Facing the Music
In 1991, when I'd just arrived in New York, Mia and I went to Harlem to hear Alice Walker read her poetry. I don't remember much about the night, except it was a very small room and very crowded, and that she started the evening by announcing she was reading a poem she'd just written addressed to Michael Jackson
. "I am in mourning/for your face," it began. And I recall that the audience tittered, and the author said, with some pique, that she was being serious. His face, she continued, had been so altered that he was no longer himself. The poem concluded: "I am in mourning/for your beloved face/so thoroughly and undeservedly released.//Oh, my pretty little brother. Genius. Child./Sing to us, dance.//Rest in peace."
In thinking about Michael Jackson, how electrified I still am by the music from the golden years between "Off the Wall" and "Thriller," and about those extraordinary performances, such as this one
, which showed just how much talent and ability he had in delivering
a song, I find myself returning to Alice Walker's words and wondering if, in some ways, he did indeed die a long time before he passed away yesterday. That night it was hard for me (as it apparently was hard for the audience) to see the seriousness in the loss of Michael Jackson's face—his African-ness, his blackness, the openness that you can see in him as a child or even the directness of the gaze from the cover of "Thriller." Even though the room was filled with many black men and women, who surely heard in Alice Walker's lament for the blackness that her "brother" seemed to be renouncing, an echo of their own travails of what seemed to be necessary then for a black person to succeed in a white world, perhaps even then his metamorphosis was a kind of presaging of the sick joke he was to become.