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Black or white

There have been many rumours about Michael Jackson, both before and after his death in June 2009. Take, for example, theories about his relationship with his skin colour.

Jackson actually had a far more nuanced relationship with ideas of race than we might realise. Researcher Harriet J. Manning argues that he used his stage performances and videos to critique racist constructions of blackness. She has published a monograph based on her AHRC-funded doctoral research, completed at Newcastle University.

For much of the nineteenth century in America and Europe, the tradition of blackface minstrelsy was a dominant form of popular culture. This was a theatrical form for which white performers ‘blacked up’ to parody black people. Black performers were initially banned from the stage and once allowed, in the late 1860s, were forced to keep playing into the tradition’s stereotypes. “It was a complete domination of someone else’s self-representation,” says Manning, who used sources including drawings, photographs, playbills and lyrics in her research. “For black performers, there was no option but to wear the mask and play the role.”

Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask (Ashgate), proposes and explores the theory that Jackson’s performances were rooted in the racist historical practices of blackface minstrelsy and its mask wearing. “There’s an idea that this history is best forgotten because it’s uncomfortable, but we need to talk about it,” says Manning. “That was part of my motivation from the beginning. This history should be more widely known.”

Manning noticed this unexpected paradox: “here was a black performer quoting a very racist performative history.” She started looking into Jackson’s dance moves and gestures. “I observed that all his most staple choreographic moves can be traced back to minstrelsy, such as sliding motions, angulated limbs, spins and turns.”

Those moves were designed to mock, Manning explains. “Minstrelsy was about presenting an impersonation of a black person in an oppressive, ridiculing way,” she says. “By appropriating them, and the tradition’s stereotypes, into his routines, Michael Jackson rejected a racist construction of black identity, at times through parody and at other times by reclamation such as making the dance moves utterly sublime and ‘cool’.”

Not that people noticed when Jackson released the single ‘Black or White’ in 1991. The last four minutes of the music video sees a black panther metamorphosize into the singer, who then commits several acts of vandalism such as smashing windows and a car windshield.

Television networks banned the video and Jackson was advised to issue an apology. Essentially then, it seems everyone missed the point. “This video can easily be read as a critique of racist stereotypes,” says Manning. “The uproar about it being broadcast fed right into those same stereotypes.”

“The panther dance is a continuation and reformulation of some of the basic gestures and stereotypes from blackface dance,” she adds. These were based on racist constructions and, as the research shows, we’re still allowing those stereotypes to go unquestioned now. We don’t recognise them even when they’re being parodied in front of us.

“We often don’t realise how little we question stereotypes,” says Manning. “These constructions include falsely associating black people, especially men, with unpredictability, violence, criminality, over-sexuality and animalism — all of which became part of the controversies that surrounded Michael Jackson.”

Another key video is the short-film ‘Ghosts’, released in 1997. In one of the songs it features, ‘Is It Scary?’, Jackson sings: “Am I the beast you visualised?”

Manning reads this as a reference to deeply-ingrained stereotypes, which can’t be shifted by will alone – we need to recognise and challenge them.

“It happens in such a pernicious, quiet, subconscious way,” she explains. “We might think we’re not racist, but we’re still being fed ideas about differences that simply don’t exist. Stereotypes show us what we think is the truth and reflect it back to us, ‘like a mirror reveals the truth’ as Jackson sings in ‘Is It Scary?’”

Jackson’s public persona also functions as a mirror or a mask. We need to consider what cultural baggage has been brought along, says Manning. “We all think we own a bit of Michael Jackson. When an artist is very successful and very mainstream, there’s a tendency to overlook what they’ve done creatively.”

Manning’s research has connected her to other academics who are interested in Michael Jackson, such as Nina Fonoroff, Professor of Cinematic Art at the University of New Mexico, who discovered Manning’s work through Dancing With the Elephant, a blog dedicated to conversations about the singer.

Fonoroff’s interests include the role of the audience, which is one of the key themes running through Manning’s book. “Michael Jackson has been able to tap into so many existing fantasies, anxieties and desires,” says Fonoroff. “Harriet’s work is a great synthesis of recent ideas about blackface minstrelsy. It helped me to think through these concepts much more clearly.”

Their online conversations are leading to further collaboration: Manning and Fonoroff will be in LA for the fifth anniversary of Jackson’s death. “We’re planning to research the realm of Michael Jackson fandom, which fascinates us both from an academic perspective,” says Manning.

Manning’s research is helping Michael Jackson fan Ilke Lenz-Nolte, who translates English texts into German for the All4Michael blog, to “know who he really was”. Once Nolte started delving into his work, she says, “it was fascinating because I realised all the media stories about him were wrong. Harriet has shown a profound connection between blackface minstrelsy and the music and dance of Michael Jackson that is an essential element of his identity.”

Nolte is particularly intrigued by the one-sidedness of the character in minstrelsy: white people were allowed to mock and literally consume blackness, while black people were reduced to caricatures that they could do little to deconstruct. “Jackson turned the tables and played with this one-sidedness so people would feel uncomfortable and guilty about a racist past – or present,” she says. “And the media made him into a freak and a criminal.”

“In some ways, Jackson’s success worked against him,” Manning concludes. “His work is so rich in cultural quotations that have been largely overlooked.” Jackson’s image has been filtered and reinvented, just as white people used blackface minstrelsy to control the ways in which blackness was understood.

Article by Anne Wollenberg

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