Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Would There Be A President Obama Without Michael Jackson?

I wrote the bulk of this piece the Saturday after Jackson died, before I knew Al Sharpton would say the same at Jackson’s memorial yesterday.

Sometime after Obama’s swearing in, Wyatt Cenac of “The Daily Show” presented evidence to substantiate his theory that the Obama presidency was actually the Cliff Huxtable presidency, due in large part to the immense popularity of the long-term number one rated Bill Cosby program in the 80s. The theory was that America became used to seeing black people in an upscale, normal manner and not as exaggerated characters like pimps, prostitutes, or “The Jeffersons”.

I would like to offer that Bill Cosby was not the only African-America icon that “helped” Barack Obama become our first African-American president. I believe Michael Jackson deserves much credit as well.

Indisputably, Jackson was a very, very powerful entertainer. The power of musical entertainment from highly iconic figures, as Nixon feared all too correctly about John Lennon, was the heavy political aspect to pop cultural fandom.

There is also the generational factor that exists at the heart of my theory. I am less than a year older than Michael Jackson. I grew up with him. I remember “ABC”, “I Want You Back” and “I’ll Be There”. Everyone was amazed by the dancing and singing talent that came out of that little kid.

In the 70s, racism was very evident and strong in America. On television in the 70s, blacks did not rise above thieves, pimps and prostitutes, unless they were in a singing group, on “The Jeffersons” or in “Roots”. The seed of the transformation Jackson would lead was planted in this extremely talented and innocent young black boy, who, when he grew into a young black man, made millions of whites, Asians, Latinos and the rest of his non-black fans, feel comfortable with him like no other black entertainer before except, perhaps, Sammy Davis Jr., although Sammy never appealed to kids and teens, really, only adults.

As I mentioned in this space on June 26, I was a fan of the album “Thriller” and listened to it in my first few months in New York. Jackson had many, many white fans, ten years old (and perhaps slightly younger) all the way up to their late-thirties—I am certain of that. And that was in 1982, barely out of the racially-charged 70s. And then it all began to seem different.

Perhaps that is because to many white people, Jackson was not a black singer, but simply a singer. He appealed to everyone in a way no R&B singer—or many other singers, period—had before or since.

“Thriller” was twenty-seven years ago. If a young white boy or girl was ten years old at the time of its release that would make them thirty-seven years old today—twice the legal voting age.

Jackson also made it possible for more black entertainers to hit the big time. Don’t forget the power MTV once had in this country until they lost it all to reality TV. With the possible exception of Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson was relatively alone in the size of his black star.

I know many of you out there are saying, “Oprah.” Sorry, she didn’t go national until September 1986. “Thriller” had been out for nearly four years by then.

While I am not saying Jackson made it possible for Oprah, Whoopi, Spike, Denzel, and the others to have successful careers, I will argue that Jackson’s gentle musical genius contributed to a lowering of the barriers of racial thought in many in his generation and many more in younger generations in his own very unique way for the past forty years.

Forty years!

That is a relatively long period of time during which there has been more racial healing in America and, arguably, the world—with obviously much more healing to go—than any other time in human history.

However, I want to re-emphasize the point that Jackson’s gentle genius helped bring about this change. In no way am I trying to dismiss advances by more political blacks. Malcolm X has been one of my biggest heroes since 1984 when I first read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley” and began collecting books and seeing films on Malcolm.

By gentle, I refer to the ethereal, enigmatic, spiritual quality that Jackson had. He almost seemed mythical in life. This was reinforced by the “We Are the World” song which he co-wrote which took everything beyond black and white and beyond America. Although it was actually written and performed for Ethiopian famine relief, the song was about hope. Jackson used hope for a better future for all in that song to elevate everyone, in the context of responsibility and possibility, to make it so. And Obama capitalized on that theme and, to many, became hope incarnate.

To simplify my gentle point, the old adage, “You get more flies with honey than vinegar” illustrates. It is obvious Jackson’s persona and music attracted lots of white boys and girls who may not have been as easily intrigued by Malcolm’s fiery speeches or Martin Luther King’s pleas for justice. I can remember in the mid-80s, white boys trying to do the moon walk and singing his songs, but none of them reciting either of these two civil rights giants’ words.

Another analogy I think may be illustrative may be this: racism is like an ice cube. It is a block of frozen feelings. Those feelings, like racism, don’t change easily or quickly. Ice requires heat to melt it. Jackson had tremendous heat and he began to melt the ice of racism as ice melts, first from the outside. But the interior becomes the outer edges as the ice of racism melts, and with successive generations, until it’s simply gone.

