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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.