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Michael Jackson, inheritor of the Minstrels and instigator of a new blackface


The blackface was a street show that later led to the Minstrel, which consisted in seeing whites with blackened faces parodying slave shows, such as those they could give, to earn a few sardines on holidays, at the St. Catherine's market in New York from the 18th century.

It was indeed more "tolerable" to watch white people dancing in costume than black people "au naturel" because the latter were considered subversive. A large part of the black cultural heritage has been sabotaged by the perpetuation of these clichés.

To link the artist Michael Jackson to socio-cultural elements is not to obscure his musical contributions. It is to highlight the vocation that his musical talents had to carry a message not through speeches, but through an artistic character, an image, which, even before acting, from near and far, in the society that surrounds him, questions in depth human nature and its relationship to others.

In the midst of multiple questions that touch on gender, race, time and power, the question of color arises, which, far from being undergone, whether it be the disadvantages of an original black color or those related to a skin disease and depigmenting treatments, has been the bearer and revealer of consciousness.

This same double consciousness that was and still is carried for many generations by African-Americans: that of wearing their particularity with dignity while integrating into society, and the paradoxical one, carried for a long time on stage by African-American artists, of conforming to the clichés inherited from blackface in order to have "a voice on stage", while trying to regain control of their own image and culture.

The confrontation with the other, the dualistic presence of two races embodied by a single man, the phenomenon of simultaneous or successive identification with one or the other of its facets, is a real first that requires us to question the vision carried by Michael Jackson with regard to his African-American peers, his own historical awareness in this matter, and his way of acting, behind the scenes, and of questioning on stage, about this history.

« We perceive the coon show of yesterday as gross folly, regard the coon show of today in purblind innocence. Louis Armstrong singing "Shine" with a smile on his face is one thing. But what is to be made, in a supposedly more enlightened age, of a whitened Michael Jackson declaiming in rhythm, ascowl with dramatic sincerity, that he is "Bad"? They are, these theatrical posings - of our culture, and of our psyche - like a mirror held at different angles to our self, that self which is both white and black: the reflection changes, but what is reflected remains the same. And that which is reflected, no matter how radically its reflection changes, remains as deeply enigmatic today as it was in the minstrelsy. It goes on. Beneath the singer, beneath the song. It goes on. » Nick Tosches (Blackface, Where dead voices gather)

Most books about blackface mention Michael Jackson at one point or another, if not directly in their title.

But, unlike the real or scenic founding characters, such as Teddy Rice or Jim Crow, the name of the one who could be expected to be the object of an emblematic parallel, is generally only touched upon and the link is only established too quickly, through a video clip, a choreographic gesture or a physical appearance that questions.

Nick Tosches' comment, quoted above, has the advantage of gathering the master ideas that highlight the artist Michael Jackson with the source of his art and popular music, the blackface, and of forcing, by his interrogations, to situate him.

"We perceive"... How do we perceive the type of "Negro show" proposed by Michael Jackson throughout his career? Can we really and sincerely speak of negritude? Is Michael Jackson only a modern blackface actor, among others, or even an eminent one, since allusions, however vague, are tempting and tempting in blackface works? Certainly, Michael Jackson is, in an indisputable way, the heir. Like all popular American artists, and moreover, African-Americans, having built their experience in the frameworks or mutant and modern vestiges of the Minstrel Shows that are the singing contests and televised shows. But to put him down as a mere legatee is undoubtedly reductive.

Michael Jackson was fully aware of the role played by black people in the popular artistic vein. Blackface and the tradition of minstrel shows and vaudeville are no strangers to him. The status and recognition of Blacks has always been induced in his artistic choices. Far from limiting ourselves to the awareness of these traditions summarily evoked in a short film such as Say, say, say, it is enough to have access to a few emblematic books from the artist's personal library to know that the texts evoking blackface and the minstrel are counted there.

For his status as an international star has made him the catalyst of a message that draws its sources from the non-colorist social coalition that was that of the first blackface. But also, by combining the first message of this one, non-racist and federator, with a "cycle of lore" on a large scale (to take again the expression of William T. Lhamon on which we return below) - cycle that he constituted and innervated throughout his career by references and eclectic symbolic codes, popular and learned, choreographic and visual - he also posed himself as instigator of a new type of blackface. So, after the question of the "perception" of his art, we can ask ourselves that of the "reception" of his message. For the whole constitutes a codified scenic parallel of a real social, racial and cultural impulse - religious and spiritual even - instilled by the artist through political and humanitarian acts performed behind the scenes, but which, beyond an undeniable idealism, were significant in this post-Civil Rights period of America in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Michael Jackson, as a man of the stage deeply conscious of the fundamental role played by the visual in his century, reinvested and expanded all the elements necessary for the elaboration of what William T. Lhamon calls a "cycle of lore", but this time on a paroxysmal scale. The word "lore" refers to a constitutive element of a network of knowledge and references transmitted by tradition - but which, unlike folklore, is not attached to any soil, any territory - and whose characteristic is to circulate, to evolve, to turn in temporal cycles but also parallel and inter-referential or inter-acting. Michael Jackson will summon lores from all artistic and cultural strata to constitute a cycle that will finally be a double output totally identified with his artistic image, and that he will himself make evolve throughout his career, without ever ceasing to feed the parallel cycles of other popular currents. The codification of his lores, feeding in an illustrated but also mystical and enigmatic way the message he conveys, is a key element of his career. The "enigmatic reflection" evoked by Tosches, the notions of image, of mirror, under the cover of otherness and/or identification, concealed or reflected by a materialized or purely but totally expressive mask, and the inescapable question of white or black skin, which had ended up locking the blackface in a purely racist and degrading acceptance, are here reflected and embodied by a single artist.

"Beneath the singer, beneath the song. It goes on"

What continuity is this about? Because if Michael Jackson revolutionized blackface, he revolutionized it as much by expanding and modernizing its constituent elements, as he revolutionized it by going back to its roots and to the original and unifying meaning it had at the beginning. Michael Jackson thus seems to be as much the heir as the modern counterpart of Teddy Rice and his Jim Crow.


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