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Archive for June, 2009

Here’s a piece that I posted earlier at UrbanFaith.com.

Let the wall-to-wall Michael Jackson coverage continue. As soon as I heard the tragic news about his passing yesterday afternoon, I knew it would mean nonstop fodder for all the CNNs and WGCIs and TMZ.coms (sorry, Farrah). This will be just like Princess Di’s death, I thought. And for a brief moment, it was just as shocking and unexpected. Then, after a few minutes, the horrible truth sank in: Michael Jackson had already died many years ago. Or at least that’s how it felt.

I posted that thought on my Facebook page and was surprised to see a steady stream of friends chime in with their agreement. “Around ’92, I’d say,” wrote my college friend Christopher. “You got that right, he’s been gone for a good long time,” added Karin, another former classmate. “Yes,” continued my work colleague Bruce, “it feels like we’ve already grieved his death … as sad as the news is.”

Maybe it was around 1992. That’s when the plastic surgeries and ever-whitening skin began to morph him into something more noticeably un-real. Or perhaps it was back in the early ’70s, when, under the harsh rule of a demanding stage parent, he was not allowed to be a child, but then years later didn’t seem to understand how to be an adult, either.

By the late ’90s, the “ABC” – Off the WallThriller versions of Michael Jackson were clearly notions of the distant past. I’ll never forget the day in 1997 that my wife came home from her job as a daycare worker and told me she had overheard a discussion among the 7 and 8-year-olds about Michael Jackson. After she offhandedly referred to him as an African American, the kids’ eyes widened in disbelief: “You mean Michael Jackson is black?”

Many of us used to think that Michael Jackson’s constantly changing looks were the result of his desire not to be black. The narrowed nose, straightened hair, and lightened skin all suggested a person who was attempting to escape his genetic fate. Yet, Jackson always spoke about being proud of his racial heritage. And his continued influence on the black urban and hip-hop artistic communities was immense, despite the fact that he appeared to be running away from his race.

Could it be, as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page has suggested, that Jackson was not trying to escape his race so much as the image of his father that he saw in the mirror?

The truth is, despite all the controversy and dysfunction and tragedy in his life, Jackson was one of the great pop-culture reconcilers of our time. Like Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Nat King Cole, and Bill Cosby (as well as many others), Jackson broke down racial barriers by virtue of his talent and ability. I recall seeing white girls in 7th grade walking the halls with the Thriller album in their hands and thinking, Wow, white people like Michael Jackson too? Before that, in my limited 12 or 13 years of life, I had never seen white people so publicly claiming a black pop star as their own. But for the ’80s generation, Michael Jackson demolished the walls. Everyone, regardless of race, talked about the “Thriller” video or Jackson’s legendary performance on the Motown 25 TV special or whatever Jackson’s latest fashion statement happened to be.

Of course, we also talked about his problems and freakish behaviors later on. But my sense is that there always was more sympathy than condemnation for this man whom so many once wildly celebrated.

The outpouring of sadness and grief after the announcement of Jackson’s death yesterday proves that he still occupies a special place in our culture. Folks whom I would’ve never imagined cared about Jackson have chimed in on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs with notes of sympathy and fond memories of “the King of Pop.”

I was about 8 when Elvis died in 1977, and I remember not knowing much about who the guy was until that day. Suddenly, I received a whirlwind education on “the King” and his importance in music and pop culture. In death, Elvis Presley became real to me. I suspect it may be that way for many younger folks today as the tragic figure that Jackson became in his latter years takes a backseat to the musical legacy of one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known.

No one knows what the condition of Jackson’s spiritual life was at the time of his death, whether or not he’d made peace with God. The assumption is he was still searching, still unfulfilled, still trying to recapture the success of his ’80s heyday while trying to escape the fallout of that same success.

Today, we fondly remember our favorite Michael Jackson songs: “I’ll Be There,” “Rock with You,” “Beat It,” “Black or White.” We celebrate the joy he brought us as an artist. But we also pray that, perhaps in his final moments of life, he was finally able to see things clearly.

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DO_THE_RIGHT_THINGIt’s hot in Chicago. Summer is officially doing its thing. Like so often with the weather here, one day you’re shoveling snow from the driveway, the next you’re listening to the A/C crank up and praying that the sump pump kicks in after the latest monsoon.

