I write to you directly because no one else is making any sense. Folk are hysterical in the wake of your death. People who have experienced the same media coverage are equally upset: on one side that you have been unduly exalted, on the other that you have been unfairly maligned. You spent your adult years building and enjoying a zoo and a carnival. Now, appropriately, they’ve turned your memorial service into a circus.
I think that’s too bad, Mike. I think that if we could really talk about you, your life, your death… I think we’d be a better nation, a better world for it.
Mike… how do I say this…? I’ll just say it.
Your face is an American tragedy. There, I said it. At first, it seemed like a matter of racial pride. You wouldn’t be the first American to get at the ol’ schnoz in an attempt to get closer to America’s idea of beauty. Nappy hair, wide nose, full lips… these were not the ideal when you were born in 1958. A lot of people over the years have been hurt by society’s collective verdict of, “You’re ugly.” But you, Michael Jackson, could do something about it. You could afford the surgeries. You could afford to lighten your skin. (Shit, man, you could afford the Elephant Man’s bones. What the fuck would some hospital bill mean to you?) But the sad part about that is that you were never forced to the next step: acceptance. Because you never ran into a limit, you never learned that making yourself beautiful is fleeting whereas seeing your own beauty is real. Some people grin from ear to ear. Dude, my nose is so wide I breathe from ear to ear. But, that’s cool. That’s MY nose. I had to learn to live with it. You never did.
And that leads me to what I find saddest about your life and the inevitable tragedy of your death. You never had any real limits. You could sing any song. You could dance any dance. And so you could do ANYthing. It seems no one could regulate you. In short, you never had any boys.
See, your boys can be critically important, Mike. They can help you not to color so far outside the lines that the portrait of your life becomes a chaotic mess.
Your boys might have been able to save your life. “Dip—Dipr-- Nigga, you don’t need no doctor. Hit this blunt and go the fuck to sleep.” (Now, you don’t want to be dependent on any substance to go to sleep. But nobody ever died from smoking weed… unless they choked on a Dorito.)
Your boys might have clowned you for lightening your skin. “Dude, if you tryin’a be white, just use full sentences.” You could have all laughed together as you got the message. And, maybe then, I wouldn’t have paused on a picture of you as a young man and thought for a split-second, “Who the fuck is that?” Then, “Oh shit. That’s Michael Jackson.” The brown of then was so far from the cement gray of your dying day.
Your boys might have said, “What you mean (pre-pubescent boy) is spending the night?!?! Send that boy down to the guest house with his parents and get dressed. We goin’ to the club tonight.” “Fine, you can bring Bubbles. We’ll teach him how to make it rain.”
Or, who knows? Maybe they would’ve told you to get rid of the chimp after it bit a hole in Rashida Jones’ (Quincy Jones’ daughter) hand. (That’s what I mean. Who gets to keep their pet monkey after it attacks a child?!?!?!?! Only you, Mike. Only you.)
What a mind-fuck it must have been… Even your brothers were in no position to be your boys. You were their meal ticket. All that groupie ass they was gettin’ - with you pretending to be asleep - that was your groupie ass, Michael. And they knew it. Even as men, how could they really regulate you one moment then beg you to do a reunion tour in the next? Without you, Michael, The Jacksons would have been the stuff of Indiana talent show legend. They had to know that. And so, your brothers couldn’t be your boys.
Your boys are the people who know the real you. But, perhaps more importantly, they remind you of who you really are in the moments when you forget. But even as a child, those around you robbed you OF YOU. If there’s a basic way kids identify themselves it is by their age. Early on, you were taught to lie, to say you were younger, to construct a self for public consumption. And consume we did.
We exalted you for transcending race. And so, in a nation where a Black man could once be lynched for looking at a White woman, you showed them. You became a White woman. You transformed yourself right before our eyes. Then you seemed to go past even that extreme point. You widdled your nose down until it was no more, bleached your skin until it no longer resembled a human shade, made yourself a blank slate onto which the world could project its own hopes and dreams, its own neuroses and pathologies. Pictures in tabloids suggested that your nose actually fell off at one point. I wonder if that wasn’t an apt metaphor for the inevitable end when we seek to transcend race, to erase our differences. Perhaps it would be more constructive to embrace that which makes us different, to love each other not despite our differences but, in part, because of them.
