April 19, 2012 / Perspective
From personal faith to social critique, Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books presents an incisive, hopeful approach toward understanding culture and loving others.
October 30, 2009
Michael Jackson is standing on a darkened street corner. Out of the mist appears a caramel-complexioned woman with long brown hair and a short black skirt, who struts across the concrete in high heels. Instead of stopping to give the King of Pop the attention he deserves, the woman passes him by with a sideways glance. A gruff voice off-camera chuckles at the diss. MJ turns and delivers a bad-ass, ear-splitting, “Hey!” Everything stops; the woman looks afraid. So begins the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Michael’s illuminating statement on interracial masculinity, feminine domination, and keeping it real.
I thought I had given up on Michael Jackson, until I heard the news that he died. He was like that cousin you avoid because they look worse every time you see them. You love them, but it hurts. Before his death, Michael fully embodied the cultural narrative of the crazy, criminal, and clownish Black man (see OJ, Mike Tyson, Bobby Brown, et cetera). One of the reasons that Michael’s struggle with identity was so painful for me to watch was because, as a bi-racial person, I was sad to see a non-biracial person transform themselves into a tragic mulatto.
Now, don’t get this twisted—despite his self-mutilations, Michael didn’t want to be White: he just didn’t want to be Black. Niggas have it so hard, in the words of Richard Pryor, and Michael aspired to be free of what he saw as a Blackness that tethered him to suffering. If he found a space between the races, an interracial space, it would allow him to “be himself.” So his hair got straighter, his skin got lighter, his nose got thinner.
But like any self-respecting tragic mulatto, Michael also felt compelled to play both sides. His skin might be light, but he wanted everyone to know that he was still a brother, down deep. And that leads us back to the darkened street corner and the haughty light skinned mulatta in “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
The “mulatta” is a racial archetype commonly portrayed as the product of a coercive sexual relationship between a White man and a Black woman. (White man on top, if you’re wondering). She is called “red” or “yella” or “Miss Thang.” Her body craves sex, and the more powerful the social position of her sexual conquest, the better. “The Way You Make Me Feel” is all about a man’s attraction to a woman who “gives [him] fever like he’s never ever known.” Note: mulattas are notorious carriers of the Jungle Fever virus.
In the video, Jackson tries to play the (interracial) nice guy at first, politely waiting to be noticed by the mulatta. But when he gets kicked to the curb, it’s time to reaffirm his Black maleness by chasing the woman through a dark neighborhood, down a dark street, while cheered by a throng of dark hooligans. And Michael shows us that he knows just how to treat this type.
The woman scurries along, trying to avoid Jackson’s pelvic thrusts and high kicks, while he repeatedly blocks her path and professes his lust for her. Jackson croons that she is a “product of loveliness” and that he’ll “buy [her] things to keep [her] by his side.” Michael is officially channeling a nightmarish Pepe Lé Pew. Meanwhile, our friendly neighborhood hooligans do their part by confronting the woman with taunts and masturbatory hand signals.
The “loveliness” of Miss Thang aside, Jackson’s pursuit (and confrontation) of this mulatta figure is not so much about lust for her sexuality as it is about “performing” for the assembled Black and Latino men who are there to judge his authenticity. Jackson may consider himself interracial, but tonight he’s out to prove that he is still a “Brother” with a capital B. By dominating a fellow feminized interracial figure, Jackson establishes and actualizes his Black masculine potential. With the fellas all around, cheering his predatory dance steps, there’s no question who’s bad.
But, the video’s final scene is its most disturbing. Jackson disappears, and the mulatta is surrounded by the menacing faces of the dark hooligans. For the first time, she seems to register that she is in real danger, that these men are angry with her. The camera follows her trembling silhouette, and it seems like she might finally scream. But then Michael reappears. The mulatta jumps into his arms, and Jackson holds her close, their long, curly (interracial) hair blowing in the wind.
In many of his videos, Jackson takes on the role of the trickster figure who defies the constraints of racial domination (see “It Doesn’t Matter if You’re Black or White”). In this new context, however, Jackson’s treatment of the mulatta reinforces sexist and racist ideas about the hypersexuality of interracial women, as well as the need to contain their “fever”-inducing bodies.
In this ghetto of Michael’s mind, the mulatta wears a somber expression, traipsing the streets, heading toward an indefinite destination. Our hero is positioned within a community of Black men that the mulatta doesn’t feel are suitable ($) to acknowledge or to let experience her raw sexuality. Michael becomes, in a sense, “just another nigga.”
When Michael confronts her for passing him by, she playfully evades him until she’s forced to see the hard (dark) male threat that surrounds her. When she does recognize this threat, she embraces him, not like a lover, but as a savior. Michael has taught the mulatta a lesson: she needs a man—a sensitive interracial man—to protect her from the dangerous desire she provokes in the Black men around her.
In an earlier scene from the extended cut of the video, Jackson is chided for trying to hang with the street toughs. An older Black man pulls him aside and tells Michael to “be [him]self” because “[he] can’t be anybody else.” Unfortunately, for Michael this meant making racist misogyny look as cool as white gloves and Moonwalks.