So here we are again in 90-degree heat and humidity, and I’m thinking, How appropriate, given that this summer marks the 20th anniversary of Spike Lee’s classic and enduringly controversial film Do the Right Thing. The movie first hit theaters on June 30, 1989.

Those of you who have seen the film will recall that it takes place on one of the longest and hottest days of the summer in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyevesant neighborhood. Lee begins the film slowly and deliberately, painting a picture of a predominantly black neighborhood made up of a diversity of people, characters, and races that each bring something unique to the urban landscape. It’s not Norman Rockwell harmony, but it’s a real-life community where disparate parts manage to get along. But, as is usually the case when it comes to race relations in America, tension and unrest are simmering beneath the surface.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, please forgive (or avoid) the spoilers that follow the original 1989 trailer below.

Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man for Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American whose restaurant has been on the same corner since old days (i.e., before the neighborhood became mostly black). The blacks in Bed-Stuy have a sort of love-hate relationship with Sal’s Pizzeria. While it’s nice to have a spot for tasty pizza in the ‘hood, there’s an ambivalence about the fact that one of the community’s primary businesses is owned by a white man. During the film’s climax, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) confront Sal to demand he put a black face among his all-white wall of fame. A fight ensues, and when the police show up, Raheem is choked to death by an NYPD officer, which sets off a horrible riot.

This 1989 review by critic Roger Ebert offers a good overview of the movie. Suffice it to say, Spike Lee’s film, like any good piece of art, is open to a variety of interpretations. He doesn’t tell you what to think, though it’s easy for some to come away with the sense that, ultimately, the film is a call for some degree of black nationalism and militancy—or for black folk to at least keep the option available.

An obvious question for us today is, how does Do the Right Thing play in this so-called “age of Obama”? Is it still relevant? I’ll resist calling this era “post-racial,” for I’m sure many of you could quickly tick off a thousand reasons why it’s not. But we’ve clearly moved into a different and better era of racial understanding from what we faced in America 20 years ago, right? (Let the debate begin.) We’ve survived Rodney King, the O.J. trial, Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and the first couple seasons of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. What’s more, we elected an African American president.

Ironically, it turns out that Do the Right Thing was the film that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date, and it consequently holds a special place in their personal history. Newsweek wonders why this seemingly minor but potentially significant fact didn’t get played up more by the media during the presidential race last year, when Obama’s opponents were looking for any and all evidence of his racial and political militancy. And TheRoot.com thinks it’s odd, though not surprising, that Obama himself rarely mentions that aspect of he and Michelle’s first date. (Though, when one listens to Obama’s ruminations on race in America today, you can hear his desire to acknowledge the multiple points of view that usually exist on the different sides of the color and class line in our nation.)

Also at TheRoot.com, journalist Natalie Hopkinson offers a fascinating reassessment of the film’s message and legacy. While she concedes the film’s cultural importance—and confesses that she reveled in the righteous indignation that the film inspired in blacks who had felt oppressed and wrongly profiled for much too long, in retrospect Hopkinson questions the film’s underlying message of angry black nationalism. She suggests that what will be needed for true racial uplift today is not a spirit of racial separation but one of multiracial cooperation. She writes:

In 1989, Do the Right Thing rightly railed against police brutality and institutional racism that reduced the life chances and quality of life of many black people in urban areas. If combating those conditions, which still exist, is what we mean by fighting the power, I will be the first to put on boxing gloves.

But 20 years on, Buggin Out’s kind of fight feels futile. Symbolically and literally speaking, we are the Power. We need Sal’s Famous Pizzerias in the neighborhood, and we need the Mookies of the world to open their own businesses, too. It’s messy. It’s sometimes tense, often uncomfortable. We won’t always understand each other. But come on back. We need that slice.

Hopkinson’s essay, I believe, rightly calls us to “do a new thing”—that is, to allow forgiveness and solidarity to trump our lingering racial resentment, bitterness, and fear. But I don’t think her change of heart about Do the Right Thing necessarily diminishes what the film was trying to do those two decades ago.

Ultimately, Spike Lee was challenging his viewers to wrestle with their prejudices and misconceptions about the American condition. To his credit, Lee understood that this would mean different things to different people, and provoke different responses based on each person’s life experience. In that way, Do the Right Thing was—and is—a bold piece of filmmaking and a disturbing but effective tool for an honest discussion of racial reconciliation in America.

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