HE’S OUT OF MY LIFE: LETTING GO OF MICHAEL JACKSON
By Kierna Mayo
March 6, 2019
Here we are. 2019 has already established itself as some serious shit for Black culture.
The year started with a riveting documentary about the long alleged sexual abuse of teen girls by singer R. Kelly and rolled into a peculiar Black History Month full of anti-Black fails. Not a full week into March, we are here en masse debating the validity of HBO’s Leaving Neverland. It is yet another scathing documentary, but this time about the sordid child sexual abuse claims that two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, have leveled against one, now dead, Michael Joseph Jackson.
The culture is grappling. The argument for believing the damning conclusion of Neverland — that Michael Jackson was a pedophile — but mostly against it, is mounting. In actuality, the questioning and denials began even before the documentary aired earlier this week. Michael Jackson Twitter (which is to say Black x White x Young x Old Twitter) started the bold proclamation in the hashtag, #michaeljacksonisinnocent. On that same platform, Paul Mooney warned folks not to watch “the bullshit documentary” on Michael Jackson and to “play his music instead.”
I imagine that every viewer of the four-hour film was as deeply disturbed by it as I was, but I think all of us felt whatever we did for very different reasons. What’s clear is that everyone has firmly decided what they believe. Some will speak it. Many will not. This moment already feels uniquely polarizing.
Well, I believe survivors. All survivors. But in America at large, and in Black America, specifically, in these first dramatic days after the raw reality of Leaving Neverland (a.k.a. the second death of Michael Jackson), I hold what I suspect is an unpopular opinion. I’m okay with that. I don’t care to convince the unconvinced of anything — neither the ignorant nor the well-informed — but not because it doesn’t matter. I think where we are societally on the issue of abuse and rape matters greatly. We all make progress at our own pace. I have little time to debate simply because in the case of the towering, mythical King of Pop, convincing someone to accept a truth this irreconcilable may not be possible.
But you did not love Michael more than me. As a preteen, my obsession with him was wildly passionate. An older cousin introduced me to all the soul-stirring music I would’ve missed on my own, classic albums like Forever, Michael that were before my time. Listening to young Michael belt out virtually perfect songs like “We’re Almost There,” I had a spiritual awakening. As a highly emotional and intelligent Black child no one had ever quite moved me in such ways. Michael made me want to live and dance and love, to struggle and be. He understood me. I could twirl to his sweet voice in my room for days.
“No matter how hard / the task may seem / don’t give up our plans / don’t give up our dreams…/ darlin’ keep on reachin out for me / keep on reachin / do it for me /do it for me / ‘cause we’re almost there…”
I belonged to Michael Jackson.
Of course, I was 11 years Michael’s junior, which, according to my 11-, 12- and 13-year-old math, meant I was too young to marry him. He was a man and I was a girl, and it was a crying shame. There was but one other solution — I’d just have to become a Jackson: Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, La Toya, Marlon, Michael, Randy, Janet and me. But life happened along the way to Encino Valley, and my Michael changed. A once soulful and remarkably gentle, quintessential Black essence, gradually morphed into something unfamiliar, something increasingly unidentifiable.
Sonically, Black house party’s Off the Wall became mega-stadium’s Thriller, which became bad, or rather, Bad. Physically, mocha skin became café au lait, which became the watery tone of 2% milk. The Afro became a Jheri Curl, which became a white woman’s wig. The nose went from African to European to non-existent. A new audience would claim Michael now. One that was younger, wider, and hella whiter. A generation of Black dreamers may’ve grown up with him, but Michael Jackson became the largest pop star the globe had ever known.
He was the world.
Without knowing exactly when it happened, the person who was once my family in my head began to feel like a stranger. Over time, protecting my heart from a changing Michael Jackson happened by the sheer force of cognitive dissonance. I had loved Black Michael, my subconscious reasoned. I don’t believe I was alone in this. For years, I ignored the sideshow others were calling “Wacko Jacko” as much as one humanly could. I separated that Michael from my Michael and carried on: What llamas? What bizarre behavior? What Debbie Rowe? What infatuation with little boys?
“Don’t look away,” Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too Movement once said.
In Part Two of Leaving Neverland, famed victims’ rights attorney Gloria Allred asks the simple question that undoubtedly penetrated my consciousness many years ago but still wouldn’t stick: “Why is Michael Jackson, an adult, repeatedly sleeping in the same bed with a young boy?” It was an impossible question to answer sensibly without drawing an obvious conclusion, yet it was easy to reason then — like many reason now — that Michael had no childhood. Michael just loved kids. We infantilized him as though the man wasn’t essentially omnipotent. The thing about cognitive dissonance is that, when fully employed, you can rationalize or dismiss anything. Before you know it, you’re a damn fool. You look up and can’t even draw a line of probability between a man in his 30s and 40s sleeping with young boys every night for years, and pedophilia. Nope! Not possible!
After Leaving Neverland aired, Oprah Winfrey hosted a televised a public conversation with the survivors. “For me this moment transcends Michael Jackson; it is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity,” she began. We all understood that for her to recognize these men as victims, straight up, was to at once fully consider Michael Jackson’s guilt. And what a grave consideration, indeed.
