Teaching Michael Jackson In The College Classroom


I couldn’t let the 20th anniversary of the premier of the Black or White video pass by without paying tribute to it. At the same time, I realized that a discussion of this groundbreaking video can be closely tied in with another subject I have been wanting to write about-teaching Michael Jackson in the freshman college classroom.

Most Kids Today Are Aware That Michael Jackson Was Someone Very Big And Famous, But Their Knowledge Usually Begins And Ends With Billie, Jean, Beat It, and Thriller

I have been teaching English classes at a local community college for several years. A few semesters ago I began incorporating Michael’s Black or White video into the curriculum of my English 102 classes, usually as part of our unit on theme and symbolism. In the beginning, I was a little apprehensive. I wasn’t sure how a discussion of Michael Jackson or his work would be received by a group of mostly 18-to-22-year-olds, mixed in with the occasional middle-aged homemaker who has returned to school after a 20-year hiatus of raising a family. I know how most of those 18-to-22-year old kids view Michael Jackson. They’ve all heard of him, of course, and may even be familiar with some of the songs. If pressed, they could probably tell you he was that guy who did Thriller and was famous for doing the moonwalk. They no doubt will know something about the controversies of Michael’s last years; they may be aware that he was the butt of nose jokes and-sadly-pedophile jokes. They realize that he is someone considered great; a legand and icon to their parents’ generation. If they’ve thought much about him at all, they think of him as one of the great old school artists-someone they know is supposed to be revered, but in the same way they regard Shakespeare. In other words, as someone they know is “supposed” to be great art, but who remains for them an enigma enshrouded by mostly ignorance and fear-the fear of the unknown. For just as with Shakespeare, whom students will avoid out of fear and intimidation until a good teacher is able to help tear down that wall, I realize every year that the reason most young people remain ignorant of the art and influence of Michael Jackson is simply that they have never had any kind of exposure to Michael Jackson as a serious subject of study.

Of course, that is starting to change as many universities are beginning to include Michael Jackson studies as a part of their offered academic curriculums. We are at the stage now where there is just enough distance to finally begin acknowledging and assessing Michael Jackson’s importance, not just as a pop icon, but as a serious artist worthy of academic study; as one who is worthy of inclusion in the academic canon. Last year, a very succesful symposium in Chicago was dedicated to the topic of Michael Jackson as a subject of academic study. New books such as Joe Vogel’s Man In The Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson are helping to shed new insight on the serious study of Michael Jackson’s music and art. It also means that as a culture we are finally somewhat getting away from the idea of Michael Jackson as simply a great entertainer, and accepting that, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan (artists who have been subjects for academic study for many years) ), he is among that elite handful of artists whose work has helped define and reshape our culture.  

Books Such As Joe Vogel's New Book "Man In The Music: The Creative Life And Work of Michael Jackson" Are Indicative Of A Growing Interest In The Serious Academic Study Of Michael Jackson's Music And Cultural Legacy

One night, earlier this year, I was in the middle of teaching my class when I heard a familiar falsetto-“shoop!”-coming from the music class across the hall. I realized I was hearing Speed Demon. I had no idea what the music class was covering that night, or how Speed Demon fit into the picture, but I smiled a little inside knowing that Michael’s music was being taught and appreciated. At the same time, it’s a bit ironic to think that the pop Top 40 of our day is now music worthy of serious academic study. Michael Jackson is being taught right alongside Beethoven and Mozart, but somehow that does not feel strange at all.

However,  it’s one thing to teach Michael Jackson in a music class. But an English class? Well, that may not be as far fetched as it sounds. I have been using music as part of my class curriculum for several years. I have found that using music-especially pop music- helps students to comprehend difficult and sometimes dense concepts such as theme and symbolism. And because a song is more compact and immediate than, say, a short story or even a poem, it can be a great way to introduce young students to these concepts.

The first time I actually introduced Michael Jackson into the classroom was as part of a discussion of theme. I played Sign O’ The Times by Prince, which is a great song to use for a discussion of theme and also to discuss artistic motifs’ (themes that may reoccur repeatedly throughout an artist’s body of work). Playing that song usually leads to a discussion of how Prince incorporates apocalyptic themes and imagery into his work. Next, I played Michael’s Stranger In Moscow (which is not only a great song, but also exposes them to something by Michael Jackson other than just Beat It, Billie Jean, or Thriller, which for 99% of them is all they’ve ever heard). The playing of Stranger In Moscow always elicits some great classroom discussions. Among the themes we usually discuss is that of alienation; particularly, in Michael’s case, the alienation of the artist. But we also discuss how the song can be applied to anyone who feels isolated and alone, or as if no one in the world cares. Which, quite frankly, is a theme we can all relate to at some time or other, especially teens. Of course, turnabout is fair play, so the way I usually encourage my students to get involved and listen is to tell them, “Okay, if you guys will be patient and  listen to my old school 80’s music, I’ll let you bring to class and discuss something you like.” What this accomplishes is that it opens the door to dialogue; my students feel that I am interested in what is relevant to them, so in return, they are more open and receptive to listening to…well, as I jokingly say, my “old” music. Except that an interesting thing usually happens once the dialogue has been opened; we usually find that we learn a lot from each other.  And for most of my students-for whom Tupac Shakur is old school- it is often a revelation for them to realize that Michael Jackson is still just as relevant as Chris Brown or Lady Gaga; perhaps even moreso. They learn, in essence, why his music has stood the test of time (in much the same way that Shakespeare still endures, while literary fads may come and go).


But it was not until a few semesters ago that I finally decided to go completely out on a limb, and to set aside an entire class night to discuss and analyze the Black or White video. I made the decision after realizing that it is not only a terrific video for discussing symbolism, what with the Black Panther segment, but also a very fascinating case study in what can happen when symbolism is misinterpreted-or, perhaps, coded in such a way that it is only intended for certain viewers to “get.”

