A big thank you to morinen for sending these extra goodies to add to “Michael In Memphis.” I intended to add these to “Michael In Memphis” but didn’t have enough space left, so I just decided to make a new post. Anyway, this is a very special story that I think deserves its own recognition!
But first, here’s an interesting souvenir left by Michael and Lisa Marie after their Memphis zoo visit. Hmmm…a little MJ/LMP humor, maybe?
And, turns out, there was a correlation between the St. Jude’s hospital visit and the Dutch fans in the record store. Remember the Dutch fan in the video, Jeroen Noppen, and the little girl with Michael and Lisa in the St. Jude’s video? Well, there was a very sad but touching story about the aftermath of that visit, and one that shows just what a generous and huge heart Michael had:
iReport — In October 1994 I organised a special tour to Memphis for Dutch Elvis Fans to attend the Elvis Aaron Tribute Concert in the Pyramid. We were aware of the fact that Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley would be present. Through my contacts at Graceland, I informed if there would be a possibility to meet the couple. But, they told me that that would be impossible. No person could meet the famous couple. We met in Memphis all kind of other famous artists and stars. On October 8th, we attended the concert in the Pyramid and, indeed, Michael Jackson & Lisa Marie Presley were introduced by John Stamos to the audience. They were there with Priscilla Presley and Janet Jackson. The audience went mad and this was a special moment. This tribute concert was one of a kind and very special. We met in our hotel, the former Ramada Inn down at Union Avenue, a mother who was there with two children. One of the children was suffering cancer and the child would be treated at the St. Judes Hospital in Memphis. It was very hard to see that young girl, knowing that her life would end soon. Later, during our stay in Memphis, we visited a record-store in Memphis. Suddenly we were surprised and astonished. Who walked in that store? Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley with a couple of body-guards! Of course my group went crazy, but I told them to keep quiet. I walked to one of the bodyguards and told him that I was a travel-agent and had 14 Dutch Elvis Fans with me and asked if it would be possible to take a picture from Michael and Lisa Marie. The body-guard went to Michael. Talked with him shortly, returned to me and asked; “where you from?” I responded “Holland, the Netherlands”. Again, the bodyguard went to Michael and spoke shortly with him, returned to me and said; “No problem to take a picture, but let them first alone and do their shopping.” After a while, the bodyguard came up to me and told me that we could take some pictures. We took our cameras and position to take some pictures. Michael and Lisa Marie stood posing for us. Suddenly, the bodyguard came up to me and said; “What are you doing?” I was surprised and answered; “You told us, it was alright to take some pictures?”. The man answered; “Yes, but you can also say hello and talk with them.” So, the strange thing happened. We met Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. We talked with them for more than 20 minutes, could take pictures and let them sign cd’s. I spoke with Michael and I told him that I attended two of his concerts in ‘De Kuip’ in Rotterdam in 1988. He answered; “Oh, yes Amsterdam”. But later he himself corrected it in said; “No, no it was Rotterdam.” Also he was amazed that I knew that his tricks came from Siegfried and Roy. It was all amazing. He was shy, but relaxed. We could take pictures and also to the other people from my group, he was friendly. With Lisa Marie I spoke about the fact that I organised tours fro Dutch Elvis fans to Memphis and that I met her mother, Priscilla, a couple of times and the first one, was in Amsterdam. Other people were not allowed to come nearby and were surprised why we could talk with Michael and Lisa Marie. After more than 20 minutes we said goodbye and the couple left the store and left us behind. We went immediately to a photo shop and let our special photos printed. This was amazing. In Holland the news spread and we reached the media. The next day, I went by at Graceland. Bridget, receptionist at the office at that time, welcomed me and I showed her the pictures. She almost fell of her chair. “Wow!” And she screamed and yelled. I gave her one of the pictures. Later, I learned, that she placed the picture on her office-desk and that Priscilla Presley noticed this and also wanted a copy of that picture. Our meeting with Michael and Lisa Marie was special. We were the only people, who were allowed to meet and talk with them. But, I already mentioned the woman who was in the hotel with her little girl! The last evening in Memphis, my best friend, Gerwin, came in the room late in the evening. I was already asleep and wondered what he was doing with that woman. He woke me up and I saw that the woman was crying. Gerwin told me that I must do something and arrange some things. First I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Then came the story. