To me, the most arresting image of Michael Jackson was President George H.W. Bush citing him as a role model for young black men. It was 1990 and Jackson was at the height of his fame. "Man in the Mirror" had been released two years earlier. Jackson had not yet gone into full white-face disguise, but the handsome little brown boy of his first album had long since entered the bizarro phase of rhinestone gloves. I wondered then what on earth about Jackson could ever be a role model for anyone. Musical savant though he was, Jackson was, almost from the beginning, a tragic figure--so obviously trapped in that mirror, forever reflecting what others wanted him to be.
In the wake of his death, many have hailed his "crossover appeal." There is no doubt that his musical acumen led to the integration of MTV; but that "appeal" had a more sinister undertone. If Elvis was "the White Negro," so Michael fashioned himself into "the Negro Caucasian." He literally erased himself before our eyes, his nose slowly disappearing, his skin fading to ghostly pallor, his voice growing higher and whispier, his body evaporating to a dry husk of barely a hundred pounds at the time of his death. It was hard not to be fascinated by him as he molted through all possible confusions of gender, race and sexuality. But his transgressivity was more than just theater; he mimed a narrative of constant paradox and infinite suffering.
By now the stories of that suffering are well documented: Jackson's body was scarred from the abuse that his father, Joe, a former boxer, administered to him when he was a small child. Marlon, Michael's brother, wrote of one particularly chilling incident: his father held Michael upside down by one leg while punching him repeatedly. There are the stories of his father creeping in through his bedroom window at night wearing a fright mask--apparently to teach him not to leave the window open. Joe Jackson has denied ever beating any of his children, though he freely admits "whipping" them with straps and belts. According to him, "You beat someone using a stick."
No wonder Jackson grew up to resemble a walking, talking fright mask, playing with the putty of bodies, of childhood, of kindness, of trauma, of forgiveness. What remains inexplicable, however, is the absence of social, ethical or legal limit to the excesses of Jackson family life. Michael was addicted to so many painkillers that in 2007 one pharmacy sued him for back payments totaling $100,000--thirteen months of prescriptions at nearly $10,000 a month. Who were the medical professionals behind this kind of mind-boggling malpractice? Who were the surgeons who performed so many plastic surgeries on him that his nose collapsed into his skull? Doctors are ruled by an ethical obligation to "do no harm." Medicine is a practice, not a commodity fun house filled with new noses and chins and feel-good opiates to be issued like goodies from a Pez dispenser.
Fortunately, the question of medical complicity in Jackson's death is beginning to percolate in the media. Perhaps, too, his children's custody will be more closely scrutinized. It is extremely troubling to learn that Jackson's mother, Katherine--and therefore her depraved husband, Joe--has temporary custody of them. How sad it was to see Joe Jackson's disjointed, self-promoting, narcissistic interview at the Black Entertainment Awards three days after his son's demise, an occasion he used to push his nascent record company.
But in the longer term, the question of Michael Jackson's children is challenging in other ways. Like his demands for plastic surgery or painkillers, their conception was accomplished as a made-to-order, cash-on-the-barrelhead commercial transaction. According to TMZ.com and other entertainment news sites, Jackson is not biologically related to any of his three children. Reportedly, the women who gestated them carried anonymously donated eggs fertilized by sperm from secret donors. Apparently the children were all crafted to be "white" enough to match Jackson's artfully devised if pathetically alienated image of himself. Deborah Rowe, Jackson's ex-wife and the surrogate who carried his oldest two children to term, describes being inseminated "like a horse"; she then received around $9 million to give up any claim to them. On the birth certificate of Jackson's youngest child, the space for "mother" is left blank.
It's hard to imagine that Jackson would have been found fit if he had attempted to adopt children. It is interesting to contemplate the eugenic ends to which in vitro fertilization and surrogate birth are being put these days, often as a kind of end run around the formal inspection of the adoption process. How much more common will the purchase of "the perfect child" become when bioengineering for specific physical traits becomes easier and less costly? It's not a new problem: "colorism" (preference for lighter skin) is an old problem within the African-American community. Choosing trophy spouses is a cruder version of the same game. Nevertheless, it is troubling that the law of sales is about the only context for debating this rapidly developing area. Shouldn't we think harder about the degree to which a free market for eugenics is enabled by easy-payment contract clauses conferring parenthood through the immaculate conception of biotechnology?
Jackson's fame and fortune ensured that he had few barriers to the pursuit of whatever whimsical fancy seized him. He became a more brilliant and frightening version of the Mad Hatter than even Tim Burton could conjure. And with that power, Jackson arranged for the bringing-to-life of three innocent souls whose racial embodiment pantomimed all he could never be. There's something horrifying that in the wake of his demise, his ignorant brutish father will be delivered three fair-skinned grandchildren, the perfectly rendered apotheosis of Michael's final crossing-over.
By Patricia J. Williams:
Reprinted with permission from The Nation