I knew this would be taking a risk. Although I had in the past devoted a few minutes of class time to discussing theme in Stranger In Moscow, I had never before seriously considered the idea of devoting an entire class night to a serious academic discussion of Michael Jackson. I didn’t know how well this would go over; I didn’t know how students would react. After all, like it or not, Michael Jackson remains a very controversial and polarizing figure, one that people either love and revere, or passionately despise (even if, albeit, for all the wrong reasons, but that is a debate for elsewhere). Simply put, I didn’t know what can of worms I might be opening. Nervously; hesitantly, I set aside an evening on my syllabus calendar (which every student receives a copy of on the first night of each semester) and wrote: “Discuss Symbolism In Michael Jackson’s Black or White video.” It was slipped in as casually as any other discussion of any other important literary work or author on the syllabus, and that was exactly how I approached it. This would be an evening dedicated to a very important artistic work by an important American, 20th century artist-no different than any other evening spent discussing Robert Frost’s “Birches” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited. I also gave them an added incentive to take it seriously..by letting them know it would be on their exam!

I am proud to say I have now been regularly teaching the Black or White video as a routine part of my English 102 curriculum for several semesters now, and so far it has been mostly a resounding success. So now I thought I might share a little of what that experience has been like over the past several semesters, and perhaps in so doing, hopefully inspire more teachers to bring Michael Jackson into the classroom.

For me, it’s been a revelation, and not without a few surprises-mostly positive ones.

It's Hard To Fathom That Most Kids Today Have No Idea What A Huge Deal A New Michael Jackson Video Was In 1991

Each class night that I teach Black or White begins, of course, with watching the full length, eleven minute video. Before showing the video, I usually give a brief talk to give them a sense of context, reminding them that this was 1991, and at the time, Michael Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world. By this time, every new video from him was an event; a spectacle. It’s important to give them this sense of context; after all, most of these kids weren’t even born in 1991; at most, they were just babies. Like I said before, most of them do have some idea that Michael Jackson was a huge star, but for most of them, coming of age in the era of Youtube and post-music MTV, it’s hard to even fathom a time when one pop star could command a worldwide television audience of over 500 million viewers with just a single video.

But the real clincher is when I tell them that the video had no sooner been broadcast, then it was almost immediatly panned, condemned, and ultimately banned from MTV. Of course, that gets their attention because they immediatly want to know: What was so bad about it that it was banned? That is when I say, “Just watch…and then we’ll talk about it.”

So for about six minutes, the class sits through what must seem to them a relatively catchy, cute and funny, if albeit harmless enough, peon to racial harmony. “It don’t matter if you’re black or white…” Looking out, I can see many of them bopping along; most of them recognize the song, even if it’s just a distant, childhood memory. At some point, they had all probably heard it, maybe even sang along to it as kids, but then had stored it away in the deepest recesses of their collective, subconscious memories-probably along with Barney the Dinosaur and Ren and Stimpy!

The Michael Jackson Of Black Or White Is A Michael Jackson Most Kids My Students' Age Haven't Known...I Can Always Hear The Audible Gasps When He First Appears In The Video (Especially From The Girls!)

And then, usually, there is an almost audible gasp when they see their first glimpse of the 1991 Michael Jackson, dancing among the aborigines in his skinny black pants and  flowing white shirt, rocking the long hair; his lean dancer’s body lithe as a cat and ready to spring! For many of them, this is a Michael Jackson they have not experienced. They may be familiar with the iconic image of Michael Jackson from his Thriller days; or even moreso, the Michael Jackson of later years who had become the butt of media jokes. My students, after all,  are a generation who have  come of age with the “Wacko Jacko” image perpetuated by the tabloids. Those images of Michael Jackson coming and going from court in 2005 have unfortunately become the only image that most younger kids even know.

But suddenly, they are seeing Michael in his youthful prime, and in that moment, there is a palpable connection made. I can always feel it in the room. Michael is young and beautiful, larger than life on the big projection screen; even a bit dangerous. In that moment, he comes alive again; he becomes relevant again.

However, it is those final, infamous six minutes or so-the Black Panther Dance-in which my students literally become spellbound. But who can blame them? As someone was quoted in “The Making of Black or White,” even if you didn’t like it, could totally care less, you couldn’t pull your eyes away from it. It is in those moments that I see the true magic of Michael Jackson at work. Even the good ol’ macho redneck boys-the ones who could really care less about Michael Jackson-are nevertheless enamored to his every move; no one can tear their eyes away. The Panther Dance sequence is brilliant in its unexpectedness; its juxtapositions of the erotic and the profane; the sexual and the violent.

Most don’t “get it” but they certainly can’t turn away!

When the video is over, it is always the most stunned sort of uncomfortable silence that falls over the classroom. And breaking that silence is always the most awkward moment of the entire lesson. I can feel it in the air; can read it in all their faces. They have gone from enjoying what at first seemed a very fun and catchy video to a stunned “What the bloody hell was that?” In some ways, not so very different from the exact, same way that audiences reacted in 1991.

The Panther Dance...Love It Or Hate It, You Can't Look Away

What can one possibly do in that situation? Where to begin after that, as far as facilitating class discussion? Well, where I begin is with the obvious…and usually, a sense of humor helps. I will say, “I know you’re all thinking, ‘what the bloody heck was that?’ and then I’ll say, “Well, you know what? The first time I ever saw this video, I thought the same thing…and so did a lot of people!”

This is the point where I go into the uproar and controversy caused by the video. As a follow up, I always play portions of “The Making Of Black Or White” which does an excellent job of depicting just how big this thing blew up. I also usually get a few laughs when I mention one of my own fondest memories of that following Monday morning when EVERYBODY was talking about this video. On one radio talk show, an elderly woman called in. They asked her what she thought of the Michael Jackson video. In a quivering voice that could have been anyone’s grandmother, the old woman paused for a minute and then said, “Well, I just think that boy needs to get married, real bad.”  


At this point, we discuss the reactions to the video and the resulatnt condemnation. Was all the uproar and controversy warranted? Students will usually be divided; some saying yes; others no. But most still do not at this point get the truly relevant symbolism, so that is usually where I direct them next.

