A Nine Year Obsession

I talk about Michael Jackson a lot. He’s one of the the few topics that occupy my brain frequently aside from the current state of the music industry, the shambles of the American foster care system, and the budding career of Timothée Chalamet. I’ve thought so much about Michael in my few years of living that it has at certain points been a strong part of my identity.

Today, June 25th, is the day he died and I’m realizing that I’ve never really talked at all about why I value Michael so much. My love for Michael’s work is not special at all; he was the twentieth century version Beyoncé while simultaneously being more flawed and vulnerable. He changed an industry and the public perception of black men in the mainstream while simultaneously managing to reach a level that appeared beyond human. He was incredible in every sense of the word.

Except I didn’t know or care all that much for Michael until June 25, 2009 when CNN was doing their usual 24-hour streaming cycle. I was about to go to bed and my parents were sitting on the couch, half listening as a image of Michael’s stark white face appeared on the screen, probably followed by a reel of him performing in his elaborate shimmery outfits during the ’80s and ’90s.

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I remember (albeit vaguely) asking my mom about it, leaving her to gently explain the concept of death in all its permanence. I went to sleep, leaving my overactive imagination to comfort me as I tried to imagine who this ‘Michael Jackson’ person may have been like. Then the obsession began.

It was slow at first—watching music video reels on an old YouTube engine and sneaking my parent’s greatest hits CD to play in my room over and over as I flipped through the album booklets pages. My dad used to have a giant Ebony magazine collection and I would search by the years to find potential articles about Michael, reading casually about his career and not overthinking  whenever I had to look up words like ‘pervert’ and ‘pedophile.’ We’d just have to deal with that later.

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By August I was as much of an MJ expert as a third grader could be, fully equipped for my first day at a public school. As I stood outside waiting to walk into my new classroom I bumped into a small hispanic girl with dark curly hair. I couldn’t tell you the details of the exchange but I can tell you that I found my best friend over our intense obsession over Michael. We spent as much time together as possible, sending letters through our school’s mailing system (I still have all of them), and spending recess walking around the playground exchanging any news we learned about Michael and fawning over his kids. We especially liked Blanket, now known as Bigi, since he was only a year younger than us.

But friendships in elementary school are flimsy so we eventually grew apart, sometimes colliding into each other every now and again. (If you ever read this, I hope you know that I’ll always be rooting for you and you’ll always have a special place in my heart, V.)

Anyways.

I’ve come to learn that with time we gain perspective and Michael Jackson’s legacy was no different. Into middle school I began to gain new perspective and I’d say a lot of it has affected how I am on a monumental level, more than I think anybody including myself well realizes. I need to warn you that the following events were at a time that everybody in human history prefers not to look back. However, I can not gloss over them because they are the pinnacle of this retelling. I also need you to not try to expose me anymore than I am about expose myself. I look back on this era of fandom with a chill down my spine and a coal-sized lump in my throat.

I don’t know why but after creating an Instagram in the sixth grade I was pulled into an online Michael Jackson fandom, MJFam for short. It was typical of what I find of most fandoms—stans, fan art, useless discourse, and fan fiction. In retrospect, the fact that Michael retained such a rampant fanbase three years after death and almost ten years after career death was remarkable. It was hard not to be enamored seeing people who cared just as much about a person as I did, especially with an endless supply of adorable cartoons.

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But I’m not an artist (at least not a good one), I’m a writer. So naturally I fell down the fan fiction wormhole. I remember staying up late on my iPod touch scrolling through Instagram for fanfic writers, trying to read through as many ‘chapters’ of some soapy romance fiction, reveling in the idealized version of the King of Pop. However, Instagram is a terrible platform to post lengthy fan fiction so I quickly came across a little site called mjfiction.com.

What is mjfiction.com? Why reader I’m. glad you asked. MJFiction is what happens when you make a single website for one specific tag on Archive of Our Own (ao3), Fanction.net if you’re old school. It’s a terrible site with good intentions but horrible content. You get the idea by looking the story covers:

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Remember, I’m a writer so you know for a fact that I wrote Michael Jackson fanfic back in the day and I can promise you that it is all unreadable. I don’t regret it because I wouldn’t have ever started writing my own stories if it wasn’t for MJFiction. I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to share my writing publicly either. Writing fanfic is also the reason that I started doing graphic design. Fandom can work miracles.

Fan fiction did reach its limit for me eventually. I didn’t just want to read other people’s stories, I wanted to know him as much as I possibly could. I came across Jermaine Jackson’s biography about his brother not long after. If you’re interested in reading a well written biography I would recommend reading it. I began to see Michael less as a mythical creature and more for who he actually was: a man with an impeccable talent and a catastrophe of a personal life.

