From the Voice Archives: Stanley Crouch on the Cross-Cultural Continuity of Michael Jackson in 1987
In honor of Michael Jackson, we're raiding our archives. Here's Stanley Crouch, writing in response to twin hit pieces on Jackson (by Greg Tate and Guy Trebay) published in the Voice two months prior.
Man in the Mirror
By Stanley Crouch
November 17, 1987
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.