As a companion piece to the video, I always read with my students Barbara Kaufmann’s excellent essay on this video, “Black and White and Proud.” It is not only by far one of the most insightful pieces I’ve read on the symbolism and historical context of this video, but also, for my own classroom purposes, an excellent model for my students in what good literary criticsm should be. Writing literary criticism (especially coming up with an arguable, persuasive thesis) is a concept that many students struggle with. In using Kaufmann’s essay, it is also a good opportunity for me to teach students how a well written piece of literary criticism does far more than just “explain” the work-when done right, it can open the doors to understanding; can help shed light on the work in ways we may not have previously thought, and can even completely change or alter one’s perception of a work.


Much of the focus of Kaufmann’s article is about the video’s coded symbolism;the Black Panther symbol’s powerful (if implicit) message, and the historical role of Michael Jackson as a civil rights activist-in ways that many may not have considered before. I know that for my students, especially, the idea of Michael Jackson as a civil rights activist is something of a revelation, and one that I think encourages many of them to view him in a whole different light. Part of class discussion, of course, is encouraging them to agree or disgaree with the points of Kaufmann’s article ( I encourage them that disgareeing is okay, as long as they can back their disagreement with valid and logical points). However, to provide further context for the article, I usually follow up, when time permits, by also showing the clips of Michael’s 2002 speech against Sony, and the 2001 speech in New York with Rev. Al Sharpton. In both clips, students get to see Michael in action as an activist standing up for the rights of black artists. Seeing him in this context helps add validity to both the message of Black or White and Kaufmann’s essay. I tell them the story I was told when I visited Gary, Indiana last year and learned that as recently as the 1960’s, when Michael was a child, “colored people” were not allowed past the downtown railroad tracks after 6pm (which presented a problem for Michael and his brothers, since they were usually playing at downtown clubs long past the 6pm curfew!). I tell them about the racially motivated beating that Michael took right here in our own home state, Alabama-as late as 1983! I tell them, these are not the things you will read in any book; these are not the things the media will report. But yes, Michael Jackson knew racism, and yes, he was angry, and yes, he was an activist in ways many will never know or realize.


But this brings up another interesting dilemma when teaching Michael Jackson in the classroom. How does one manage to take this very complex man-whose life has been the subject of tabloid fodder and misunderstanding for over thirty years-and condense the essence of him down to an hour-long class? Every time I prepare for this class, I find myself asking that question. I am thinking, if I have but one hour to maybe change some kid’s mind about Michael Jackson, or to impart a kernel of truth that might somehow make a dent in all of the lies and misinformation the media has programmed into these kids’ brains-what should I say?

Well, just as with teaching any writer or poet I love, I have to realize that I can’t cover everything. What I have to do is to keep the discussion focused and relevant to the topic at hand. However, it’s virtually impossible to talk about Michael Jackson to a classroom of teens and young adults without at least touching on some of the familiar controversies of his life. At various times, discussions of everything from his vitiligo, to his surgeries, to the molestation allegations have come up-and, of course, I have to be prepared to deal with those topics. For the most part, I don’t dwell on the allegations, simply because if I allowed myself to really get carried away on that topic, I could easily spend the entire hour discussing that and nothing else! But if students do ask questions, I answer them honestly and forthrightly, giving them the facts that I have researched. Once, I had an especially inquisitive student who couldn’t help asking: If Michael Jackson really felt so strongly that it did not matter if you’re black or white, why did he bleach his skin to be white?” That question really took me aback. This student was not being a smart aleck; he genuinely believed that Michael Jackson bleached his skin. He was all of eighteen years old, and had never heard any different. All he knew was what the media had told him. So that opened the door for us, as a class, to have a very good discussion about the disease vitiligo. Predictably, most of my students were stunned. They couldn’t understand why the media would withhold such information.

On the flipside, however, I am also very proud to say that most of my students are incredibly smart and savvy. They know how the media operates. What I am always most delighted to learn is that many of them, in fact, have a very genuine and avid curiosity about the man Michael Jackson. They seem for the most part to enjoy this opportunity to get to know a little bit about a man they rightfully feel the media did not allow them to get to know. When we talk about the media injustice to Michael Jackson, I’m very surprised to learn that most of my students “get” that. But perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, they are a generation that has been in a more privileged position than any other to witness just how quickly the media can tear someone down. They have come of age in a generation where our government and media have lied to us about weapons of mass destruction in order to justify a war we should never have been in; they are, for sure, a more cynical and world-weary generation than we were.

I can’t say with 100% certainty what my students take away from these discussions. If they hate Michael Jackson, of course, they probably aren’t going to tell me-I’m the teacher, after all! But judging from the cumulative responses so far, I know for certain that most of them come away from that one hour with a better understanding of Michael Jackson, both the man AND the artist-than they’ve ever had before. When it comes time for the exam question on Black or White, I am always both amazed and touched at the depth with which my brightest students are able to analyze how and why the “coded symbolism” of The Black Panther works, whether to enhance, expand upon, or deflect from the video’s message of racial equality. Ultimately, what I hope they take from it is that Michael’s message of racial equality is an ideal-a beautiful one, at that. But before that ideal can be achieved-before it is even possible-we first have to purge a lot of the ugliness. The ideal cannot be achieved as long as racial injustice still exists. The Black Panther Dance, with all of its violence and pent-up rage, is the catharsis that has to happen before true healing and equality can be achieved.

Yes, an hour is a very short time in which to make a difference. But I don’t regret undertaking this challenge. For one hour every semester, I get an opportunity to introduce my students to a man, an artist, a humanitarian, and an amazing civil rights activist they never knew. I give then an opportunity to meet Michael Jackson, the human being.

As for Michael Jackson, The Caricature, he will still be out there, long after my students have moved on from English 102. But somehow, I doubt The Caricature will  ever hold quite the same appeal for them.

Truth has a funny way of doing that.


49 thoughts on “Teaching Michael Jackson In The College Classroom”

  1. This is a GREAT piece! I love how you’re able to reach your students in an intelligent and rational way! I wish I could have discussed MJ when I was in college!

    If only there were law schools who had their students study the 2005 trial! From what I’ve heard, there aren’t very many – if any – law schools that thoroughly examine the trial. I think every law school in the country should add that trial to their curriculum and use it as an example of malicious and vindictive prosecution!