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley visited the St. Judes Hospital in Memphis and had also little gifts for the children. They also gave the little daughter of the woman we had met in our hotel a Barbie. But, this doll was stolen and although the girl was only 3 or 4 years, she knew that this was something special and she cried, cried and cried. Giving her just another doll would be no option. My friend knew I had my contacts at Graceland and wanted me to do something for this little girl. At that moment I could do nothing and early that next morning we flew back to Amsterdam. We gave that mother a couple of the pictures of our meeting with Michael and Lisa Marie and I told her, that I would try to do anything to take care of this matter. Back in Holland, I immediately send a fax to Patsy Andersen, at that moment PR Manager of Graceland, and explained the story. She told me, she would try to contact Michael Jackson as soon possible. Every day, my friend Gerwin, asked me if I already had heard something. I told him that it would be probably easier to get in touch with the President of the USA, than with Michael Jackson. On Christmas Eve, 1994, my telephone rang. It was Bridget from Graceland. For me it was not uncommon that I was called by Graceland and I thought that they wanted to wish me a Merry Christmas. I spoke shortly with Bridget and she connected me with Patsy. Patsy told me that she had good news and bad news. The good news was that Michael finally responded and had sent a box with gifts for that little girl. Patsy immediately went to the hospital. When she came to the St. Judes Hospital she learned that the little girl passed away, the day before! Patsy traced through the hospital the address from the mother. Patsy informed Michael Jackson. As I learned later, Michael received this shocking news and sent another package with gifts to the mother and the other child and also he called himself that woman. He apologized and spoke a long time with that woman. This is a very rare, but real, story about the other side of Michael Jackson and I wish I could get in contact again with that woman.
You’ve all heard of the six degrees of separation, right? Though I never had the fortune to meet Michael in person, it never ceases to amaze me to learn just how closely our paths often (nearly) intersected. I’ve mentioned before how I only very recently learned that one of my best friends had a brother in California who used to do cosmetology work for the Jackson family. And, of course, I have written about Michael’s family ties to Alabama, my home state-and a place he visited often. In 1984, Michael, along with his brothers, rehearsed for the Victory tour in Birmingham, which meant for two whole weeks Michael Jackson was less than two hours down the road from me. It was no secret, of course, that he was here-the local news broadcasts made sure we got all the latest updates on “Michael sightings.” But alas, I was not able to take advantage of this golden opportunity to do a little Michael stalking-in those days, I barely had transportation to get to the corner store, let alone a two hour road trip. But since those days, I’ve developed a very avid interest in Michael Jackson’s ties to the South and his time spent here.
Last weekend I did get to go on a very amazing road trip to Memphis, which is about a four hour drive by car-a perfect straight shot for a weekend getaway of barbecue and Memphis blues-and if you’re smart, you can do it for a bargain price! Memphis, of course, is one of those famous music cities that every music lover must experience at least once in their lifetime. The long list of iconic musicians who have either hailed from Memphis or called Memphis home is an exhaustive one-W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, just to name a very few. Then, of course, there is the biggest name of all that everyone associates with Memphis, Tennessee-Elvis Presley.
As we strolled Beale Street, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds- including all of the stars of every performer who had ever graced the stage of The Orpheum, the cement hand prints of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the memorials to Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash- I couldn’t help but wonder if Michael Jackson had ever walked the streets of Memphis. It would stand to reason that he had-after all, he had one very, very big connection to Memphis-and we all know what that connection was!
From 1994 to 1996, in fact, Michael had good reason to be in Memphis. For awhile, however brief, it was Michael’s hometown. Well, by marriage, that is.
