To Walk a Lifetime in Michael Jackson’s Moccasins

Michael Jackson giving it his all in concert around 1995. (photographer unknown)

Michael Jackson giving it his all in concert around 1987. (photo by Neal Preston featured in Oct 12, 1987 People Magazine)

You probably can’t read the words on the note next to the accompanying photo of Michael Jackson, but they were handwritten by the singer himself during the late 1980s when he was constantly on tour and just as constantly a subject of much public ridicule and condemnation. This note was composed on hotel stationery and, complete with original spellings, grammar, and format, reads as follows:

“like the old Indian proverb says do not judge a man until you’ve walked 2 moons in his moccasins.

Most people don’t know me, that is why they write such things in wich most is not true

I cry very very often because it hurts and I worry about the children all my children all over the world, I live for them.

If a man could say nothing against a character but what he can prove, history could not be written.

Animals strike, not from malice, but because they want to live, it is the same with those who criticize, they desire our blood, not our pain. But still I must achieve I must seek truth in all things. I must endure for the power I was sent forth, for the world for the children.

But have mercy, for I’ve been bleeding a long time now.”

M.J. (1987)

It’s hard to think of Michael Joseph Jackson as having been a baby boomer because nothing defined him quite so much as his music, and his music possesses the eternal quality of genius that makes all superior art timeless, ageless, and endlessly compelling. But a baby boomer he was, born August 29, 1958, and now gone so soon to his rest June 25, 2009.

Reporting on Jackson’s death just hours after it was confirmed, NBC News anchorman Lester Holt noted, “We were the same age. I remember being a ten-year-old watching this ten-year-old kid on television.” A familiar feeling. I arrived on the planet one year before either of them but like Holt I also watched the young Michael Jackson on stage on television. My attention was fully captured with no desire to be released because there he was: a cultural mirror image of myself who was not the watermelon-eyed “Buckwheat” (all due respect to the actor who played that role) or a stereotypical barefoot “pickaninny” movie extra in some Gone With the Wind spin-off, but a little black boy musical genius so charged with the lightning of his talent and confidence that he could take the lead singer position with his four brothers behind him and an audience of thousands in front of him–and perform with all the grace, skill, and maturity of someone three times his age. How did that kid do that? Living as I did in a southern region where black skin and a male anatomy often reduced one’s life expectancy by decades, the answer of how that kid did what he did was important to this future author.

Years later I considered the greater scope of what he had achieved. While the vast majority of those in our peer group at age eleven or twelve were at home evenings studying for a quiz in school the next day or building up nerve to steal a first kiss, Michael Jackson was working–working in clubs, working in theaters, working on television, working in concert halls, working working working his ass off. On how many continents, and in how many countries, was that child a stranger in a strange land? Yet one who repeatedly channeled gifts of song and dance and love to bring respites of celebrated joy to the lives of others? His labors as a child played no small role in laying a foundation of lasting wealth for what has been called America’s “preeminent family of pop music.” Later on, those labors would pull a lagging recording industry out of its deathbed slump, and jump-start a new industry art form known as video while trashing racial barriers on TV and radio in the process. Did that make him a saint? No. Does it make his memory one worthy of respect? Most definitely.

Not all “child prodigies” who exhibit the level of talent that Jackson did as a child tend to fulfill the promise of those gifts in their adulthood. He was one of those who did. Once his ambition led him to pursue and establish with phenomenal results a solo career, each year thereafter when birthdays came around (his in August, mine in July) I started studying what he had accomplished to date and would challenge myself to do better in my own career. That’s not to say I ever did, or even that I thought I could or should match him; only that his accomplishments motivated me to reach for some of my own.

The judgments of different critics aside, he outdid himself repeatedly: with the flawless album Off the Wall in 1979; the all-time bestselling Thriller in 1982; Bad in 1987; and Dangerous in 1991. By the time Jackson’s HIStory-Past, Present and Future, Book I was released in 1995, I was managing a multi-media book, video, software and music store, which allowed me to indulge the pleasure of dancing along to the album’s combination of anthology and new music while shelving and selling books. True, I was dancing to his life’s soundtrack rather than my own and another three years would pass before my first book would get published. But: I celebrated this last album (not the last of his career) in particular because it was the first one released after the singer had descended into the tar-thick shadow-side of celebrity-hood: constant hounding by the paparazzi, reportedly “bizarre” behavior bordering on insanity, and allegations of pedophilia. The fact that his fame had become his cross made me less envious that he had achieved it so early.

Yet in the album HIStory, the purity of the music declared that whatever might or might not be the truth behind the scandalous headlines, all had somehow remained well with his soul. Whereas madness attempted to take over his life–and for a time possibly did–he fought and won his battle to turn it into superlative art. The new songs on HIStory presented his defense of himself even while going beyond that to champion the environment and level substantial social criticism of his own. It was around the time of HIStory‘s release that he wrote the above note and the photo that accompanies it was taken (my apologies for failing to track down the exact date or the photographer’s name). When I saw them published in People Magazine, I cut the page out and placed it in a photo album, then said a prayer for this man whose voice had helped awaken my voice.

We human beings tend to demand that our heroes fulfill many fantasies, but one fantasy no hero can fulfill is perfection while in this world. They can make the effort to give as much of themselves to the global community as they can, and then beg forgiveness when the gifting isn’t enough and the less appealing aromas of their humanity dim the air with the funky truth of their flesh and blood limitations. It was good that “the King of Pop” had been tested and learned something about his limitations in one major battle because he would need whatever strength he gained from it for other confrontations down the road. In the end, it was strength he was reaching for once again to begin his journey anew and do the one thing he did better than anybody else.

A lot of tabloids, magazines, websites, radio stations, entertainment personalities, and retail chains made tons of good hard cash peddling before the world what they presented as Michael Jackson’s eccentricities and possible moral failings. Perhaps now that he has left the stage for the last time, they can pay a bit of that forward by leaning in the opposite direction and honoring the brilliance of his dynamic artistry, the beauty of his dazzling creative passion, and the simple sincerity–however wounded it may have been–of his love for his fellow human beings.

by Aberjhani
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love