    One last thing: you mentioned in your piece the way MJ was treated in Alabama in 1983. Can you elaborate? I think you may have discussed it in a previous post, before the site went down. Thanks!

    1. Yes, I wrote about that in a piece entitled “Michael’s Alabama Adentures,” which I would link to except, unfortunately, I am still not able to access the articles from the old site just yet. That is something we are still working on.

      The incident was described by Latoya in her first book (I know Latoya isn’t your favorite Jackson, lol, but I did enjoy both of her books). Her first book is actually very sympathetic towards Michael; it was still a couple of years before she would turn on him with the ’93 press conference. But she talked about a time when Michael came to Alabama with Bill Bray to visit relatives-as you know, Katherine has many relatives who still live here, in both Russell and Barbour counties. The incident occurred when Bill left Michael alone for a few minutes to use a gas station restroom. Michael wandered out of the limo and went in a nearby store to browse (NOT a good idea, but Michael always loved going in those little stores just to shop and snoop around; I guess he got bored sitting in the limo). Bill Bray said he came back, found Michael gone, and then heard shouting coming from the direction of the store. He went in and found the shop owner beating Michael to a pulp, kicking him on the floor and yelling, “I hate f_king n***ers!” The man reportedly did not even recognize that MJ was someone famous; he just knew he was a black man in his store. When Bill Bray finally got the man off of Michael and asked what it was all about, the man said that Michael had tried to steal a five cent candy bar. “I saw him put it in his pocket!” he yelled. Bill said that Michael did not even like candy (a comment I find a bit hard to believe, given Michael’s penchant for sweets) but it just goes to show how ludicrous the whole incident was. This was 1983 and Michael Jackson was already riding high on the success of Thriller. It’s kind of hard to believe he would stoop to swiping a five cent candy bar, unless maybe he just thought it would be funny to see if he could get away with it-and Michael did have that kind of sense of humor (I’ve even heard many of his friends joke about how he could be surprisingly “ghetto” at times) but it’s really doubtful he pocketed anything; even if he did as a prank, it certainly didn’t warrant that kind of reaction!

      So the way the story ended, Michael was in an Alabama hospital for several days (this was kept purposely low key and out of the papers while the family sorted out what action they wanted to take-if any). Jermaine reportedly threatened that he was going to come down and “whoop Alabama ass” but cooler reasoning eventually prevailed. I believe the resulting civil suit was eventually dropped. I have been wanting to research this story further (it supposedly occurred somewhere just south of Birmingham, which would be a doable drive for me with a good vehicle; I have been wanting to drive down to Barbour and Russell county to do some research on Michael’s roots there, anyway). It might be hard to dig up info on this; most likely he was hospitalized under an alias, if the intent was to keep it out of the press. There may be locals who remember it, however. There were witnesses to the incident, who were prepared to testify in the civil trial-Bill Bray said that all of the yelling and screaming attracted quite a crowd! So I know there are people down that way who would still remember this. I am going to look further into it, as it’s a story that has always interested me, for obvious reasons, of course, seeing that this happened right here in my home state.

      1. Thanks for sharing this, Raven. I never knew this. What a HORRIBLE experience!!! Do you know if this awful event was ever alluded to in one of Michael’s songs?

        1. I don’t know. I’m sure this must have stayed with him the rest of his life, however. Something like that, for sure, definitely doesn’t just roll off one’s back. I would imagine he repressed it, which made it even harder. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of that rage didn’t make it into They Don’t Care About Us.

      2. I read LaToya’s first book and I kind of doubt this story about Michael being beaten up ever happened. LaToya has been known in the past to make things up. Although the story was very intriguing to read. I just doubt her veracity. She wrote in her latest book that she found post it notes which Michael left in the Carrolwood house that read: “I Hate John Branca” and “I hate Frank DiLeo”, etc.

        Yet there are no pictures of these notes in her book. All MJ’s fans know what his handwriting looks like. His writing was unique. Samples of notes he left were shown in the coroner’s pictures in the Conrad Murray documentary.

        1. Cont’d: The Conrad Murray documentary should still be on youtube. Michael wrote various notes which he taped to mirrors in the bathroom. One note read: “No violence ever….” You can clearly see it’s his handwriting. Seeing those handwritten notes he left gave me the chills….

          Conrad Murray: The Man Who Killed Michael Jackson

          1. That is why I would like to do some more research on my own regarding the incident. Bill Bray, who would have really been the best person to talk to, unfortunately passed away in 2005 (as, it seems, have so many of Michael’s closest friends in recent years).

            BTW I found this article on Bill Bray’s passing along with one of the most adorable MJ pics I’ve ever seen:


  2. U do lovely work Raven. Every drop counts so your one hour definitely makes a difference. Btw here u see, how the famous people are complaining against loss of Privacy, intrusion by tabloid journalists…its the latest here. Finally, somebody is hearing and they called Michael paranoid…if a Harry Potter fame can do this to Rowling…what Michael would have endured for his unparalleled fame…


    1. Yes, I was just thinking of when those other audio tapes surfaced awhile back. You probaly remember those. In those recordings, Michael also sounded very slurred, though not as bad as the Murray recording. He was talking about how afraid for his life, that people were trying to kill him. When the recordings were leaked, all the media could talk about was how drugged he sounded, and how sad and paranoid. I remmeber thinking: Is anyone actually HEARING what this man was saying? I never thought it was just paranoia. People who think that do not understand just how vulnerable celebrities are, or how they can be manipulated and controlled by those around them. With Michael, it was a unique set of circumstances that I think made him even more vulnerable than most. Perhaps there was some paranoia mixed in, but mostly I think his fears were very real-and very legit.

  3. Raven, thank you so much for this. I think it is wonderful what you are doing so quietly and consistently. Makes me wish I was a teacher, also, so I could introduce Michael to young people at that age. I think perhaps the very young simply love the music and by extension, the artist; without the contamination that we are so aware of. It would be interesting to read an essay or two by these young people addressing their thoughts on BorW and on Michael…how this one short film may have opened their eyes to his powerful work.