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I grew to have a very deep appreciation for Michael. He was a kid from the humblest of beginnings: he grew up in the ghetto of Gary, Indiana, forcing his way into what would come to be known as the Jackson 5. He was an artist at heart and extremely sensitive, a trait that worked against him over time. He was such a shy adolescent and being in the Jackson 5 messed with his perception of not only himself but the world around him. He always strove for perfection and greatness, and his personality quirks made people grow more skeptical of him. He had a tendency to hold on to more childlike ideals and fantasies and was a true philanthropist at heart. After years of obsessive research I’ve concluded that Michael probably could’ve been saved before it all started if the world had been a little more different. And I guess therapy wouldn’t have hurt either.

I won’t entertain some of the darker aspects of his life that had been brought to the forefront towards the end of his life. Which is a blatant lie:

  • He wasn’t a pedophile–his ’90s and ’00s allegations have been proven to be apart of a scam with families who have been known to spark legal controversy in the name of a buy out. Was he obsessed with children? I guess. Did he enjoy things that usually were for kids? Yes, and I hope you would too. Did he have a tendency to form close bonds with children? Yes, although that skill eventually backfired. Upon further research I believe it’s less about pedophilia and more about unaddressed childhood trauma. Joe Joseph along with a lot of the industry people they grew up around left a very negative impact on all of the Jackson children. Fame is hard enough today, but it was a thousand times more awful without the ability to connect easily with the real world and having to sensor your reality constantly.
  • He didn’t bleach his skin. He had vitiligo. If you want rundown of all his medical history, here it is.

But why talk about Michael at all? I believe that Michael Jackson’s legacy is forever ingrained in whatever legacy I will make for myself. I sense it in the music I choose to listen to, the videos I choose to watch, and the “celebrities” I choose to idolize. I believe that Michael’s legacy has forever shaped the way I view art and how I walk through the world as an artist of my own accord. Each day I find myself taking new aspects of him along with me. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever let go of this obsession and yet the longer I hold onto it the more I question if it was ever an obsession.

I don’t know what you see when you hear the name Michael Jackson. But when I do I think of the picture at the top—my favorite picture of him—and I feel like we’re one in the same.

Just two kids trying their best to become the best.

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the utmost kindness

His jaw slacks ever so slightly

as his laugh echoes around the chambers of my heart,

the ripples cascading down my veins,

Soaking up the oxygen in my blood until I am light and weak again.

 

Do I love you yet?

I can’t help the way the stars reflect so clearly within my eyes now,

and I wonder how he became the cure to the ailment that plagues being human.

 

I want to hide in between the hollow ridges of his rib cage

easing his breath,

matching it with mine as I slowly grow to be with him,

welding my soul onto his:

Intertwined.

 

He brought me flowers,

their petals wet from morning dew and the deep smell of pasture.

And he’s beginning to try so hard

and I watch as the stress begins to pull lines across his face.

 

Do you love me yet?

You can’t help the way that valleys form themselves across your cheeks,

and you wonder if you had ever really laughed in your entire life.

 

You told me three days prior

that you wish you could live in my head,

sorting away the thoughts that haunt me hours before I can rest.

 

And I told you

that I have never known such kindness.

Daring to be desired

In Call Me By Your Name, a film directed by Luca Guadagnino, there’s scene in which two of the main characters—Elio’s father, Professor Perlman, a historian and Oliver, an American working with Professor Perlman for his thesis—look through pictures sent to them of ancient Romanesque statues. The statues are mainly of men, each hold a certain ambiguous curvature to them, inspiring Professor Perlman to comment that it’s “as if they’re daring you to desire them.”

I’m enamored with that phrase: daring to be desired. It speaks of an unspoken beauty, one built on alluring instead of catering, an inarguable elegance to the whole affair. Confusing but understood. The only thing I’ve thought to myself since is how wonderful it would be to be so captivating.

I consider myself beautiful. I try not to argue with the fact too much, since there are plenty of other things for me to gripe about. I especially like to think of my hair as my best feature, because my hair is truly the only medium I can truly become whatever I decide I want to be at that moment.

I’ve never been at odds with the coils on my head. Being black and female, there’s a history that comes with my hair, especially since it’s natural and I find that the history makes my hair seem more beautiful than it objectively is. Older black women adore it, for it makes them warm inside to know that little black girls like me don’t face as much scrutiny for the curls atop our heads as they may have when they were younger. White people find my hair to be this amazing attraction, a shapeshifting essence just full of small surprises.

