned that life didn’t have to be mired in race and friction. Race didn’t have to dominate one’s existence. In America, I was Black first and American second. In Europe, I was American first and Black was the cherry on top.
If I met a woman and she appealed to me, I didn’t have to check her racial credentials before sleeping with her. If I met a man whose company I enjoyed, I could trust that we could be true friends.
Europe showed me life outside of the forest, for I was truly so deeply entrenched in the poisonous racial cauldron of America that I couldn’t see the trees. I was never the same again.
After returning from Europe, I realized why I always felt out of place.
The Philly streets conspired to give little Black boys and girls a constricted view of the world. There was no possibility of intellectual interrogation or deconstruction. There was only survival: racial and literal. I suspect Jimi Hendrix realized this, as did Prince, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Charlie Parker, Eartha Kitt, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Barack Obama and a host of others.
The potential altitude gained by Blacks in this country is commensurate with their collective ability to break through boundaries of racial demarcation and identification. That is freedom. White America responds to a deconstructed Black image because it doesn’t present itself as an angry narrative. One can be pro-Black while not being anti-White and at the same time not hate one’s own Black self.
Michael Jackson struggled with this, and he paid a macabre price. Barack Obama got it right. Pitch perfect.
Ralph Remington is the Minneapolis 10th Ward city council member. He welcomes reader responses to Ralph.Remington@ci.minneapolis.mn.us.
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