    1. Well, I do get a lot of great feedback on their exams. There is always a discussion question on Black or White so that gives them an opportunity to express their thoughts. You’re right, of course, children and young people do seem to have a totally different take on Michael than adults do; they seem more open, and not as hardened into a rigid mindset, and of course kids still love him just because he’s cool!

  4. Reading this post again reminds me that you have had so many wonderful articles that would be ideal for classroom instruction. One of my favorites was one you wrote called, “The Discovery Channel and The Cult of Disrespect: One And The Same.” This was so well written and such an important topic that speaks to human experience in regard to how we treat our fellow human beings, living or deceased. The need to be taught early in life that treating each other with dignity and respect DOES matter and is SO crucial. In the last few years it seems that the media is focusing more and more on the issue of bullying in schools. YouTube videos get posted showing kids abusing one another with little or no care or concern for consequences. Of course in the adult world it’s displayed in many ways. Its stands out in my mind that during the Republican debates there has been a stark lack of concern or patience for those in society that live in poverty or are just plain “different”. A few weeks ago Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul stated, when presented with a hypothetical situation, that a comatose 30 yr old man with no insurance should die. This resulted in approval from the audience and no comment from the other candidates on stage. There was also a situation where an Iraqi war veteran, who happened to be gay, was booed when he asked about the military and their changing attitude toward gays. Again, no reaction from the candidates regarding the poor treatment he received from the audience. Of course we are all familiar with the truly disgraceful and unjustified treatment Michael received in life and now in death. In this and so many other examples, including Michael’s experiences, it is sad to say that the cult of disrespect is alive and well…:-( I hope this particular article of yours is something you’ll be able to share with your students as a lesson in respect and dignity not just for Michael, but for everyone.

  5. Excellent topic!!! That is great that you can bring Michael’s art to the young. I constantly work at that. I attended that Chicago symposium and it was very good.

    1. I would really love to have attended that. It followed too close on the heels of the Gary Fanvention for me, which I was already committed to, and so I was too finacially strapped to travel again so soon. I am hoping they will do it again, this year or next.

  6. Bravo!! Great article!! Your students are lucky to have you! It’s good to know they are not only learning valuable information about Michael, but they are also learning a valuable lesson about world politics/societal dynamics.

    I believe the world will truly come to take Michael seriously as a musical genius and social activist slowly, but surely. Joe Vogel’s book is just a continuation of that dream coming to fruition.

    I would be interested in learning anything you find out about that horrible incident in 1983…It really does disgust me that this kind of thing still happens in this day and age.

  7. This has to be one of the best things that i have read recently. What you are doing with this blog is trully amazing but the fact that you are including Michael’s work in your teaching program is beyong amazing. Thank you.

  8. Your idea to introduce the Black or White topic is great!! Considering all the madness we know surrounds him, I’d imagine that by using the topic of Black or White (which was up there with the controversy) you’re cutting a whole heck of a lot of it down in the minds of this younger generation. If they can come away feeling more accepting on the whole “sexual violence” message.

    Anyway, great article as usual, Raven!

  9. “… coming of age in the era of Youtube and post-music MTV, it’s hard to even fathom a time when one pop star could command a worldwide television audience of over 500 million viewers with just a single video.” You can’t be more right, Raven.

    Not only that, the prevalent prejudice poses almost unsurmountable obstacles to understanding. “The freak?”, an ordinary high school kid once asked his mom (whom I know). He didn’t even get this from his parents who are at least “neutral”, the society poisoned his young mind.

    1. @sofia

      This is the sort of reaction I fear every time I teach Michael in the classroom. So far, my experiences have been mostly positive, and I understand that even some of the notions these kids have-about skin bleaching, etc-are from ignorance and media brainwashing, not malice. I have only ever had one student who was particularly difficult and resistant. She would sit in class and make jokes about his surgical masks, and I remember once when the conversation came up about the Murray homicide trial, she scoffed at the whole idea of Michael Jackson’s doctor being charged with homicide (I wonder if she’s still laughing now, lol!). But even she eventually came around. She was pretty heavily into Goth bands like Nine Inch Nails, etc. When I let her know that I was as knowledgable about those artists as MJ, and even talked about how some of those very artists were inspired by, and in turn inspired by MJ, it sort of shifted the channel of her focus a little bit. Kids too often get boxed into this notion of music being compartmentalized-this artist is cool; this one isn’t; this type of music rules; this music sucks. They don’t realize that those lines are not as clearly drawn as they think. I was guilty of it when I was their age (and regret it now, as it was a mindset that prevented me from enjoying a lot of great music).

      1. I agree with your comment, Raven. Many well known bands of today of very diverse musical styles acknowledge being strongly influenced by MJ. One in particular is Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder has talked about how he respected MJ as an artist and enjoyed listening to his music when he was growing up. In fact a well known song of Pearl Jam’s called “Rats” was influenced by Michael’s childhood performance of “Ben.” A song about a rat, of all things…:-) Vedder also publically defended Michael during the run up to the 2005 trial by insisting MJ deserved his day in court and he deserved to be assumed innocent like anyone else. He was one of the very few high profile entertainers that did this. I’ll always remember that.

  10. Brilliant article Raven! Thanks for sharing your teaching experiences with us. It is so good to know that a class of students is being taught the truth and incredible artistry about a man that we all have much to learn from. Your students are blessed to have you as their teacher.

    Generally speaking, I do believe that Gen Y is more than capable of cutting through the media cr*p about Michael once presented with the facts and they wont just blindly accept what the media forces on us. Just a personal belief that I have.

    I remember when the B or W short film premiered down here. I was so excited and totally gobsmacked and I absolutely loved the morphing sequence at the end!! And still do. I do remember being shocked by the Panther Dance ending and also had that same “what the heck was that?” wondering in my mind. It wasn’t until many years later that I actually understood the message Michael was presenting to us. I now view it in a totally different light now that I recognise all of the symbolism in it. And I Love it! And I love that Michael poured his heart and soul into an incredible piece of film history to teach us some very valuable lessons in the process.
    Genius artist.