We pretended that it might be possible for you to live out childhood as an adult. The tragedy of childhood lost is that it is lost. It cannot simply be purchased. To be sure, we can be child-like in our presence in the moment. We can live life with open hearts and open arms. But we must accept that we are doing those things as adults. Your boys could have helped you understand that. They could have explained that many of us missed out on pieces of childhood, that our prisons are filled with people who were abused in one way or another. Then, they could have explained that, generally speaking, nobody gives a shit. But for you, Mike, that lost childhood became blanket absolution for everything from dangling your own child off a balcony to inviting boys into your bedroom, potentially an equally perilous situation.
Your boys could have stopped you when you started to run from the hospital with your newborn child and said, “What the fuck are you doing?” This may come as a shock, but most of us aren’t allowed to do crazy shit like that. There are rules. But not for you, Mike. Never for you.
Recently, I wrote to an online forum and asked this question:
From Chris Brown getting probation to R. Kelly getting barely inconvenienced to Michael Jackson being deified... Is there any wrong that can't be made right by a hit record?
Let me tell you, Mike… Those niggas attacked me like I had invented slavery or somethin’. And so the special treatment you received in life extends into death. Any adult approach to your life and legacy is met with emotional defense based on theories ranging from racial conspiracy to childhood lost. People wax poetic about their love for you as they gaze upon a brown-faced boy and ignore the desaturated man, a man drained of far more than the color of his skin.
They will pretend you hadn’t alternated between punchline and freak show in the decades since “Thriller.” They will pop in their ear buds and allow “You Are Not Alone” to drown out the reality of the situation; You were all alone. Even as hundreds of thousands filled arenas to see you, you were - in a fundamental way – alone.
And so, in this final hour, I will be your boy. I will tell you that all pedophile punchlines aside, that every time you had some intergenerational, one-on-one slumber party, you were fucking up.
I will tell you that you probably should have lost your kids behind that balcony shit. And, if not then, certainly you should have lost them as you descended into what seems to have been an absurd level of drug addiction. I have no doubt you loved your kids. But you were fucking up.
When you came to court in what one CNN reporter called your “Cap’n Crunch” outfit, you were fucking up.
Mike, over the years, you did a lot of fucking up. And I just wish you had some boys – some real boys – who could have told you so and stemmed the tide. It didn’t have to go this way. Your life didn’t have to go this way. Your face didn’t have to go this way.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite “street jokes”:
A bird was late flying South for the winter. So, his wings froze up and he fell through the roof of a barn. A cow took a shit on him and the warmth of the shit melted the ice from his wings. But then a cat came along, licked the shit away and ate the bird.
Lesson: Not everybody who shits on you is your enemy. And not everybody who takes shit off you is your friend.
We took so much shit off you, Michael. We looked the other way as you played a major role in normalizing plastic surgery, telling the world with your own face that there was a solution to be found at the end of a scalpel. We looked the other way as you abused drugs and maybe boys, too. We looked the other way, Michael, because you were SO talented and your music made us feel SO good.
But today, I can’t look the other way. I find myself mourning that brown-skinned boy, a boy I started mourning long before your final breath. I mourn the man you could have become. I mourn the loss of pure enjoyment I could have experienced – remembering days of wearing a single white glove, perfecting my moonwalk, singing “Lady In My Life” in a talent show - because the sound of your music invariably leads me to thoughts of the man behind the music.
Many continue to look away, to cherry-pick amongst the events of your life. But I can’t look away. I find myself facing some harsh realities. I find myself staring at some hilarious absurdities. I’ve set my DVR to record your memorial because I simply can’t look away.
And as I watch, I mourn for a world that allowed you to happen, a world where fame “trumps” all. (Pun unintended, but allowed to remain.) I mourn for a world that will refuse to learn the lessons we could salvage from a tragic death and the life which led to it. I mourn for a world where you could never have boys, Michael. I mourn for a world that did that to your face.