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Way "Black" When: Remembering Michael Jackson

By       Message John Fountain       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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By John W. Fountain

With a caramel-complexion and perfect cotton-candy Afro, he won the affections of every little girl in my neighborhood and became the object of my envy: A little black boy named Michael Jackson--he and his dancing, singing brothers with their Dentyne smiles and bell-bottoms flare.

"The Jackson Five, the Jackson Five!" I can still hear my little sister and my girl cousins scream whenever they saw the Jacksons on television or caught wind that they were coming to town for a concert. "I love, Mi-i-i-chael," they'd say, half singing.

Even back then, in the late-1960's, long before "Thriller," it was clear that Michael, of all the Jacksons, was "the man." And I was hardly the only black boy who envied or wanted to be like him.

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Except I couldn't mirror his dance moves no matter how hard I tried. Nor would my hair, coarser and shorter, ever grow to such lion-like splendor as his. And, due to my own genetic makeup-I was a few shades darker-I could never overcome the sisters' preference for fairer-skinned brothers-instead of coffee-bean-black brothers like me.

I could play a little guitar and sing a lick, though.

In my pre-pubescent years, me and a couple of friends formed a group we called the "Funky Souls." Our biggest gig, was at our neighborhood elementary school, where we played the few songs we knew for a couple of classes of small children. They jumped up and down and called us the Jackson Five, even though there were only three of us. How cool it was to be mentioned in the same breath, even by kids too young to know better.

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As I grew older, Mike grew even cooler, even with his "Off The Wall" socks, his pulled up sleeves, Jheri curl, over-sized shades and the glove. (He is the only brother who could have pulled that off!)

And inasmuch as I eventually became resigned to the fact that I could not match him, even in a million years, it soon also became clear that the new Michael Jackson he seemed to be transforming into before our very eyes looked less and less like the black men that I and most of the black boys I knew were growing into.

Vitiligo is what he publically said was the cause for the gradual and irrefutable lightening of his skin, though many people wondered if he had bleached it-something he publicly denied.

What is the truth? I cannot say. What I can say is that in an America that remains color-conscious, an America in which black men are often the most loved and the most hated, and also the most celebrated and most feared, and in an America where even intra-racism-largely based on the shade of one's skin-continues among African Americans, it does matter if you're black or white. Or in the latter case: dark or light.

I was starkly reminded of that the other day when through the grapevine I heard that someone had referred to me among a group of black men as "that black one." What they meant was real dark-skinned one. It was something I had heard before, in fact most of my life, even as a little boy when even family sometimes used "black" as a negative modifier before my name or with some disparaging noun that was not my name.

Back then, black was ugly. And the barometer of handsomeness among much of my childhood and teenage years was lighter-skinned brothers, like the Sylvers', DeBarge's and the Jacksons', especially Michael.

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It might be enough to make a brother want to seek some remedy from this dark-skinned burden in a world where light, bright or almost white is the preferred standard of beauty-a burden that can weigh heavy on one's psyche and self-esteem. That can churn into the kind of self hate, at least inner turmoil that just might make one wish to bleach away any traces of melanin, or thin the lips, or make narrow an arrow-broad nose.

I cannot help but wonder if it isn't this kind of self-hatred that lies at the root of black-on-black homicide in Chicago, where the murder of young black men exacts a daily toll, or whether it isn't self-hatred that lies at the root of other devil-may-care, self-destructive behaviors that so many brothers engage in.

What has grounded me, and at other times pulled me back from the edge, is a deep sense of who and whose I am, nurtured by a mother who believed in God and who convinced me that black of all shades are beautiful, and that we all are created for a divine purpose. What grounded me were the eventual images in the mass media of proud, handsome men who looked black like me. But perhaps most critical was my own deep understanding that this shell that is our skin is simply an overcoat to men's souls, which are race-less, except as they are reflections of the human race.

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A native son of Chicago, John W. Fountain is an award-winning journalist, professor and author of the memoir, True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith Hope and Clarity (Public Affairs, 2003), paperback March 2005. His essay, "The God Who (more...)

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