Michael Jackson's Black History Is Ambiguous

A Michael Jackson friend says star shunned black causes, used derogatory slurs.

June 29, 2009, 4:47 PM

June 30, 2009— -- Michael Jackson's relationship with the African-American community was as ambiguous as his changing skin color, his androgynous features and the genetic makeup of his children.

By 1991, when the pop icon released his album "Black or White," many asked the same of Jackson's racial identity.

Those who were close to the star said he spent his career distancing himself from African-Americans and used "derogatory names." Some say he only gave lip service to black charities and causes.

But in death, the pop superstar has been brought back into the fold -- from the lovefest at this week's BET Awards to the mourners who gathered at Harlem's Apollo Theater where he got his start at age 9.

"He is one of our heroes," said rap artist and music impresario Sean "Diddy" Combs. "As African-Americans, we are not going to let everybody beat him up."

But even as the Rev. Al Sharpton stood loyally by father Joe Jackson's this week in Encino, Calif., many black Americans say they still feel ambivalent about Jackson's legacy of plastic surgery excesses, drug addiction and superstardom.

And some say the child molestation charges -- which arose in 1993 and again in 2003 -- struck the hardest blow to their religious and cultural core.

"If they'd had a black majority jury, they would have convicted," said Stacy Brown, who co-wrote, with producer Bob Jones, "Michael Jackson: The Man Behind the Mask."

"This is not to say that any other race tolerates that kind of behavior, but within the black community, it's not something that stardom could have swayed," said Brown, a media critic for the Scranton Times-Tribune and longtime Jackson family friend.

"Even if he was not molesting them, he was doing things that were inappropriate," he told ABCNews.com. "There's a mind-set in the black community: Why are all these white boys always hanging around? Michael would have stood no chance with an African-American jury."

But when Jackson was exonerated of those charges, many in the African-American community demonstrated another trait -- forgiveness.

"He's one of ours, whether we like it or not. Once it was over, we greeted him with open arms," said Brown. "He gave us an excuse to reaccept him, even though in the past, Michael Jackson turned to black people only when he was in trouble."

Michael Jackson Forgiven in Death

Brown was referring to the first allegations of child molestation that erupted in 1993. Jackson made an appeal to the African-American community, making his first-ever appearance at Bethel AME Church in Los Angeles and appearing on BET and NAACP awards shows.

"He'd never done that," said Brown. "He'd shunned that."

Initially, Jackson was viewed as "little more than a Casper-the-ghost-looking bleached skin, nose job, eye shade, straight hair and gyrating hips ambiguous black man who had made a ton of money and had been lauded, fawned over and adored by whites," according to Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.

At the time, he said Jackson's inner circle reported back to the group, "Look, don't believe what you hear. I still identify with the black community. I'm black and that hasn't changed, and I want your support.

"Either you loved him, you identified with him, you saw him as one of your own, as a black performer important to the black community, or you saw him as someone who basically, I don't want to use the term sellout, but ... as a creature and a creation of the white world."

But today, on his blog "The Hutchinson Report," the commentator suggested that Jackson's charitable side be his legacy.

"It is the Jackson that I want to and will always remember," he wrote. "This is the other Michael Jackson."

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the star supported dozens of charities, including USA for Africa, the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. In 2000, he was listed in the Guinness World Records for Most Charities Supported by a Pop Star -- 39.

He also donated $1.5 million in the settlement from Pepsi for injuries he sustained filming a commercial to the Burn Center at Brothman Hospital in Southern California.

In 1985, he wrote with Lionel Ritchie, "We Are the World," raising millions for famine relief in Africa.

But even Jackson's philanthropic work was scrutinized.

"It was the media attention that intrigued Michael when he first went to Africa at the request of Nelson Mandella," said biographer Brown. "I look at the footage, and Michael was totally separated from the people -- not like Mohammed Ali, who shook hands and talked with the natives."

Michael Jackson Philanthropy

Jackson's 1992 Heal the World Foundation not only raised money internationally but brought children to Neverland Ranch, which was besieged by police when child molestation charges were filed against the star.

And in 2006, critics pointed out that Jackson had not donated 100 percent of the proceeds of his charity songs, "We are the World" and "What More Can I Give." Jackson retained copyrights and took the royalties to the bank.

But close friend Dick Gregory, the comedian who fasted to protest child molestation charges against Jackson, said the star was childlike but generous.

"Your child sometimes embarrasses you," he told ABCNews.com. "But here is one of the wealthiest cats, and he wore cheap JC Penney shoes, white socks and pants too short. You never saw him with big rings and diamonds."

Gregory, now 76, said African-Americans have always been drawn to the pop star because of his talent.

"No black folks go to a concert because he's black -- he has to be good."

And even his critics came around when Jackson died.

"It's an outpouring as a human being," said Gregory. "Out of all the black folks we know, he hasn't gotten arrested. Out of all the things you can say about Michael and the weirdness, no one ever accused him of stealing."

Others say Jackson's career -- like his own identity transcended race.

When Jackson's music moved from its R&B roots to pop, culminating in the record-breaking 1982 "Thriller" album, another transformation was under way.

Jackson was the first black artist to get a video on the emerging MTV network, breaking down color barriers, according to African-American historians.

Jackson and Obama Expanded Base

"I hate to make this analogy, but it's a most apt one," said Jelani Cobb, president of the history department at historically black Spelman College in Atlanta.

"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."

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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