    Have you considered presenting his “Ghosts” short film? Brilliant themes in that one too. May be too long for a one hour class and also incorporate discussion time though…….

    1. I have considered at least incorporating some of the Ghosts film. Kaufmann also mentions Ghosts in her article and there are some common themes to both Ghosts and Black or White (for example, the lynch mob scene being reminiscent of the KKK). Mostly, it comes down to an issue of time. Black or White is over 11 minutes; then I still have to allow adequate time for discussion and analysis. Experience has also taught me that students have relatively short attention spans; overload them with too much, and you lose them. However, I’m sure at some point I may get burned out on Black or White and at that time I might decide to use Ghosts instead. Or I might start varying them up; Ghosts one semester; Black or White the next. During the summer, our classes are 2 hour blocks rather than 1, so I might consider at that time adding Ghosts or at least excerpts from it.

  11. Raven, have you seen this blog? It’s authored by Dr. Willa Stillwater, who wrote M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance and “Rereading Michael Jackson,” and Joie Collins, who is one of the founding Team Members of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC).

    They examine MJ’s influence from a very academic perspective, and it’s a very educational and enlightening blog! You should add it to your blogroll!

    Here is Dr. Stillwater’s “Rereading Michael Jackson”, an EXCELLENT article! I think you should consider incorporating this into a future class discussion!


    1. Went back through and read Dr. Stillwater’s article again this morning. It’s a lot to digest and covers so much ground, from so many angles, yet shows how they are all inter-related. I recognized some of the excerpts on cosmetic surgery from your series on fallacies over at Vindicating Michael. He makes a lot of excellent points. I’ve always maintained that the bulwark of Michael’s surgeries were isolated to his nose (not his entire face, as the media claimed) and Dr. Stillwater pretty much confirms that. At first, I had a bit of a kneejerk reaction when he began to talk about Michael’s changing skin color being an artistic statement, but I’m glad I stuck it out to see where he was actually going with it. I do agree that Michael utilized his appearance as an artistic statement. It makes sense in a lot of ways when you think about it. Had he remained in the public eye simply a cute, young black man, ala’ The Jackson 5 all the way up through Thriller, there certainly wouldn’t have been all the controversy surrounding his appearance, questions regarding his loyalty to his race, etc. But by the same token, we would have missed something else, as well, and that is the indelible and powerful statement that his changing appearance made to our collective psyche. The issue of Michael’s changing skin color is always a very sensitive one-on the one hand, yes, we know he had a serious skin disease he could not help. But as Stillwater points out-and have so many others-it seemed that, once having accepted his fate, Michael in no way tried to conceal his condition, downplay it, or go the opposite route by becoming a spokesperson or poster boy for vitiligo. Instead, he seemed to actually go above and beyond to flaunt it and to allow people to project their own interpretations onto him. From an artistic standpoint, that was a very courageous thing to do.

    1. I have considered They Don’t Care About Us. That would be a good one (moreso for theme, I think, than symbolism). There are so many great works I would love to include if only I had the luxury of time. TDCAU works also in the context of discussing MJ as a civil rights activist. I tend to prefer the Brazil version, though.

  12. My generation never got to know Michael Jackson. Unfortunately, I “discovered” him when I was casually watching TV and This Is It came on. I couldn’t look away. I was completely amazed at the songs I’ve never heard of before. I’d never heard anything like it. I then spent months reading and researching and studying this man, and now I am a Jackson fan for life. I genuinely love him, he has changed my life….but I will forever be angry at the media for not allowing me to know him sooner…..

    ……If only I had a teacher like you who could’ve done this for me.

    Thank you so much for what your doing. Michael deserves to be taught in schools and studied fairly.

  13. Raven,

    Congratulations on this excellent piece and a profound thank you to you and all other educators who incorporate Michael into their curriculum in a manner which enlightens and elevates the mind of your students. Now if we could just get the law schools to do the same.

  14. Thank you so much, Raven, for posting this.

    I am teaching in a “Cinematic Arts” (media and film) department at a University, and my belated “discovery” of Michael Jackson prompted me to offer a course in Film Musicals, so that I might bring my knowledge of film history to bear on several of Michael’s short films; I taught “Thriller,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” and “Black or White,” referencing a number of academic sources that have been around for awhile… including Kobena Mercer’s article “Monster Metaphors,” published (I think) in 1985.

    I was eager to point out the musical film tradition that was so much a part of Michael’s inspiration and was so influential to the ’80s generation of music video artists—in a sense, music videos were what the feature-length film musical—past its prime by 1983—was evolving into. Since we’d studied the work of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly already, I was pleased to be able to place Michael’s work in that context, as well as to introduce some other influences…. it was a tall order, I know, for a short class!

    I was pleased that Michael’s work (which I juxtaposed with a couple of Madonna’s videos) met with a reasonably warm reception in the class. As you say, anyone who harbored any ill-will toward him, or misapprehensions about him, wasn’t likely to speak up about it in that setting!

    Another time, a colleague of mine invited me to do a guest lecture in a class she taught on “Horror Film”; I showed “Thriller,” again—but in another context, with a different interpretive slant—and “Ghosts.” Again, I hope I added something to the students’ knowledge of Michael Jackson, film, and the world that he so aptly enriches and illuminates for all of us.

    1. Nina, I don’t know if you’ve seen this video before but it’s a great representation of Michael tipping his hat to old school Hollywood and the work of Fred Astaire. A man who in many ways was Michael’s artistic mentor. It never ceases to amaze me how Michael pulled from this genre then re-imagined it, putting his artistic stamp on it, inorder to make it uniquely his own.


      Michael Jackson & Fred Astaire: The Master & His Teacher

    2. It sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job, Nina! Michael’s body of work is so complex and diverse, that is one of the difficulties I run up against when trying to decide how to prep for an hour long class (and keep it focused!). Everything has to flow; students have to be able to draw the dots and make the connections. Having a bit of academic freedom helps, also (which is why I love teaching at the college level, because generally you do have that freedom and flexibility).