Shortly after I returned from my trip, I saw this article, posted by Orthodiva on the website Positively Michael. The article originally appeared in The Daily Helmsman, an independent University of Memphis newspaper:
Michael Jackson Mania
By Michelle Corbet
Published: Monday, November 21, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 15:11
Sheila Guerrero’s collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia occupies an entire bedroom, with items ranging from dolls and posters to sleek white gloves.
Sheila Guerrero, 17, and her friend couldn’t afford a ticket to the show, but they convinced a TV cameraman to take them past security to use the bathroom. The two friends waited anxiously in the bathroom several hours for the show to start.
People began to arrive around 7 p.m. They started asking if anyone knew where Michael would be. A woman told them he was supposed to be in Suite 7. So, clad in their Looney Tunes t-shirts and blue jeans, they made their way through the crowds of ball gowns and tuxedos to look for their beloved King of Pop.
As they waited outside of Suite 7, security started to gather. Ten minutes later, the elevator door opened and Guerrero knew it was Jackson from just a glimpse of his right satin-covered shoulder.
She started to scream and cry.
The former Jackson Five front man came up to her and said, “Aw, don’t cry. It’s okay.”
Guerrero, a junior journalism major, willingly admits that her wedding day didn’t compare to that moment.
Aretha Shotwell and Sheila Guerrero have been “Michael Jackson friends for life” since junior high school.
“Our friendship has been greatly influenced by our love for Michael because we both got a chance to see him at the Pyramid, and that is a memory only the two of us share,” Shotwell said.
Guerrero and Shotwell met Michael Jackson when he came to the Pyramid with Lisa Marie Presley for an Elvis Tribute concert in 1994.
Guerrero started her own fan club, “Michael Jackson Fans Speak Out,” in 2009 to support the pop singer faced with child molestation allegations. Most recently, she flew to Los Angeles to be present in the trial investing Michael Jackson’s death.
Guerrero decided to go to Los Angeles at the time of the Michael Jackson trial for her birthday. She knew the trial would be ending near her birthday, Nov. 4. Guerrero arrived in L.A. Thursday, Nov. 3, and by Monday, Nov. 7, the jury had reached a verdict. Conrad Murray, Jackson’s former doctor was guilty.
Michael Jackson fans were chanting in the streets. Guerrero described it as pandemonium.
Guerrero was quoted in several articles written by CNN and Daily News Los Angeles the day after the trial results. There are numerous videos of Guerrero on NBC Los Angeles and, most notably, an interview by CNN correspondent Jane Velez-Mitchell.
During the interview, Guerrero expressed her happiness, thanked God and said, “Michael deserves justice, his family deserves justice and his fans deserve justice.”
Velez-Mitchell spoke with Guerrero while the crowd waited for the verdict.
“She said, ‘When we get the verdict, I want to interview you first,'” Guerrero said.
“I was so proud and excited for her. I happened to be watching that channel, and I saw the interview so I sent her a text message,” Shotwell said.
David Evans, professor of American folk and popular music, said Memphis’ own Elvis Presley would be the closest precedent to Michael Jackson and the type of fans who follow him.
He said Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison also have a cult following similar to that of Michael Jackson. Evans described such celebrities as having unexplainable charisma and artistry.
“He’s different from the others, as he started as a child star and always retained something of that child quality in his persona. He sort of drew the image of the charismatic performer to a younger age level. He appealed as a dancer as well as a singer-songwriter. He’s a cult figure of the video age and essential things about him, like age and gender, had a lot of ambiguity,” Evans said.
Guerrero’s love for the King of Pop started in her childhood when Michael Jackson was topping the charts with “Thriller.” But her favorite song is “Keep the Faith,” from Jackson’s “Dangerous” album.
“I would listen to that song when I was going through tough times at home or in my neighborhood,” Guerrero said.
