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Michael Jackson And Race: He Negrefied American Pop Culture Without Using The Term Black

Commentary By David Hinds

CaribWorldNews, PHONEIX, Arizona, Tues. July 14, 2009: In life Michael Jackson avoided, at least publicly, the issues of race and racism. But his death ironically has been a sobering reminder that race and racism are very much alive in America.

There are three things about race that is often lost on the casual observer. First, race and racism have broad reaches. They are institutions that are deeply rooted in the collective American socio-cultural psyche, its political culture and its political economy.

This broad reach means that the entire society is wittingly and unwittingly consumed by them. Second, the end of de jure racism has intensified de facto racism, which tends to be covert and less discernable. It may be more accurate to describe contemporary racism as racism by code. 

What does this have to do with Michael Jackson whose untimely death shocked the world, particularly his adoring fans? Almost immediately the media grabbed the story and predictably begun to sensationalize it. While they could not avoid acknowledging that Jackson was an icon of American popular culture, they compensated by privileging what they considered to be his failings.

As Rev Al Sharpton observed the tenor of the coverage has not been the norm when major cultural figures die. What he of course was indirectly referring to was America`s ongoing racial problem. If the historic election of Barak Obama had emboldened those who would wish to erase race from the American landscape then Michael Jackson`s death must bring them out of their delusional state.

US Representative Peter King`s vicious comments about Jackson have to be seen within the context of America`s continued struggle with race and racism. The reality of elevating another Black man to the pinnacle of the American story in such a short time is too much for a society that is still haunted by race and racism. Remember, the image of `a pervert` who could `sing and dance a bit` is the image of a sub-human slave.

But Michael Jackson`s death also impacted race in a positive way. Like Obama`s election to the presidency, Michael`s death brought to the fore a public demonstration of Black dignity and respect for Black genius that is sometimes thought to be too muted.

The Black embrace and celebration of a man who did not clench his fist or talked Black Power showed the capacity of the Black community to understand that Black identity is not confined to just the Blackest or the advocates. They understood that Michael was as Black as any of us and that he showed that Blackness is not limiting. That he redefined modern American pop culture cannot be denied. He negrefied the American cultural landscape without using the term, Black. What a feat!

David Hinds lectures in Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies at Arizona State University in the USA. More of his writings on Politics in Guyana and the Caribbean can be found on his website, GuyanaCaribbeanPolitics.com