It’s still hard to believe that Michael Jackson, the undisputed “King of Pop,” has been gone for more than a decade — his sudden death on June 25, 2009, still shrouded in mystery and controversy.
Equally surprising, at least from this writer’s perspective, is the relative silence and limited recognition of Jackson’s birthday which recently came and went last weekend with little or no fanfare on Aug. 29.
However, given the unprecedented events now dominating social media and headline news — from the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests challenging police-involved shootings of Blacks to the upcoming showdown between Trump and Biden for the White House — the mention of Michael Jackson which resulted in little more than a footnote, despite his continued impact on culture and society, may have been expected.
As a Black man-child born in Gary, Ind., just weeks following the onset of the both historic and turbulent decade of the 1960s in Detroit — a city which also became the birthplace of Motown and introduced the world to talents like the Jackson 5 — the songbook they produced has forever maintained a special place in my heart and soul.
Even more, I claim fellowship among a small cadre of Blacks who as children were afforded the unique opportunity to connect with Michael and his brothers on a more intimate level. In fact, I was among a throng of those who sang along with the Jackson 5 to songs like “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “The Love You Save” during one of their first performances, held on the grounds of the Michigan State Fair in the summer of 1971.
The following afternoon, away from the cameras, I found myself at the Gordy mansion in Detroit, engaged in activities more reflective of the kind enjoyed by children of the era — bowling, swimming, hide-and-go-seek, catch, pool and dodgeball — albeit with a unique twist — the addition of several playmates: Marlon and Michael Jackson.
In those days, Black celebrities lived among “everyday people,” if for no other reason than because Jim Crow and segregation had yet to relinquish its dominance in American society. Safety could best be achieved through greater numbers and in communities where Blacks were living and establishing families.
Like my parents, husband and wife teams were paving the way for themselves and their children including Motown’s quickly emerging legendary singer, Marvin Gaye, who along with his wife, Anna Gordy, a sibling of Berry Gordy, lived just a few short blocks away from my family. The Gaye family and my parents also shared something else in common — both had in their employ the same caregiver who meticulously and lovingly watched each family’s children, along with others.
That’s how I met Michael Jackson, played with him and his brothers and subsequently realized something so profound that I have never forgotten it — how lonely he seemed despite being among the upper echelon of a world which I and many of my childhood friends dreamed about — longing to become part of the normative landscape which was ordinary to the Jackson 5.
Yes, we all wanted to “be like Mike” — not the Michael who would just a few years later emerge as the dominant force on the hardwood floors of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and soon thereafter on the hallowed grounds of the Chicago Bulls.
Looking back at the mountains which Michael Jackson effortlessly seemed to climb and conquer, I wonder if the sacrifices he made to reach the precipice were worth the valleys that he would eventually encounter and which would swallow one day devour him whole?
One thing I can state with little equivocation — I am the more fortunate between us. After all, even given unprecedented privilege, I believe life with the “silver spoon” afforded Michael far less than it ultimately provided.