      Music video in itself was such a great art form for expression. I am using past tense here because, really, music video as it was in its prime is pretty much dead-which is a shame. These days, any amateur can throw something together, put it on Youtube, and get a million hits. I don’t think we’ll ever see the return of the true masters of the form, such as Michael Jackson or Madonna in her prime.

  15. Thanks so much, Sandy K and Raven.

    It’s really illuminating to see these two greats dancers juxtaposed in this way. I hope to do more teaching of Michael’s work in the near future! Keep up the good work.

  16. Thank you for sharing this experience, and thank you for doing what you do. Although I live far from the United State, it is my dream for Michael’s work to be studied like this in his home country – aтв I’m sure it was his as well. He deserved to be understood and appreciated by the new generation.

  17. i find it sad when someone can’t see Michael’s impact on culture and they try to dismiss the turning of the music video into a art form into meaningless or not significant the thing is that MJ’s detractors just want to see MJ as this song and dance man and i believe that’s what the white establishment wanted to see but when Mike went further and started addressing social issues to them this song and dance man became DANGEROUS.

    1. It seemed that from the time he began to sing about social issues, he was branded by many critics as self-indulgent, while many white artists who sing about these same issues are praised for their social awareness. There was a pretty decent write-up in The Guardian recently on Earth Song (though I would have liked it a lot better had they left that loser Jarvis Cocker’s name out of it) but as soon as readers started commenting, came the usual ignorant dribble about what a “pretentious” song it is and MJ’s “messiah complex, ” blah blah blah.


      They should pick on Bono if they want to pick on somebody with a “messiah complex. ” Oh, wait, they do pick on Bono, my bad!

      Joking aside, I had a discussion recently where someone said part of the problem was that Michael hadn’t established his earlier career as an artist of social awareness. He had been a Motown prodigy, then a commercially succesful Top 40 disco/r&b artist who churned out dance hits. So that was why what seemed like his sudden turn into “social awareness” struck a discordant note with some, and made it hard to take him seriously as a socially conscious artist. But to that, I would have to also argue that Michael was someone who started out as a child performer, having to sing songs that were written by others. His niche was made as a singer and performer of catchy tunes long before he had any choice in the matter. But would it not stand to reason that most of us grow, change, ane become more socially aware as we mature? Besides, anyone who is truly familiar with Michael’s body of work would know that his leap into social awareness wasn’t such a sudden one, after all. From Can You Feel It to Be Not Always, these themes had been prevalent in his work for years.

  18. Like i said the media does not wan’t to see Mike go that road But even in his early work it was about bringing people together like you mentioned “Can you feel it” hey even Thriller song’s like “Beat It” (I like to call it the manhood anthem lol)but it also can be interpreted in many ways such as Beating a addiction. I guess Michael said it best “Somethings in life they don’t wanna see” The media wanted to create this WACKO Image and if he was doing socially conscious material it would hurt their agenda when Michael wants to do a song like earth song he gets ridiculed gets accused of wanting to be god or Jesus! Yet when The Beatles or John Lennon said I/we were more famous than Jesus know one says nothing at if that’s not someone who elevates them self’s to God Like status i don’t know what is.

    1. Actually, Lennon’s comment that “We’re bigger than Jesus” did cause a big uproar in ’66 when it happened. People were burning Beatles albums all over the world. Lennon finally had to do a public apology, although the whole incident was kind of ridiculous, and blown way out of proportion. It was a totally off-the-cuff comment because that was just the way JL talked, sort of like when I say “Good lord” as a phrase, and it really has nothing to do with “the” Lord; it’s just an old saying I’ve heard all my life. But there are still people who will take even something as innocent as that the wrong way, and think you are mocking God or using His name in vain. JL didn’t think before he opened his mouth, and out popped something that caused a huge uproar he never anticipated.

      The incident eventually blew over, but even now, you will still hear some conservative religious people bring it up, especially when they are preaching against the “evils” of rock music.

      When I was little, my grandmother had a lot of old magazines that she had kept from the 50’s and 60’s. As a curious child, I would often just sit and go through them. I have a vivid memory of an old, yellowed magazine from the mid-60’s and this huge quote from John Lennon that was in all caps at the top of the page: “I DIDN’T MEAN TO MOCK JESUS.” I was just a child, and didn’t really understand the headline, or what it meant. But I knew that for some reason, this was something that had really struck a nerve with people.

      1. Right my point was that what JL said was more serious and more obvious and self indulgent than MJ’s Earth Song anyway i think the whole controversy over the Earth Song was silly and that cocker guy (who know one really could care less about only has his name mentioned due to the incident at the Brit Awards. Who also said he doesn’t believe in Jesus)So for him i’m guessing it was a publicity stunt on the expense of Michael Jackson.

  19. Raven, this is awesome that you are doing this! I have been pondering over the past few years creating an entire course that centers on Michael as a genius and humanitarian. I am not sure that there would be enough interest in a class like this. I want to target it to adults and make it available in a place like a city run recreation center that offers various types of classes which are low cost and easily accessible to a lot of people.

    I am curious how you went about showing the short film in class. My concern is copyright issues in using that. Did you do it off an internet link or off your own DVD? Has your classes done well as far as group discussion?

    I created a show called “You Have The Power” targeted to elementary aged children which I use Michael’s “Beat It” to teach them to avoid dangerous actions like fighting and bullying as well as making a difference in the world. I have reached over 500 kids with that show. But have had a hard time getting it in to a lot of facilities and/or schools. But the kids I have gotten it to loved it and seemed to learn a lot. The area school system told me to get it into their schools I would have to meet before the school board for consideration. I may try that. But the person I dealt with over the phone that was with the school board was very hateful toward me. So I don’t know if it is worth trying as I don’t know if the school board vote on it would have to be 100% for it or just majority. If it has to be a 100% there is no chance it will happen. I also created a show about Michael’s humanitarian work. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get it to many people as the interest just doesn’t seem to be there for it. If you’d like to see more info on it, here is my website.


    I think it is so great you are including MJ as part of your course. Please give updates on anything new you are adding or doing related to this. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thank you for your response, Janice. It is also a wonderful thing that you are doing as well!