After Jackson’s death in 2009, Guerrero started a non-profit organization, “Stop the Hurt. Start the Healing.” The group’s focus is to continue Michael Jackson’s mission to heal the world by helping those who are less fortunate.
“I always wanted to do something meaningful, I wanted to continue his legacy of humanitarianism,” Guerrero said.
“Stop the Hurt. Start the Healing” is having its third annual Christmas toy drive for Hope House Day Care. Guerrero said Hope House is one of the few facilities that care for children with HIV. Guerrero’s group will be at the Wal-Mart on Austin Peay Highway collecting toys on Dec. 3 from 10 a.m. to noon.
“We have it the first week of December to commemorate world AIDS days,” Guerrero said. “Michael Jackson was on advocate for AIDS and sick children.”
Guerrero continues to do charitable works through “Stop the Hurt. Start the Healing,” and is already planning her next trip to L.A.
“She has accomplished a lot over the years; everything she does through her foundation is in honor of Michael, and she wants to continue on with his legacy,” Shotwell said.
Seeing this article right on the heels of our trip to Memphis last weekend, I became curious and started researching what I could find on Michael’s times in Memphis. The story about Michael attending the Elvis Presley tribute show at The Pyramid intrigued me, since The Pyramid was one of the sights we took in (you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen this architecturally unique beauty of an arena which sets right on the banks of the Mississippi!).
I happened to remember that, long ago, I had seen a video of Michael and Lisa Marie, along with Janet and Priscilla Presley, at an Elvis tribute show. What I recalled most about the video was how loudly the crowd cheered for Michael-and how utterly ticked off Priscilla looked, apparently irritated that Michael was getting louder cheers than either her or Lisa (or perhaps maybe because Michael milked it a little longer than Mama Priscilla thought “proper,” lol!).
I wondered if this was the video of that night at The Pyramid. Well, a little googling and…voile’! It was.
So I had some fun watching it again, just for the heck of it. You know how they say a picture is worth a thousand words? Watch this video and you can pretty much see, within those few seconds, the entire history of the Jackson/Presley marriage played out-along with everything that probably went wrong with it! Michael is the only one who seems genuinely happy to be there; he’s frisky and playful with Lisa, and of course, loving the attention from the crowd. But is he loving it just a little too much? You can read the expressions on Lisa’s and Priscilla’s faces, loud and clear! And here is Lisa, sitting right in the middle between Michael and Priscilla-just as one can imagine she positioned herself throughout the marriage! But notice how it is Priscilla that she takes her cues from. And it is Lisa who smooths over the awkward moment by whispering to her mother that they should all stand again.Looks like Priscilla was more than a bit tiffed at her son-in-law getting so much attention and adoration at her ex-husband’s tribute show!
This find led me to other videos. Apparently, Michael and Lisa Marie’s October, 1994 and September, 1995 visits to Memphis were especially well documented-and a source of never ending fascination for the local media!
In 1995, they visited The Memphis Zoo. The commentary for this video was a tad snarky, though I did have to laugh at the analogy of a Michael Jackson sighting to that of “a rare species” and the comment about Lisa looking so miffed. “Maybe Michael wouldn’t buy his lovely wife a snowcone.” Oh, and he apparently wasn’t one for sitting down until the train was fully stopped!
They also visited a record store where the couple made the day of several Dutch fans when they signed autographs and posed for pictures. If you watch closely, you can also catch some other rare images of Michael and Lisa in Memphis:
Jeroen Noppen was one of those lucky fans that day. In this video, he talks a little about that experience although it is in Dutch (if someone can translate, I’d love to know exactly what he says!). The part about Michael begins at about 5:44:
Of course, Michael never visited any city without taking time out for the sick and needy children. Memphis, home to St. Jude’s Hospital, was certainly no exception. Here is a rare clip of Michael and Lisa visiting St. Jude’s. Michael spent a lot of time with this little girl in the video, whom he teased about being “more shy than me.”
