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Originally published Monday, June 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Michael Jackson's death puts focus on racial identity

Jackson was to music what Michael Jordan was to sports and Barack Obama to politics — a towering figure with crossover appeal even if in life, some of Jackson's fans wondered if he was as proud of his race as his race was of him. But in his death, many African Americans embraced Jackson publicly and without ambivalence.

The New York Times

Other developments

Doctor's claim: The doctor who cared for a stricken Michael Jackson has told investigators that the singer was unconscious but had a faint pulse when he tried to resuscitate him, said Dr. Conrad Murray's lawyer Matthew B. Alford. Murray, who had been hired by Jackson for a series of concerts in London, also said he did not give the singer painkillers Demerol or OxyContin in the hours before his death on Thursday.

Father, sister speak out: A publicist for Joe Jackson read a statement at the BET awards in Los Angeles on Sunday declaring that he and his wife, Katherine, have sole authority over their pop star son's affairs, and the singer's sister Janet Jackson last night thanked the audience for their love and support.

Obama letter: White House adviser David Axelrod said President Obama has written a private letter to Jackson's family expressing condolences.

Seattle Times news services


Jamie Foxx, the host of the Black Entertainment Television music awards, was unequivocal Sunday night:

"We want to celebrate this black man," Foxx said of Michael Jackson. "He belongs to us, and we shared him with everybody else."

Around the world, Jackson was celebrated Sunday, but there was a special fervor in black neighborhoods and churches.

Clapping and cheering congregants at the First African Methodist Episcopal church in South Los Angeles opened the 10 a.m. service with the strains of "I'll be There" over a video tribute to Jackson.

Jackson was to music what Michael Jordan was to sports and Barack Obama to politics — a towering figure with crossover appeal even if in life, some of Jackson's fans wondered if he was as proud of his race as his race was of him. But in his death, many African Americans embraced Jackson publicly and without ambivalence.

No longer were many blacks expressing resentment, as they once had, for his strangeness, his distance from the cherubic Michael of the Jackson Five.

Darrell Smith, 40, a filmmaker in Brooklyn, noted "when his skin started getting lighter" many black people said Jackson didn't want to be black.

"It wasn't until the molestation charges that people leaped to his defense and felt like it was unfair," Smith said.

Some African Americans said those most determined to discuss Jackson's failings were white.

"The system likes to take black men down," said Stan Jamison, a 61-year-old house painter, leaning against a fence outside the old Jackson home in Gary, Ind., on Sunday. "They did it to [boxers Muhammad] Ali. They did it to [Mike] Tyson."

But even some blacks acknowledged Jackson — like many African Americans — had issues with his identity.

Gerald Early, a professor of African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, pointed to Jackson's self-image as an adolescent who had acne and hated his broad nose. In some reports, his father, Joe Jackson, was said to have told young Michael he was ugly.

"If blacks were not, in some degree, emotionally and psychologically scarred from their oppression, they would hardly have needed the Black Power and the Black is Beautiful movements of the 1960s, efforts to restore their mental health," Early wrote in an e-mail message.

It was Jackson's changeability that, in part, allowed him to resonate with millions of people around the world.

Amy Whitlock, 38, and her husband Dave, 42, who are white, drove 100 miles to Gary to pay respects to the pop star. They described how a young Jackson had transformed the way white children saw race.

"I was from a small town in Illinois where there weren't any black people," Whitlock said, tears running down her cheeks. "The older people, they saw just some black guy dancing. But we saw someone who was extraordinary, someone who made us want to dance. Michael was for unity. And he made people my age want to be for unity."

Meighan Maheffey, 27, who is white and who grew up in North Carolina, said The Jackson 5 was the only black group her grandmother allowed her mother to listen to. "It was very nonthreatening to her," Maheffey said.

But Jackson also staked out new terrain for black performers, even while being mutable and acceptable to whites.

"He dubbed himself the King of Pop, which was a pretty daring act," Early said.

"This, in a way, radically redefined the black performer's relation to music ... . Jackson may have paved the way for Obama in the sense of black man as auteur and self-mythmaker."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been acting as a family spokesman, said Jackson, like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, James Brown and Josephine Baker, redrew the boundaries of black possibility by showing whites — and blacks — that the race was capable of more than anyone had previously acknowledged. "The light cast by these luminaries was great and shined on the whole race, even when they did not intend to be 'political,' " he said.

The Black Entertainment Television music awards were not originally intended, for instance, to be a tribute to Jackson, but plans were rushed through to change the program once he died.

The night that news of Jackson's death came, Ingrid Deabreu, 49, of Brooklyn, stayed up watching a marathon of his videos with her 7-year-old daughter Kimberly. When the video of Jackson's "Black and White' came on, her daughter turned to Deabreu and asked " 'Mommy, he said it doesn't matter if you're black or white, so why's he trying to make his skin white?' "

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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