Perhaps this should have been posted a while ago, before the Michael Jackson news fatigue settled in, but like a lot of people I’m only now—by way of nostalgic revision—starting to truly appreciate his artistry. Beyond the undeniable excitement of his music and performances, however, I’ve come to see there’s a great deal more to his persona than the paparazzi and our consumptive Western media culture are willing to show us.
For instance, by way of the Times of India, I learned that Michael drew great inspiration from Gandhi* and took to heart his famous saying, “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” In a speech he gave at Oxford Union in 2001, Michael spoke about his own experience of learning to forgive his father for the beatings and detachment he suffered as a child, taking that all important nonviolent step of loving and understanding your enemy.
I have started reflecting on the fact that my father grew up in the South, in a very poor family. He came of age during the Depression and his own father, who struggled to feed his children, showed little affection towards his family and raised my father and his siblings with an iron fist. Who could have imagined what it was like to grow up a poor black man in the South, robbed of dignity, bereft of hope, struggling to become a man in a world that saw my father as subordinate … My father moved to Indiana and had a large family of his own, working long hours in the steel mills, work that kills the lungs and humbles the spirit, all to support his family. Is it any wonder that he found it difficult to expose his feelings? Is it any mystery that he hardened his heart, that he raised the emotional ramparts? And most of all, is it any wonder why he pushed his sons so hard to succeed as performers, so that they could be saved from what he knew to be a life of indignity and poverty?
He closed his speech with the Gandhi quote and told those who felt let down or cheated by their parents to resist the urge to push away and instead give them “the gift of unconditional love, so that they too may learn how to love from us.”
Somehow, through all his sufferings—at the hands of an abusive father and a parasitic media—he became and remained a loving and forgiving person. And yet, we never grant him credit for this hard work of the soul. All we can do is focus on his eccentricities, and maybe, if we’re feeling empathetic, as we have these past few weeks, we’ll accept them as a manifestation of his lost childhood and an ever-demanding media spotlight. At our worst, when we have no empathy, we dismiss that which we don’t like or understand about him as perversion and deviance.
As such, a man who was all too human—vulnerable to abuse and objectification, sympathetic to warmth and kindness—can never be seen as anything more than a freak of circumstance, a non-human. This is the real tragedy of Jackson’s legacy. May he forgive us.
*Gandhi and King both appear in his “Man in the Mirror” music video, above.