This photo of a youthful Crystal Lee King-Jackson caused quite a sensation when it was first posted by Yashi Brown on her Twitter timeline. For those of you who, like me, have always thought that Michael never exactly looked like either Joseph or Katherine, and have wondered where did those dazzling eyes, cheekbones, and wide smile come from-look no further! Mystery solved. Michael may have inherited a lot of great characteristics from his mother, and may have borne a somewhat passing resemblance to his father (which I believe, without cosmetic surgery, would have become more pronounced as he aged) but it’s clear that from this youthful photo of Crystal Lee King -Jackson, Michael’s paternal grandmother, “that face” that we know and love so well obviously owes a huge debt to those Lee/King genetics. And it doesn’t even stop at the face. Check out the hands with those long, lovely fingers!
On Mother’s Day in past years, I have written many tributes to Katherine Jackson. But this year I thought it would be interesting to go a generation back, to the mother of Joe Jackson, and reflect on the life of the very beautiful but troubled young woman who turned many mens’ lives inside out-for better and worse.
Unfortunately, Crystal King’s own life is somewhat shrouded in mystery, and perhaps it is ironic that what little we do know has come down to us filtered through the eyes and memories of the man her actions affected most-her son Joe Jackson. Under such circumstances, it can be easy for a son’s bitterness to taint his memories of his mother, and ultimately to cloud her own story. We may ask: How fair is it, really, for a woman-especially a girl growing up in rural Arkansas at the turn of the century-to have her entire history and identity to be shaped and molded by the males in her life? It is an interesting paradox, especially when we look at this photo of what appears such a vibrant, sassy and confident young woman who looked ready to take on the world in the 1920’s.
Crystal was born in either 1900 or 1907 (accounts seem to vary between these two years and I have not been able to verify which is accurate, though 1907 would put her closer to the right age when she met and married Samuel Jackson). She was only sixteen and a mere schoolgirl-but quite wild by most accounts!-when she caught the eye of her handsome and distinguished teacher, Samuel Jackson, said to have been the first African-American teacher in the state of Arkansas. Theirs was a romance that would have been much frowned upon today, with the thirty-year-old Jackson, a man in a position of authority and power, courting his sixteen-year-old student. But it was a different time and era. Opportunities for women were scarce, and a man like Jackson would have been viewed as a “good catch.”
But what happened to Crystal is what often happens to young girls forced to grow up too soon; to marry and have babies and take on adult responsibilities long before they are either physically, emotionally, or mentally ready for such responsibilities. She broke, and ultimately rebelled.
After marrying Samuel, Crystal gave birth to five children in fairly quick succession, the oldest of those children a son named Joseph Walter Jackson. There was little understanding in those days of postpartum depression and its effects on young mothers, much less sympathy. Regardless of whatever shock their bodies and minds may have borne; regardless of whatever dreams they may have been forced to give up, young women were expected to smile graciously under their load, to bear the pain and to keep the husband and children happy.
Something ultimately snapped in young Crystal, and her life took a downward spiral turn that never quite righted itself. Joe Jackson would grow up with memories of a mother who too often wasn’t there; who disappeared without word for long stretches, leaving him ultimately as the man of the household. Drug addiction and even rumored prostitution became Crystal’s reality (the prostitution, no doubt, a necessity to feed her addictions). Joe remembered his mother as someone who would re-enter his life again, from time to time. Samuel still had his “thing” for her and would always take her back, like the prodigal wife and mother,but these reunions were always short-lived. By the time Joe was twelve, they had separated for good.
I don’t know if Crystal ever completely conquered her demons and found some measure of peace and happiness, but after leaving Samuel permanently, she eventually settled in East Chicago, Indiana, where her son Joseph reunited with her in 1949. It was there that he met young Katherine Scruse, and the rest is history.
But even though Crystal Lee King Jackson lived to a fairly ripe old age (she died in 1992, having lived long enough to see many of her grandchildren become famous) her relationship with her eldest son remained a troubled one. Joe Jackson has stated that those early experiences, of being abandoned by his mother and left to take over as head of the family, scarred him and had much to do with forming his own hardened layers in order to survive. He learned not to show emotion. He learned not to cry. He had to learn how to be tough, and not to be perceived as weak.
Thus, a young man who became hard because he could never really love or understand his mother became, in turn, a hardened father who could never really allow his children to love or understand him. Such is the cycle of family pain and abuse.
Looking back at the photo of this vibrant young woman, one can’t help but wonder if Crystal’s life might have turned out very differently had been allowed to pursue the education that was duly disrupted when her own teacher fell in love and lust with her. Or would she have still been a doomed soul whose ability to drive men to distraction became her own undoing?
Whatever one may ponder about the life of this beautiful but ultimately tragic young woman, or how differently it might have played out had she been born in another era, one thing can’t be denied. Her genetics live on in the eyes and smiles of her famous grandchildren. I can see so much of her, especially in Rebbie, LaToya, Janet, Randy and, most especially, Michael. Genetics are funny that way. I still remember quite vividly that moment from a few years ago when I came face to face with LaToya and how it tripped me out for just a moment because it was “those” eyes; Michael’e eyes, just in a different face. There are some, certain things we can’t deny. Family and genes are right at the top of the list.
It is true that no woman shaped Michael’s life more than his mother Katherine Jackson. But let’s not forget that his family history and legacy-as is true of all of us-was shaped by the lives, sacrifices, heartaches and joys of many women and many mothers. Their blood and their tears are the rivers that flow in our veins.
As Michael might have said, they are the ones who create our HIStory.