“We gon’ get it,” she said jokingly, but not exactly joking about the intense blow back she anticipated from Michael’s family and many fans. The Jacksons are reportedly suing HBO for $100M and they issued a lengthy statement defending what they believe to be their brother’s innocence.
Still, when Oprah gave Safechuck and Robson an extended platform and an audience of sympathetic survivors, her starting place — like the starting place for anyone who believes survivors — was not one of questioning the documentary’s truthfulness. The bold assumption was that it was.
Before Leaving Neverland aired, respected media outlets were committed to disclosing every fact that might be deemed problematic in the history of the survivors, as a veiled effort to invalidate the production. Yet, ironically, they never found it worthy to directly address what some people in the Black community, who are also loathe to believe the charges against Michael, actually wondered aloud and in private: “Are they [white people] doing this to Michael’s legacy for the same reason that they [white people] try to assassinate all our men?” In other words, what the Black community in support of MJ wants to know is: what sneaky role does race play in all of this? Fair.
Obviously, the topic of Michael Jackson and Blackness is a sociologist’s think-piece for the ages. What it is not, however, is a defense for the megastar’s predation. Eye-spying racism should never be the reason we don’t call a predator by his name (see Cosby and Kelly). In article after article, salient arguments were made as to why viewers should question the accuracy and objectivity of Leaving Neverland, and the motives of the men involved. There is a litany of reasons listed — all boil down to some version of they seek “money and fame,” and most notably that both Robson and Safechuck have testified in the past that they were not abused by the megastar.
Are we not bored? Have you seen this documentary?
Sometimes when it comes down to it, we have to use common sense. Every fan in the mirror has to ask him or herself: “What do I believe?” Not merely, what do I want to believe? Yes, this is a dismantling, a reckoning. But you know full-well, there are times when all the arguments against a thing just don’t square at your core. If you say you actually saw Leaving Neverland and came away with, “Every single disgusting detail these two men claimed Michael did to them when they were as young as 7 and 10 is a wholesale lie,” then I don’t believe you.
Were the creepy voicemails a lie? The weird kid faxes? Were the numerous personal photos in the Safechuck’s regular-ass house a lie too? The box of kiddie Cartier rings? Was that not real? People increasingly want “evidence and proof” as the barometer for whether or not a victim of any kind of abuse is to be believed, yet by those standards nearly every survivor is a liar. Michael’s victims had more so-called proof than most survivors will ever have. Don’t you ever get that twisted. It’s why survivors need a movement to be believed in the first place.
Take an anecdotal survey of your own world; ask your friends who among them have survived sexual assault, incest, child abuse, rape, intimate partner violence or a violent homophobic or anti-queer attack. When hands raise, ask those claiming to have been victimized for their stories. Say: “What happened to you?”
Listen as your people reveal tales of personal horror. When they are done, turn to them and ask for evidence and proof. By and large what survivors have are their stories. Let not the confusion around Jussie Smollet, confuse you. If he is lying, he is in the slimmest of minorities, as virtually no one lies about these things.
One popular tweet made what even supporters of the documentary might, at first glance, find a fair critique. “From a storytelling standpoint #LeavingNeverland is a very bad documentary. I’m up to listen to the survivors of any abuse. I’m on their side always, but this being about the greatest megastar in the world and a dead person, I expected a lot more of facts and research,” wrote Gabriel Torrelles.
In reality, the documentary reveals an impressive amount of research. There contains a significant amount of never-before-seen images and footage, and a credible timeline. Moreover, documentaries are not journalism per se; they follow a single narrative even when there are multiple points of view. I’ll let film critics determine the cinematic value of Leaving Neverland, but a good documentary is rarely a there are great people on both sides experience. You watch them not for so-called balance, but to learn, through story, something you didn’t know.
When you view all four hours of Leaving Neverland, what you learn is that these boys loved Michael Jackson fiercely, and that they knew him better than any of us could have ever dreamed of knowing him. And he abused them. If they are finally dealing with the truth, I ask myself, who are we not to? To date, four boys including Safechuck and Robson have said that Michael Jackson molested them. Will we believe them when more of Michael’s victims find the courage to come forward? We must ask ourselves, how many victims’ stories does it take to create credibility?
Knowing that Leaving Neverland was coming, I predicted this existential moment would follow. One Saturday, I went through my over-the-top cache of Michael Jackson memorabilia that was buried at my mom’s: magazines, posters, buttons and t-shirts. Trading cards that featured sticks of MJ chewing gum as a bonus, an unopened Thriller Viewmaster, some used Victory Tour Pepsi cans. I wrote a too-long Instagram post. I blasted all my fave Michael Jackson deep cuts and danced full out around my house alone. I cried.
We buried Michael Jackson once before. In the end, I am not saying that letting him go is a small task. What I am suggesting is that our commitment to abuse survivors — and our own humanity — must be greater. As a Black woman who duly loved Michael Jackson once upon a time, I am making peace with a new reality. What you decide is on you.