I don’t mind at all. I’ve always enjoyed the reactions, the compliments, the curiosities. My hair allows me to be a bit more interesting than I am on the surface level, as if it’s the opening to the tunnel of all my tiniest idiosyncrasies. But at a certain point during the first semester of my junior year, I simply stopped—no braiding, no styling, nothing. I had gotten my afro cut the semester prior, so my hair was too short to do much with until it grew out a little more. By the time it did grow out and I started to get creative with scarfs and hair care tricks, it didn’t matter anymore. I found a sense of center, of ease, and it was blissful.

Over winter break I decided I needed to change once again, and everything shifted out of place. The hair wasn’t the problem: sleek black box braids never hurt anybody. It was me. I lost all of my cool, my calm, my sanity at a certain points. I fell into a bit of an identity crisis for a while, because every time I looked in the mirror, I saw the thirteen year old version of myself, a version of myself I could only describe as a self-devouring monster.

I had always been in control of my hair. I could color it as much as I wanted without consequence. It could be short. Long. Wavy. Curly. But the power of one minor slip has the potential to unravel everything. However, box braids are meant to left alone for at least a month, so I found other ways of shuffling myself back together. I meditated for a while, talked to people who mattered, cut out people who didn’t. I followed routine with my hair, and every now and again do something different. Soon I came to like the long extensions on my head and the way little kids giggled whenever they saw a bunch of tiny braids cascaded across my shoulders.

And I cut them today.  And soon they will disappear.

And sitting on the floor typing away, the roots of my curls, pushing back against the bunches of intertwined strands, I feel desirable, although quite far from myself.

Last Thursday as my mother drove me home from school, a rarity now that I can do it myself, I told her about an article I read about free locs. I reminded her about my 5-year hair plan I made in the eighth grade, around the first time I braided my hair pink, recalling how I had wanted to cut my afro short freshman year of high school, and then twist the strands into locs my freshman year of college.

She turned to me, smiled and told me, “That would be cute.” I felt excitement bubble in my chest at the thought of free locs on my head because free locs weren’t meant for beauty but convenience. Yet they had always allured me with the expression of life and living they seemed to stand for. I’d only imagine the scrunched up look on my father’s face if I came home with them, but I didn’t mind it at all. All I could think about was how desirable I’d look with as much life on my head as there would be in my eyes.

 

YELLOW AND GOLD ARE NOT ON IN THE SAME

tires keep rolling,

creaky and slow like an elder.

quick stops—not quick enough to save anyone

just quick enough to try.

a parking lot of “trying our best.”

a sea of metal; blue black red

yellow? never yellow.

yellow isn’t cool, it’s happy and bright

but gold, oh gold,

gold is everything.

gold in the children’s teeth,

the grimiest of them

glimmering in the grey sky,

in the rainy sky,

dripping, hot, metallic.

it burns their skin

melting down to bone,

singing lonely hearts

that fills themselves with

yellow snap pics

pics of dicks

pics of chicks

picks to be saved for the apocalypse

they smile behind the

yellow barn in our

yellow flower state

to find their yellow car in

heaven. so let their

tires keep rolling.

Young Blood

He didn’t want to wake up this morning. He had spent the night staring at the rotting wood ceiling, watching the small white lights the stars provided. He wondered if the stars only roamed on his father’s land, leaving light for the night workers that cleaned blood off of knives until the blades shone brightly again.

His mother had left his school clothes on the rocking chair in the corner, the black pieces of cloth folded into perfect squares. The clothes stiffness now suffocated him as he stood in place, the Father glancing at each pupil coldly, his eyes lingering on the smallest one. The boy cowered at the stare, black curls falling into his eyes. The Father smiled complacently at his meekness, walking into the middle of the child-made circle. Each child was clothed in black, the small boy the palest of them all.

The Father stood tall amongst them, the bright-eyed infants watching his every move hungrily. The Father moved his head slowly, his icy gaze landing on the tallest one, a boy the small one knew to help with the garden. He was tan and a ruffian, perking up excitedly when the Father raised an arm, his hand in the shape of a gun. The small boy suppressed a twitch when the Father lowered his calloused thumb.

The classroom became mechanic. The farmboy’s hands came together with a loud clap, fingers and palms aligned perfectly before swinging them to his left. The blond girl next to him caught them, mimicking his clasp before sending it down the circle. The children worked quickly, passing the bullet from hand to hand. The small boy jumped when it reached him, closing his eyes when the brunette next to him’s hands met his own, quickly passing it off to the blond next to him.