      I do show the version of Black or White that is on my Visions DVD. That is not a problem since it is limited use for educational purposes, and no profit involved. (Where it gets stickier is showing a DVD for public performance purposes, especially where a cover fee is involved, although we recently attended a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening that used the DVD and charged a cover price to get in to the facility. I am still not sure, however, that what they did was strictly “legal”). But generally, showing DVD’s in a classroom setting for educational purposes is not an issue.

      I also utilize Youtube quite a bit, Blackboard, and Power Point.

      This past semester, I began incorporating Earth Song as well. I may change it up from time to time, using different songs and videos, just to keep things fresh.

      I will soon be publishing some of my student essays on this site.

      I find it is really luck of the draw when you are dealing with officials with whom you have to get permission to do anything MJ related, educational or otherwise. In my case, since I teach in both a university and community college setting, I have a bit more academic freedom in that I can choose what I want to include for my course, as long as the objectives of the course are being met. That gives me a pretty wide berth as far as including material on MJ, since everything from critical thinking to the study of theme and symbolism can be included under that umbrella. Also, the fact that his music is becoming increasingly accepted as part of academic pop culture curriculums makes it easy to create a pretty good justification for including him.

      Thus, I really don’t have to deal too much with the hassles of having to go through anyone for “permission” but I have been there, done that with other endeavors I have taken on in the past, such as The Men In The Mirror project whereby we would get MJ imitators (or tribute artists, as they like to be called) from all over the country to volunteer to perform for various charitable causes. The idea was that every tribute artist would be responsible for booking a gig at some charity event or for some charity organization, with the catch being that it would all take place on one select calendar day (that proved impossible, so Men In The Mirror Day later became Men In The Mirror Week, and finally, Men In The Mirror Month, lol). Well, some of the artists had no problems getting bookings, and met with very warm responses, while others got nothing but doors slammed in their faces. Like I said, it is really just luck of the draw because these people, just like everyone else, are all different with different tastes and values and with different ideas of who Michael Jackson was. If you have the misfortune to come up against someone who has been brainwashed by all the negative media and false allegations, there usually isn’t much that can be done. After all, you can’t educate anyone on who Michael really was if they are not open to hearing it. So you just have to move on and hope that maybe the next person will be more receptive.

      Last spring, I conducted a symposium on Michael’s book Dancing The Dream at the university, as part of our annual Books and Coffee series. If you have not seen it, here is the link:


      I would say that universities are probably the best route to go insofar as presenting educational programs about Michael. They are usually more open to innovative ideas and presentations that deal with pop culture subjects, and while it may be more of an adult academic audience than what you have in mind, it’s a good way to get one’s foot in the door as far as allowing the community to see that MJ educational projects can be successful. I would suggest finding a local university or even small college and presenting your ideas to the chairs of the English, music, or even cinema departments (I think these would be the three most receptive departments). They may well already have a program in place for which your program would be a perfect fit.

      I found that creating a symposium around the idea of “reviewing” Michael’s book Dancing The Dream provided a great opportunity to bring in other elements as well, such as discussing his humanitarian work.

      The class discussions that we have inevitably come down to the dynamics of every individual class. Also, there is a bit of a distinction between where I teach at Alabama A&M, which is a historically black college and therefore a predominantly African-American student body, and the community college where I teach, which is far more culturally diverse. In the latter case, they seem far more steeped in the media caricature of Michael, whereas with the former, I think there is more of a sense that this was a great African-American old school singer and dancer of their parents’ generation; someone they still look up to even if his music isn’t necessarily on their Ipods. But also, the community college where I teach is not only more racially diverse, but also more age diverse as well. I occasionally have students as old as me if not older, so I will also get the ones who, like me, grew up with Michael, in addition to the kids who only know the name, even if very little about the actual person. But across the board, my experience has been that students tend to be very curious about Michael. They want to know if a lot of the stuff they’ve heard is true. But the good part is that they are also very open to the truth. I don’t know that they come away from these sessions as fans, and really, that is not my intent anyway. However, they definitely do come away with a more balanced view of who the man was.

      If you don’t mind, I would like to add your link to my permanent blogroll.

      Good luck, and please keep me informed of updates on your end as well.

      1. So much great info! I have thought about approaching an area college about my MJ course. I will give that some more thought. I have a lot of ideas of what I would want to include in the course. I want the students to see the true genius that Michael put into his short films versus just seeing them for face value. I can definitely see many educational aspects for “Earth Song.” I bet you had a huge amount of feedback from your students on that. I want the students to be able to learn from Michael and apply some of those concepts to their lives personally and professionally, things like attention to detail and originality etc. I also want to devote part of each class to a close up look at Michael’s humanitarian work as well as his songwriting, poetry and art. This course will be a massive undertaking! I just wish I knew if there would be interest in it. But, the only way to know is to take the leap and create it, then see what happens.

        I love what you did with the Men In The Mirror Project! That is awesome. I am glad that was successful. I have tried several things along those lines and have hit major brick walls. One year I had done an MJ Worldcry event. I called many local charities and wanted to let them be the beneficiary of the event. But I needed their permission first so when I promoted the event I could say that all proceeds go to that particular charity. When I called those places, I either got immediately blown off or something like ‘we’ll let you know if we decide we are interested.’ I ended up donating to American Forest. I have also offered my Michael’s Humanitarian Nature show for a charity benefit several times and never even gotten an acknowledgement of the offer. I do plan on trying again next month. It is very sad that so many people have such a negative perspective about Michael.

        My experience on my MJ show for kids is similar to your experience. Most of those shows I have done are for high risk children and most are African-American. I do get a lot of questions about things that the tabloids have said. But it does give me a chance to set them straight so they know what is true. It is great that the kids are very open minded, unlike many adults. The adults I have done the other show were all big MJ fans, so there was none of that tabloid type of discussion.

        Thanks for sharing so much information on your class. Michael is surely smiling down on you for all you do. This blog is wonderful. I just found it and will be spending more time here to read more of your previous posts.

        I would be very happy for you to add my link to your blogroll.

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