Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Jackson deserves praise, not ridicule and scorn

By DeWayne Wickham

Death will not be the final act of Michael Jackson's tragic life.

In the wake of the King of Pop's untimely demise, a familiar drama has begun to unfold. His grieving relatives demand to know the grim details of Jackson's final hours. The man who can provide the answers remains hidden behind his lawyer.

Though the doctor, Conrad Murray, said through his attorney that Jackson "was still warm and had a pulse" but "wasn't breathing" when he found the singer in bed, an aura of deception and mystery still surrounds his death. And the media-circus coverage of his passing threatens to obscure the great contributions Jackson made to the life of this nation.

Already too much has been said about the child abuse charges he endured — and not enough about how this pop music icon bridged Americans' great racial divide at a time when it was still a yawning gap. Too little attention has been given to his financial success, while too much has been said about his unchecked spending.

Before Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Barack Obama "transcended" race to become simply American icons, Jackson made that great leap with his music. His 1982 Thriller album and video mark the dividing line between the era of American race music and the multiracial musical genre that followed.

And unlike many other blacks who find acceptance on both sides of this chasm, Jackson never shied away from talking about race. Jackson very consciously made it part of his music, as with his 1991 recordings of Black or White and Heal the World.

But as he used his musical gift to knock down racial barriers, Jackson was taunted by some who accused him of hating his own blackness. They pointed to his changing skin color as proof of this self-loathing. Even though Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in 1993 that this change was the result of vitiligo, a disorder that robs the skin of its pigment, coverage of his death continues to be bogged down with talk of his change from black to white.

Apparently, it's easier for many people chronicling Jackson's life to treat him as a freak of nature than to see him as the smart financial operative who in 1985 paid $47.5 million to purchase the copyright of the Beatles' music collection and hundreds of other songs. A decade later, Jackson merged that music catalog with Sony's in a deal that netted him $95 million. The joint venture is now estimated to be worth a billion dollars — an amount that far exceeds the debt he supposedly has left behind.

That's the kind of financial success that escaped many black singers of the era that spawned Jackson. But if you listen to much of the reporting on his death, you'd think he died broke.

Far from a tragic figure, Jackson was — as the Rev. Jesse Jackson described him to me over the weekend — "a world-changing cultural force." While complicated by unproved accusations of child abuse and breathless, tabloid-style reports of eccentric living, Jackson's life deserves a better ending. It should be celebrated, not debased.

What he did for this nation — and the world — ought to dominate the reporting of his tragic end, not the question of a possible drug-induced death.

Of course, the way he died is a matter of some importance. But the contributions Jackson made to this society are of much greater historical significance. Making sure that people — regardless whether they are black or white — understand this would be a fitting epilogue to his short life.

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