For Black America, Jackson Broke Barriers Long Before 'Thriller'

Michael Jackson went from child star to the King of Pop to a figure of constant controversy.
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

In 1972, when the movie "Ben" premiered and sent that falsetto voice of little Michael Jackson soaring across movie screens, the joy inside black America was palpable. It wasn't just that the song raced to No. 1 on the charts, it was that it flowed from the magic of film. And black America, long kept away from mainstream movies, kept a close eye on -- and a keen interest in -- the world of Tinseltown.

Little Michael had come upon this particular movie only 18 years after the collapse of legal segregation in the United States. And many of the movie houses that showed "Ben" had once been theaters where blacks could not gain admittance. In urban America, the reality of the times had hardly gone unnoticed. The '60s may have been over, but the battles it took to shape them still hung in the air.

In the '70s, groups of middle-aged black Americans could still reminisce about the chitlin circuit and the world of vaudeville, two popular venues for gifted black performers. Maybe they had seen Moms Mabley out there on the circuit; maybe they had seen Redd Foxx in some pungent-smelling juke joint in Atlantic City; maybe they had even seen the high-stepping Nicholas brothers -- Fayard and Harold -- soaring over chairs on a stage over in Baltimore.

Before politics took a more defiant tone, and before the arrival of wonderful-sounding black ministers (Gardner Taylor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Martin Luther King Jr.), it was music that black America offered to mainstream society as a kind of plea for acceptance. There were Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong; Duke Ellington and Lena Horne. Of course, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.

Still, the only black musicians to have made a mark on the soundtracks of mainstream movies in the 1960s were Quincy Jones and Duke Ellington.

Little Michael landed upon the mindset of film-hungry black America when its citizenry was starved for identity on the big screen.

He was but a 14-year-old child in 1972, and black mothers and aunts and big sisters in the ghettos of the nation seemed to pull that child to their bosoms. He was a little brother; he was a precious boy; he was like the prodigy in your own church. There he was on "American Bandstand" and on "Soul Train." The early '70s actually represented some beautiful times in America -- freedom rising, integration building and little Michael singing on the hand-held radio. Little Michael with the prettiest and fluffiest Afro in the land.

Throughout the years, he claimed covers of Ebony and Jet magazines. And even when his life had begun to take on tawdry dimensions, black America refused to abandon him. It was as if they knew the pain that had greeted so many child performers, black or white.

The famed pianist and singer Bobby Short had been a child performer. "One day when you're in show business and are a child, something clicks and you realize what you do is important to a lot of adults around you," Short once said. "You are emboldened, and your childhood is over. It's not a happy circumstance. If you don't go on, you're going to hurt a lot of people."

There were those in America, especially in black America, who imagined linkages between Sammy Davis Jr. -- himself a onetime vaudeville performer -- and Michael Jackson. Both had seemed eternally childlike. Both had a love affair with "The Wizard of Oz." There's no place like home, there's no place like home.

How many black hepcats in barbershops talked of Michael's private jetting around the globe? That was economic power! How many women in hair salons in South Central L.A. wondered: Who does his hair?

It seemed as if he could snap his finger and make something happen, make animals appear in his back yard. The Wizard of Odd, yes, but in black America, Michael was a pioneer. Michael was a kid, and allowances must be made for kids.

And, of course, there was that skin dynamic. His complexion went from a beautiful and sweet nutmeg brown to an alabaster white. The tabloids might have gone into a spasm, but that wasn't quite the reaction in black America. To be sure, there were cackles, but more often than not, sympathy. Leave Michael alone became a popular refrain in the black community. Just leave him alone.

And, of course, he was pretty much left alone.

Black America always considered Michael Jackson, his voice shooting out over them, to be at home among them. He'd be at one of those NAACP Image Awards shows, and he'd be standing among folk who had watched him grow up. He accepted the joyful tears of the old and young and moved into their hearts.

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