Michael Jackson is an icon, probably the most inspiring and vital example of that thing we call “The American Dream.” From a poor kid living in Gary, Indiana, to quite simply the biggest pop star in the entire world, Jackson’s talent and his legacy always eclipsed his scandals and eccentricities. He was embraced by the world, but embraced, perhaps even more fiercely, by the black community, for whom he stood as a beacon of our potential to transcend the harsh realities of being black in America. He was the King of Pop.
Jackson was and probably always will be one of the most beloved figures in the black community. Our love for him goes beyond just the general adoration of a pop star. In many ways, he’s family. So how does that complicate the way we process the dark shadow of the molestation accusations against him?
According to court documents released on Radar on June 22, just days before the anniversary of his death, Jackson owned a stockpile of disturbing pornography, including photos of children under the age of fourteen, beastiality and animal cruelty.
Here’s what we know about the court documents, and about the sexual molestation allegations that plagued Michael Jackson not long before his death:
We know that, yes, he was found not guilty in 2005 on fourteen charges surrounding sexual assault against a minor. We know that what was found in his home wasn’t technically classified as child pornography, but was enough for prosecutors to mark them as circumstantial evidence in his molestation case. We know that the documents released are legit, but the authenticity of the photos in them — reportedly disturbing images of naked children among them — are up for scrutiny.
For many, there’s nothing complicated about the documents, just as there is nothing complicated about the numerous allegations against Jackson during his lifetime. The documents mean nothing, just as the allegations mean nothing, because Michael Jackson was and will forever be innocent. Period.
In the wake of the story breaking on Radar, the overwhelming reaction was one of complete dismissal. According to many black fans of the iconic performer, this salacious information shared by a tabloid just days before the anniversary of Jackson’s death was nothing more than clickbait. Why dredge up the past? Why trot out lies when this man was exonerated for his crimes during life?
Among some of the most visceral reactions included:
@blackvoices yll have to stop it! When yll are bored yll make anything up
— Just Sha (@LoyalSHA) June 21, 2016
@blackvoices Sad but no judgement all adult humans have secrets that arent good and especially famous ones
— Tim Curtis Jr (@tmcurtisjr) June 21, 2016
Years later & they're still set out to defame this man's image/character. Whether true or not, leave him be https://t.co/VjjruSIkUN
— Tiana Capri (@TianaCapri) June 21, 2016
There are many who will refuse to let the latest revelations color the way they feel about Jackson. That is human. That is perfectly understandable. Given the history that this country has of vilifying black leaders and public figures (like the late Muhammad Ali), it’s natural to feel protective of Jackson’s legacy. He was acquitted, he gave us “Thriller,” what more is there to say? Jackson is a figure who will forever be hard to let go of, no matter what he did or did not do throughout his life. We accepted his eccentricities and his weirdness, ultimately, because he was “one of us,” and proud to be. That was important.
This isn’t about judging whether Jackson was or was not guilty, or what the contents of those court documents tell us about his life. The documents released by Radar, and any other revelations that complicate his legacy, must absolutely be scrutinized. But, in reflecting on the reactions to those documents, we must also explore how we, as a community, react to stories like these, stories of powerful black men accused of heinous crimes.
The question is: should all revelations about Jackson’s history stay hidden simply because he’s dead? Should they have no bearing whatsoever on his legacy? “Whether true or not?”
This is an approach we’ve also taken with R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and Afrika Bambaataa in recent years, when each have been accused of some form of sexual assault. We’ve accused the media of trying to tear down these great black men, to take them away from us, to tarnish their legacies. We’ve held on to these men so fiercely that, certainly in the cases of Kelly and Cosby and Bambaataa, we’ve willfully ignored compelling evidence that points toward their guilt.
Again, this is not to say that Jackson was guilty, but the question must be asked: What would have happened had Jackson’s trial taken place today, during an age when the phrase “rape culture” springs up during most instances of sexual assault? Would the alleged victims have been dismissed as readily for merely “trying to get money” out of Jackson? Or would their accusations have been more readily, at the very least, considered?
Jackson’s family has also weighed in on the documents. Shortly after they were released (and subsequently deleted) by Radar, his daughter, Paris, dismissed the reports on Twitter, while brother Jermaine Jackson called out Radar Online in a series of tweets:
The most pure people are always torn down.. It will continue to be proven that my beloved dad has always been and forever will be innocent.
— Paris Jacksoη (@ParisJackson) June 22, 2016
RT 1: Sadly typical of imbeciles @RadarOnlineCom to recycle 'police report' story containing lies about Michael DISPROVEN long ago.
— Jermaine Jackson (@jermjackson5) June 22, 2016
In death, Michael still suffers trial by media but his exoneration is enshrined in court transcripts 'journalists' are too lazy to read.
— Jermaine Jackson (@jermjackson5) June 22, 2016
Jackson’s family coming out to deny these reports, to remind us that, even in death, he isn’t allowed to rest in peace, plays on a part of us that wants to forever honor him, revere him and believe he is innocent. It’s true that Radar hasn’t always been the most reputable outlet, and the timing of the document release smacked of tacky opportunism. It’s easy to poke holes, to deny, to dismiss a move like that.
Ultimately though, this is beyond Jackson. The conversation that springs up from the controversy surrounding the documents, an equally vital conversation, is one that focuses in on the fact that we, as a community, feel as though we have so few heroes to hold on to. We hold on this fiercely because we feel, at least subconsciously, that we have no other choice.
Countless white figures in pop culture, from Woody Allen to Roman Polanski, seem able to continue to receive accolades and enjoy stellar careers even with the shadow of past scandals and crimes hanging over them. For our black heroes, accepting their alleged crimes means accepting that their legacies will be forever tarnished. It’s a double standard so absolute that “LIES!” seems like the only possible response.
Which begs the question: will it ever be possible to remain in awe of the talent and impact of our black heroes, and also to at least question the unpleasant aspects of their pasts, to revisit them without the veil of nostalgia and adoration? What would that look like? Would it even be worth it?