Don't go to extremes learning to be yourself


I want you to pay close attention: This is not a column about the guilt or innocence of Michael Jackson, though the popular entertainer and tabloid hero figures prominently in the discussion.

This column is about Michael as metaphor. It is about what it means to be a black man in America, what it used to mean, and maybe what it should mean.

It so happens that Mr. Jackson is one of the richest and most beloved black men in America. But does that make him a paradigm of black manhood?

Last month, the parents of a 13-year-old boy filed a civil suit in Los Angeles charging Mr. Jackson with sexually molesting their son. The allegations first surfaced in mid-August after a therapist decided the boy's story was credible and Los Angeles police raided the Jackson estate looking for evidence. Meanwhile, Mr. Jackson's representatives claim the story arose out of a failed extortion attempt. Police are still investigating the case and no charges have been filed.

Not long after all of this, I noted in a column that most people -- judging by the radio call-in shows -- believe Mr. Jackson is innocent of the charges. I wrote that this outpouring of public support seemed strange to me, given the performer's public persona. Mr. Jackson, after all, speaks and sings in a falsetto voice. He surrounds himself with children. He reportedly has no close attachments with men and women his own age. He reportedly has undergone numerous operations to alter his appearance.

My column inspired a number of people to spring to the performer's defense. But perhaps the most interesting response came from a local businessman and music promoter who has worked closely with Mr. Jackson. Because of his business relationships with Mr. Jackson, the promoter did not want to be identified. Let's call him Jim.

"First of all," says Jim, who believes Mr. Jackson is innocent of the charges, "you have to understand that Michael's public persona -- all of that weirdness -- is just a facade. It is an image Michael projects for business reasons. Behind the scenes, he is a regular guy. He talks in a regular voice. He curses. He chases after women. He's as normal as you or I."

Jim claims Mr. Jackson adopted his current persona in order to make himself acceptable -- less threatening -- to a crossover audience.

"America feels threatened by strong blacks," Jim continues. "Eventually, it gets rid of them, or starts witch hunts to break them financially or humiliate them publicly. But America doesn't bother men who are meek, humble, or sweet, because they are not threatening."

It is a fascinating premise, metaphorically speaking: Could Michael Jackson's androgynous appearance be the secret to his mass appeal? Is the exaggerated caricature that is Michael Jackson's public persona the only type of black man America can accept?

The problem with Jim's theory is that such a description does not apply to some of the other black men who have managed to win respect in the mainstream: Gen. Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, entertainer Bill Cosby, or superstar athletes such as Michael Jordan.

On the other hand, black men have been burdened throughout history with a hulking, menacing, brutish image. It is an image that some black youth deliberately play into, according to some counselors, adopting exaggerated hostile attitudes, maybe becoming involved in violence and crime. In fact, the concern about the need for black role models, for mentors, for positive images in the media, arises in part from a need to counteract society's stereotypes and their effects on children.

Mr. Jackson, according to Jim and others, has intentionally pushed his image to the opposite extreme.

There is a lesson to be learned from Michael as metaphor: Some black men are still haunted by the old stereotypes. Some black men still are searching for their identities, for a definition of manhood that society can live with and that they themselves can live with. But the search can be a perilous one. And neither of the extremes works.

The search for black manhood begins with a simple homily: Be yourself.

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