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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: More than skin-deep

Sunanda K Datta-Ray  |  New Delhi 

Jackson epitomised the black man's trauma in even Obama's America.

Whether or not it is held at Neverland, Michael Jackson’s 2,500-acre estate in California, tomorrow’s memorial service will not dwell on the never-never land that he shared with Merle Oberon, the film star. Both were caught in the colour warp that no one mentions but which remains the last and seemingly insuperable frontier in human relations.

is said to be “easy in his skin”. Jackson and Oberon were not. Despite huge success and vast wealth, life was intense private suffering for both. Of course, money bought exemption from crude manifestations of what used to be called the colour bar. But they aspired for more. Harry Belafonte records how white passengers on-board ship would come up to him, link arms without a word, be photographed and go away without even saying “Thanks!” The brown man’s sensibilities were of no account to whites whose only interest was in his celebrity.

In the simpler age in which lived, there were no compromises between black and white. She buried all trace of Queenie Thomson, the Anglo-Indian telephone operator in Calcutta who won a contest at Firpo’s, and transformed herself into Merle to flourish. Her histrionic talents and the fortune they earned, enabled her to pass for white, as the saying went, though there were always whispers behind her back.

Jackson’s was a more complex world in which trauma sought release in reverse arrogance. It was the world in which James Brown, rated by many to have been a more significant entertainer than Jackson, could yell, “Say it out loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” Wacko Jacko could not afford to ignore the phenomenon, and he, too, is quoted saying, “I’m a black American, I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity.”

But did he believe it? In any case, the statement was not an affirmation of a defiant political creed. It did not convey identification with America’s black community, their hopes and fears, joys and triumphs. The impact even of his half-hearted testament was offset by Jackson’s other claim that “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”. It does — or did — in the US. Above all, his changing appearance gave the lie to any claim of black pride.

Early pictures show a full-faced youth with flared nostrils, proud Afro hairdo, great brown eyes and an open and optimistic expression. Gradually, that young hope disappeared in a vision of slim, almost machine-made, perfection. He denied having had surgery to alter his facial structure though there could be no other explanation for the high cheekbones, sleek nose, thin lips, slit eyes and straight hair. He said he had never taken hormones to maintain his high-pitched voice, and claimed to suffer from vitiligo, a common ailment better known in India as leucoderma. If true, he seems to have responded to the pigmentation failure by having the intermediate patches of dark skin bleached. That might account for the unhealthy pallor that comes through in photographs.

His case was not unique. The National Association for the Advance of Coloured Peoples (NAACP) once claimed that about 12,000 light-skinned American blacks “disappear” every year. Their absence cannot be explained by death or migration. “Nearly every one of the 14 million discernible blacks in the US knows at least one member of his race who is ‘passing’ — the magic word which means that some blacks can get by as whites. Often, these emigrants achieve success in business, the professions, the arts and sciences.”

The NAACP’s claim took me back to the illusions and contradictions of the Anglo-Indian world of my childhood. I still come across occasional echoes of it, in India as well as in England, the emphasis on the grandfather who was “pure Irish” or “went out” to India. Jackson’s creative talent and heightened sensitivities must have aggravated the agony. Sony’s chairman, Tommy Mottola, thought him “racist”. Perhaps he was, but of which race? He was born black but what did he die as?

It was said that was a black man in search of whiteness. That his ideal was hyper white, hyper Aryan, hyper White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP). It would be more accurate to say he was a black man in search of an identity. To that end he spent two years flirting with the Nation of Islam. That didn’t work and he created his own broken-down tragic image that represented no established stereotype but exposed the black man’s trauma even in Obama’s America.  

First Published: Sat, July 04 2009. 00:22 IST