This piece is running in this week's edition of the History News Network website.
As we all know, Michael Jackson has and will be remembered in many ways: pop star, freak, business mogul, et. al. What I fear, amid all all the grief, cacophony, and distaste of these and coming days, is that we will lose sight of the truth that he was, whatever else he might have been, a great artist. Like his predecessor, Elvis Presley, Jackson was a distillation --and extension -- of all that had come before him, in his particular case a tradition that runs from ring shouts to James Brown. And like Presley, a major component of Jackson's claim on immortality will be his status as a great American artist. And like Presley too, the heart of that claim is Jackson's quintessential generational embodiment of the grand drama of our history: the saga of integration.
Michael Jackson first burst into public consciousness as part of the final flowering of Motown Records, a label founded in the 1950s in large measure to make black music that would be commercially appealing to white people. But by the time of its heyday in the mid-1960s, Motown had achieved its cultural pre-eminence as great American music. African American music, yes, and thus ineluctably somehow not quite pure (i.e. white). But set against the social and political drama of the sixties this was precisely what legitimated it. At the time and ever since, there have been those who have denigrated Motown as pop that pandered. But this has always been a minority position, even among African Americans themselves. The paradoxical essence of American identity is its mongrel character (or, if you prefer, its hybrid character). That's as true of the Anglo-American Benjamin Franklin, the escaped slave Frederick Douglass, and the Russian Jewish immigrant Mary Antin as it was of Jackson.
By the late 1960s, the times were a changin,' even at Motown. The Temptations, Marvin Gaye -- even marvelously bright-spirited Stevie Wonder -- were realigning themselves on a landscape where Memphis, not Detroit, was central. Literally and figuratively, the national mood was a good deal darker, especially for African Americans. By the early 1970s it was no longer considered appropriate for anyone (with the possible exception of a child star) to uncritically embrace the paled appeal of racial integration. Popular music largely re-segregated, reflecting a society in which a seemingly permanent black underclass took shape and residential patterns stubbornly resisted legal mandates for multi-racial schools. Overt racism was no longer permissible. But by the early 1980s, the music executives at MTV would, with straight faces, make what seemed to be a rational assertion that white audiences would simply not be interested in seeing videos for a song like "Billie Jean."
Like Marian Anderson and Louis Armstrong, Michael Jackson in his heyday almost entirely sidestepped racial conflict, and like them this was a big part of his appeal -- even as the inescapability of his racial identity was also part of his appeal. With Off the Wall in 1979 and Thriller in 1982, he staked a fully formed adult claim to the center of American life and miraculously straddled musical cultures, as well as the transition from album-oriented radio to music video. That he could not remain in the center says less about his tragically deformed personality that it does the ineluctible shifting of what constitutes the center at any given time. The rise of hip-hop pushed Jackson to the musical margins, even on hit radio. By the early 1990s, the Sidney Pointier of his generation, Denzel Washington, was playing Malcolm X in a Spike Lee film.
We of the early 21st century have another honor roll that lists names like Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor, and Barack Obama. We no more wish these people to deny the particularities of their heritage any more than we would Abraham Lincoln to deny his poverty or F. Scott Fitzgerald his Irish Catholicism. Far from a barrier, such distinctions have become a veritable asset. There's a word we often use to describe this state of affairs: Progress. But progress always has a price. The death of Michael Jackson serves as a pointed reminder of its cost, who pays, and what the world loses when we become who we are.