Jackson’s sweetness and awkwardness and all those things that made women and girls want to love him melted that ice just as his talent and coolness that made guys and boys want to be him also melted the ice. Skin color didn’t matter. Just talent. That’s what Jackson communicated to hundreds of millions worldwide.

According to one report, 43 percent of whites voted for Obama versus 55 percent of whites who voted for McCain. Whites voted twelve percent higher for McCain. In 1980, 36 percent of whites voted for Jimmy Carter versus 56 percent of whites who voted for Reagan. The differences between Carter and Obama are obvious—and deep. No one ever accused Carter of not being American born, no one ever accused Carter of secretly being a Muslim, no one ever shouted out “Kill him!” about Carter at Reagan rallies, no one ever passed along racially stereotypical caricatures about Carter, no one ever—you get the picture.

Jackson never espoused a political position to my knowledge. Further to my point, I don’t remember him endorsing any political candidate. His type of political power was much more subversive. Obviously his skin color already spoke to civil rights, and justice and equality for him. He did not have to make speeches. He had to win hearts and minds through his music.

He was the “King of Pop”. To reiterate an earlier point, pop cultural icons intrinsically carry religious and political power. Need I remind anyone of the religious outrage John Lennon caused with his entirely misunderstood and distorted “We are bigger than Jesus” remark? Does anyone remember the particular reporter’s question at the JFK press conference that went something like, “Are you guys a communist plot?” to which McCartney responded, “We’re the biggest capitalists around.”

Inspiration is a big political tool. Jesse Jackson inspired many in 1984, John Kennedy inspired many more in 1960. Barack Obama inspired even more in 2008. Michael Jackson certainly inspired millions and millions—worldwide.

While there is no study that backs up my theory, perhaps I can make my point in an even more concise, but personal way. When I was twelve, Flip Wilson, who, like Michael, was a black entertainer with heavy white appeal, was one of my absolute comedy heroes. I studied his comedy. When I was twenty-six, the first person I ever cast a vote for was African-American, Jesse Jackson. I have voted five times in my entire life and four times I’ve voted for an African-American.

Is there a legitimate connection to Flip Wilson and my first vote? Well, not just Flip Wilson. Flip Wilson paved the way to Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. I got the message of “All in the Family”, although many maybe did not. I recognized that Johnny Carson opened his stage and launched into stardom, the careers of many black entertainers and he treated every guest with kindness and/or reverence. Lots of black music was played on the white radio I listened to in the 60s and 70s. These things may seem superficial, but they are important because they melt that exterior layer of mental separation.

Several times in my nearly fifty-two years on this planet, I have heard black and white people say that America will never elect a black president. However, I always believed America would elect a black president and would do so in my lifetime.

Obviously, Obama is not like other black presidential candidates of the past: Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Lenora Fulani, Alan Keyes and Al Sharpton. Obama is reminiscent of a pop star—young, sleek, good looking, his humor, sharp mind, his voice. He is as close to what Michael Jackson made white boys and girls comfortable with (to borrow from Sharpton) as any black presidential candidate could be at this time in history.

While Obama’s victory was due to a seven percent gap, perhaps a white guy would not have beaten McCain-Palin. Jackson may not have been able to get a white male Democrat elected over McCain as easily as he did Obama.

So, to carry my Jackson theory to the next level, imagine the state of racism in America twenty-seven to forty years from now with children growing up with our first African-American president, especially if he serves two terms.

I do not mean to suggest that Jackson killed racism, nor that Obama will kill it in forty years. However, it may be crippled then and maybe the grandchildren of the white kids who voted for Obama may have as many black friends as white friends.

However, a president is not a friend, despite how desperately George Bush campaigned as a guy “you’d love to have a beer with” or Sarah Palin proclaiming her hockey mom-ness. A president is someone you put your trust in who you will never know.

But it wasn’t just Michael Jackson. Jackson led to Prince, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi, Oprah, Denzel, Tiger, Spike, Public Enemy, and on and on in this generation who would experience so many black entertainers, black politicians and black athletes that black didn’t matter anymore.

Many whites put their trust in some African Americans they will never, ever know or never, ever meet. Oprah is the perfect example. More than 99.9 percent of whites or non-blacks affected by Oprah would never know her on a personal level.

Maybe I’m wrong about Michael Jackson and President Obama. Maybe, I am just trying to project onto today’s world, how Flip Wilson helped me to cast my first vote ever—and volunteer in some projects in New Jersey—for a black man for president more than a quarter century ago.

Sharpton is right. Jackson created a comfort level.