click here to read part 1
Michael Jackson broke my heart. And then as time passed and the depth of his self-hatred began to manifest in increasingly lighter skin, straighter hair, a more narrow nose and countless other physical alterations, it saddened, shamed and embarrassed me. Why would I feel such strong emotions when it seemingly had nothing to do with me? Because, as author Michael Dyson has noted, Michael very literally embodied the love/hate relationship with self-image faced by many African Americans, including me. He wore our dirty laundry all over his face - and it wasn’t a pretty sight. A lot of African Americans turned their backs on him because they just couldn’t stand the sight.
But I couldn’t look away. I was still fascinated and intrigued by the ever-changing man in the mirror. As the insidious, pathological mental illness known as internalized racism wreaked its ugly vengeance on his face and body, it became very clear that Michael Jackson was sick to his soul. How could I hold it against him or hold him to a higher standard than all the other brothers and sisters I knew who suffered from the same malady? And there were plenty. Some were my own family members and I still loved them. Why not him?
It’s not like internalized racism is a rare occurrence in the African American community. Those of us who grew up hearing about ”good and bad hair” and nursery rhymes that ended with “if you’re black get back!” have dealt with it all our lives. Although many of us have learned to “love the skin we’re in,” others still struggle with it mightily. (But since they don’t often have the resources Mike had it’s usually harder to detect.) At any rate, it’s not something we’re proud of. The truth is I hated the width of my nose and fullness of my bottom lip when I was young. I didn’t start to see my own beauty until I was in my 30s. So who was I to judge?
If you’ve never heard the term “internalized racism” before, come on out from under that rock and let me break it down for you. Author Gerald Cunningham defines it as “the conscious and subconscious incorporation and acceptance of all the negative stereotypes and images from media, folklore and accounts of history that define persons of color…as inferior.” In laymen’s terms it’s just plain old self-hatred with a twist. You feel less worthy because of your race.
Some of the ways in which the illness manifests in the African American community are:
- We place higher value on members who appear more white and denigrate those who have "less white" features. We also do the reverse and target those with lighter skin as not being "black enough," not legitimate persons of color.
- We feel hopeless, despairing, and angry which can make us vulnerable to the lure of alcohol and other drugs for "relief" from those feelings.
- We turn our anger against each other in “black on black” crime.
- We criticize and beat our children in misguided efforts to "discipline" them and keep them from openly displaying pride or pleasure in their selves. In a misguided attempt to make them less vulnerable to racism we leave them more beaten down and enraged.
That last example speaks specifically to Michael’s case because Joe Jackson is said to have drilled into his head from a very early age that his nose was too wide and he was “too black” to be his son. But this article is not about blaming any one individual – not even Joe. Yes, his methods were outrageous and deplorable but Joe Jackson has his own demons. He obviously suffered from this same self-hatred and simply passed it on to his children. It happens all the time.
I’m not trying to point the finger at white people either because this really isn’t about what whites did to Michael – at least not directly. Hell, white people loved him! At the height of his career, they made up a huge portion of his fan base (and still do). They gave him their hearts and cash just like everybody else. And even though some people claimed he “transcended” race, when Michael did Off the Wall, Billie Jean and Thriller his skin was still brown. When he moon walked into history he had an oh, so Black Jheri curl and (even after a couple of operations) his nose still looked black. So the fact is that at one point in time just about EVERYBODY on the frickin’ planet wanted to look like Michael Jackson - except Michael Jackson.
He told Oprah in a 1993 interview that he kept changing his face was because he was “a perfectionist”, vehemently denied hating the color of his skin and declared, “I am proud to be a Black American. I am proud of my race, and I am proud of who I am.…..When people make up stories that I don’t like who I am, it hurts me.”
Whether or not he was proud to be Black, he clearly loved African American culture, especially the Black singers and dancers on whose shoulders he stood and the brilliant African American producers and artists he worked with throughout his career. Even as he appropriated and integrated the best from other cultures, he never lost touch with his own. He never had a problem sounding Black! He had no problem being Black. He just didn’t want to look Black.
Do I believe Michael had an extreme form of Vitiligo and Lupus? Yes, sure. Were there other treatment options for his skin condition available to him than depigmentation (blocking the enzyme that produces melanin)? Only a doctor familiar with the severity of his case could say for certain. I do know that many people find other ways to live with the disease – such as makeup. But maybe his case was so extreme that after a while it was just too hard to cover so many white patches. Perhaps he hid it for many years before he made such a drastic decision.
I don’t know the answers. But as a forgiving fan, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt regarding the fact that his skin went from cocoa brown to vampire white. The nose, however, is a different story. There’s really no getting around the fact that hacking away at your snozz until it completely collapses and leaves you with a gaping black hole in your face is just not healthy. Self-mutilation (even by surgeon proxy) is a form of mental illness.
Since his death we’ve learned that Michael suffered from numerous powerful addictions. Not only was he hooked on numerous drugs and painkillers, but he burned through money like kindling, dieted to the point of anorexia and was clearly obsessed with plastic surgery. I didn’t know how bad his other addictions were but with each “cosmetic procedure” it became more frighteningly clear to me that Michael needed help badly. So I devised a new plan.click here for part 3
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