Michael Jackson's Black History Is Ambiguous

"What Obama did politically, is what Jackson did with 'Thriller," he told ABCNews.com. "He started with a base in the black community and then found an ingenious way to expand it and make it palpable to whites without losing his black core audience."

But Cobb agreed that the African-American community had reached a "threshold point" when the star's child molestation charges surfaced.

Those who believed the vitiligo story, and accepted the changing hair texture, began to have "real doubts and questions" about Jackson's racial ambiguity.

(Jackson had said he was afflicted with vitiligo, a disease that causes skin to lose pigmentation.)

"You couldn't hold him up as a racial example," he said. "He took some lumps for it."

And in 2002, many were taken aback. Jackson left Sony Music Entertainment just before the release of "Invincible," charging its head Tommy Mottola with being a "devil" and a "racist."

"Some people did think he was being mercenary to show up before the black community and charge racism, thinking people would automatically rally behind him," said Cobb. "That didn't go over well."

Past Wrongs Set Aside

But this week, in the emotional tumult of Jackson's untimely death, much has been set aside.

"You have seen in his passing, there have been black people ferociously loyal to him and talking about how great he was as a black artist," said Cobb. "He had been forgiven before he died."

"He has the gift of magnetism and in some ways, his life was like Benjamin Button," Cobb said of the film of a man who ages backward.

Jackson "starts out a phenomenally old soul at 10 years old -- so mature -- and he ends up like a little boy -- a kid," said Cobb.

For his African-American community, he said, "the dominant emotion is pathos, not contempt."

African-American David Canton, professor of history at Connecticut College, agreed that most viewed the star empathetically as a "grown man with an adolescent mind and eccentric behavior."

Noting that Farrah Fawcett died the same day as Jackson, Canton said, "no one asked about her impact on the white community."

Jackson was not the first African-American to shift toward the white community -- so had singer Lionel Ritchie and O.J. Simpson.

"Jackson had a skin disease, but he did not purchase makeup to that made him darker," Canton told ABCNews.com. "Jackson was a tragic hero, and some in the black community may say that if Jackson remained black he would be alive."

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