What Does Michael Jackson’s Memorial Say About How We View Race?

By Guest Columnist Jul 08, 2009

by Christina Chen As Michael Jackson’s memorial played on CNN yesterday, I asked my Facebook friends for their reactions, big or small, on how the service spoke to the man’s legacy.

"didn’t know MJ was so close to Brooke Shields (who, for the majority of her speech I ignorantly thought was maria shriver). It was really sad when his kid spoke, but then became trashy when CNN replayed it several times immediately after the funeral was over." "It really felt like an honest memorial, there were moments of tenderness and real sweetness. My one caveat, I just felt like Al Sharpton’s speech was a little too much, what he said was important, but i cant stand that yelling preachy tone, and just him in general." "I agree people have been using quite a lot of superlatives when talking of MJ since he died. I think for many black people he was the first black artist to reach such mass appeal, and I think, what I always loved about Mj was he was a step above he did everything bigger and better and … louder and more memorable fashion, i thought thats what Magic was getting at that his greatness inspired him to be better and a step above in what he did, and not that michael jackson literally gave him point guarding tips."

Let me make this absolutely clear: I am not among the two out of three Americans who, according to the latest Pew Research figures, are suffering from MJ fatigue.  I consider myself to be within the company of millions of social networkers who, in letting the tears flow and barraging friends with multitudinous, cloying messages of MJ love, caused near-catastrophic outages of Twitter, Google, Wikipedia, and TMZ the day of MJ’s passing.  Yep… on June 25th, we were siltin’ up ur series of tubez, prompting CNN to quip: "Jackson dies, almost takes Internet with him".  I have "Butterflies" and "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" on loop right now, but on the real… I’m not gonna front like I was a real fan (unlike all the folks coming out of the woodwork to "claim" a piece of Michael without having lent him their support when he was alive).  As a child of the late 80’s and 90’s, I was much more familiar with sister Janet’s music and erhm, her many non-musical ventures (I liked Poetic Justice, okay?!! ugh!). Michael, in the eyes of many people of my generation, was an inverted caricature of himself; it’s probably sacrilegious to mention now, but to many of us younger folks, MJ was a walking pasquinade of a man whose scandal, debt, and anatomical idiosyncrasies seemed to overshadow any sincere appreciation of his craftsmanship and art.  As a result, I’ve had a lot to discover, and I’ve become delighted by all things MJ – I’m relishing the conversations I’m having with co-workers and friends who avow a genuine reverence for the Gloved One.  Many have commemorated him with beautiful tributes and recollections of an era from which I am a generation once removed.  The folks here at ARC have described him as an artist who drew universal appeal, making music that flew in the face of white musical convention, and defied industry norms of pejoratively pegging Black entertainers as producing exclusively "Black music". Another co-worker informed me that, interestingly, MJ had registered as the "most charitable star" in the Guinness Book of World Records – not surprising, given his authorship of the oft-parodied "We Are the World" charity single.  Al Sharpton, during yesterday’s memorial service, went as far as to credit Michael with creating an environment in which Obama’s historical ascent to the presidency was possible.    All of this to say that I have realized – by way of exchanges that have granted me invaluable insight into the breadth of MJ’s influence, compounded by the media’s burgeoning restoration of MJ’s humanity – that I’ve been missing out… on the man, the music… on Michael, and how the world he came into was different from the one he left.  Worse yet, I’m wagering that a lot of younger folks have too.  To those of you in high school, college, recent grads, the "Millenials" – did we let MJ be misunderstood?  What’s your take on… well, everything? The 24/7 news coverage, the memorial services, the sudden redemption of MJ’s music… the racial appraisal, reclaiming and embrace of MJ as a Black man and the controversy therein. What does Michael’s memorial say about how we view race? Christina Chen is an intern for the Applied Research Center.