Michael Jackson. Dead at 50, with over 750 million albums sold. A genius, a freak, a trail blazer, a victim. Jackson’s been called all that and more – sometimes in a single piece of prose.
People will be talking about Jackson, his music, performance style, but most of all perhaps his persona, for decades. But ironically, one of the most perceptive reflections on Jackson was penned not since he died on June 25, but years before. Circulating around the internet over these past few days, has been an essay by James Baldwin which originally appeared in Playboy in 1985.
It’s not about Jackson, James Baldwin, wrote in the essay, originally titled "Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood" (and later renamed "Here be Monsters.") Our culture’s discomfort with those we consider "freaks" actually reveals something about ourselves.
"The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all," Baldwin wrote. "All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth….the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…"
Baldwin put his finger on it: we’re provoked — and call "unstable" those who actually destabilize us. While Jackson may have been struggling with his own demons, he powerfully stirred up ours.
"Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated–in the main, abominably" continued Baldwin, "Because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires."
Freaks, so-called, destablize notions we’re more comfortable keeping fixed, and mess about with ideas we prefer to box in — like ideas about identity, sexuality, race, and control. "Freaks" destabilize. They also release something, if we let them.
So thanks to Michael, and to freaks and transformers everywhere. On a good day, loosening up that previously fixed-space opens up room for change.
The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow "GritLaura" on Twitter.