And here is a clip that gives a little more background story on this visit as well as highlighting other interesting bits of trivia about the couple’s time in Memphis. Apparently, they had plenty of papayas and melon at the hotel-Michael liked his fruit on the exotic side!
Ironically, a very young Michael Jackson was also in Memphis long before marriage to Lisa Marie, the very same year that his famous, future father-in-law died there-1977. A local Memphis DJ recalled that visit, which ended with Michael and his brothers being forced to take refuge from fans atop a Woolco department store!
One can only wonder if a 10-year-old Lisa Marie might have been among that crowd, checking out her future husband.
Well, I don’t know about that, but I did do some more digging and found this very interesting and touching account of that 1977 visit:
Michael Jackson On the Roof Of Woolco In Memphis, Tennessee, In 1977
Robot A. Hull
29 Jun 2009
When Michael Jackson appeared on the roof of Woolco in Southgate Shopping Center in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1977, he had no idea that one day he would be wed to the daughter of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and that he would even vye for the King’s throne.
Then, Michael was not yet the beknighted King of Pop. In fact, he was more one of the Five, and not yet the grand amalgamation of pop cultural touchstones that he would become.
As the story has been told, the Jackson 5 were appearing that evening in concer and had just visited the South’s great R&B radio station, WDIA. Michael and his brothers were eager to please their fans, and that would mean going into the community to sign autographs. So WDIA planned a remote broadcast at a Woolco in the Southgate Shopping Center on South Third.
Although Woolco was selling Jackson 5 recordings, the manager of the store had never even heard of the group. As a result, nobody at this particular Woolco had anticipated what would happen when they opened the doors of the store despite the fact that the store was actually selling tons of their records.
Of course, hundreds, then thousands, of fans rushed in to meet the young pop icons. One estimate is that at least 10,000 people had been waiting in the parking lot to see the group.
The WDIA handlers decided to put the Jackson 5 on the roof for everyone’s safety.
Up there, Michael and his fans waved and dropped autographs down to the crowds. People were screaming one name: MICHAEL! MICHAEL! MICHAEL!
Many of the fans were angry because they had not gotten a chance to get close to the group. The enormous crowd gathered into a storm, and people began looting the Woolco store, completely cleaning it out. The store was torn apart.
Eventually the Jackson family paid for the damages.
One eyewitness who was present at the Great Michael Jackson Woolco Riot describes the event through a similar experience that occurred in Memphis in 1977:
“The best way to explain it is like when Elvis Presley died.
I was in Sessel’s Grocery Store as a sacker across the street from Graceland when people heard Elvis died. People stopped their cars in the middle of traffic in front of his mansion and got out and prayed.
People fell out in the aisles of the grocery store in tears. There were post cards with Elvis’ picture on them. People took them and walked out of the store with the post cards and put them on the store front glass. People took fruit, busted the glass out, never removing the photo from the glass, cutting themselves.
Traffic was backed up for five miles in 2 directions. You had to drive nearly 30-40 miles to get home when you would normally just drive 2 miles.
To say that people didn’t love Elvis those days was blasphemy.
Just today a young girl heard me playing Micheal’s music. She said didn’t I know he was dead and she thought he was a freak.
Someday as you grow older you will learn the very meaning of your words and how your very words can influence a world like his did. Because When Micheal died, I lost a friend, a friend that had lost his way.”
Woolco ceased operations in the United States in 1982. Michael died in 2009. Somewhere in between Michael Jackson became bigger than life.
Hey, he even married Dead Elvis’ daughter! Fucking amazing!!
Despite the infamous Presley/Jackson rivalry that fans from both camps have been perpetuating ever since Michael and Lisa married in 1994 (and even long before, when Michael began breaking Elvis’s records) it’s clear that Memphis loves Michael. He may not be “King” here-in the heart of Memphis, it does no good to argue who their “King” is-but the town that Elvis called his throne nevertheless has a definite soft spot for its favorite son…er, son-in-law, that is.
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.