The bullet returned to the farm boy, who fell to his knees, his forehead grazing the floor while his palms laid exposed. The Father was now expressionless, walking over slowly to the boy, his black, metal-clad boots clicking across the wooden floor.  He stopped in front of the boy on the ground, searching his hands. He let out a heavy sigh, raising his boot before slamming it on the boy’s hands. The small boy tensed and the Father’s gaze instantly found his.

“What’s wrong, Joshua?” All eyes found their way to him, making his pale skin color red. The Father stared expectantly, twisting his foot further onto the young boy’s hands. The boy made no sound, his eyes closed and his body still.

“W-why did you—?” The Father’s foot stilled, walking over to his son. He offered his hand to the small boy, walking him over to the farmboy’s bruising hands. Joshua stared down at the sight, his vision growing hazy. The Father watched him carefully.

“Can you see it?” the Father asked. Joshua examined the marred hands until a light finally flickered.

“The bullet. It’s—”

“Bloody. Good job, enlightened one.” The Father dismissed him with a look and the boy scurried back in place. The Father stood silent, looking at each child’s face menacingly. “You want to tell me that in the face of death you plan to bleed?” The room remained silent, not an inch of movement made. “Answer when your Father speaks to you.”

“Bleeding is for the weak. Blood is the sign of humanity, the sign of weakness. You must be more than human to survive,” the room chanted, their voices monotonous. The Father said nothing, not even with his face. Joshua could no longer breath, fear tightening its grip around his lungs.

The Father looked down at the forgotten farmboy. “Get off the floor, you foolish sheep,” he snarled, walking out of the circle while the boy scurried back to his feet. He was paler than before now, his warm brown eyes glazed over. Joshua forced himself to look away. The Father gave two claps and a dance commenced.

1, 2, 3, 4

Father have mercy

5, 6 , 7, 8

I’m at your mercy

1, 2, 3, 4

Please have mercy

5, 6, 7, 8—

“Mercy on my bones,” the smallest boy whispered, following his class as they all collapsed to the ground. The children moved quickly, lying down in formation, their limbs outstretched  for examination. The Father then walked round the circle, a wooden staff in hand, the end grazing the legs of the school children. His gaze was critical, eyes searching endlessly for flaws in his beautiful machines. His steps slowed to a stop. Joshua let his eyes close.

“Up.” A girl with a long braid flowing down to her feet rose, leaving the others to systematically rising from the floor, folding their legs and placing their palms in the middle, right over left. The girl stood strong, her face stoic as the Father circled around her. “What had you said, Sister?”

The girl spoke not, sensing her own fate. Joshua did not have to open his eyes to know that.

“‘Mercy on my soul?’ Sister, what did I say about the word soul?” Joshua suppressed a twitch at the question. His father said many things, so many  things he wasn’t sure what was anymore.

“Souls are for the mortals. You cannot have a soul and be enlightened. You cannot have a soul and be the Father’s child,” she said plainly, staring straight-ahead. The Father smiled complacently at this before swiftly raising the stick and ramming it into the back of her head. The girl fell to the ground, her head meeting the wood floors with a crack, blood leaking alongside her beautiful braid. She let out a horrid cry, tears beginning to stream down her cheeks. Joshua’s hands shot up to cover his ears, pressing his palms into his skull.

“You should have asked for mercy on what’s there, Sister.”

The Father beat the girl with the staff, streams of blood flowing from her braid. The girl’s body convulsed with pain, her hands making haphazard efforts to protect her skull. The Father however was not kind in this moment; he used every muscle in his body to swing the makeshift bat at the young girl’s skull.

Joshua finally opened his eyes only to stare into the eyes of the dying girl. He remembered playing with her by the cliff when the sun released itself from the angry grasp of the horizon. He remembered being privileged with the task of braiding her warrior hair. He remembered how she taught him how to fight and win even with his tiny figure. She was destined for enlightenment, but now he was watching her die in front of him.

He was watching a little girl die. And while she was two years his elder, his six years of life didn’t matter all of a sudden. His throat suddenly opened as air rushed into his lungs and he started screaming. He screamed and ran to her, ignoring the fear-stricken looks of his classmates as he cradled the girl’s beaten head into his arms. Large hands found him and wrestled him away, throwing him off to the side violently.

“Father! Father! Papa don’t do this!” The smallest one sobbed, reaching out for his papa, the man who decided life and death. Alas, his papa was not there in this moment. Only his Father remained.

The Father took him up by the arm and shoved the staff into his small hands. Joshua tried to break free, albeit freedom hadn’t been with him since the day he was born. His father huffed, giving his eldest child a look of finality to an extent the boy would never fully comprehend. He turned to his pupils before grandly announcing, “The Enlightened One has decided to protest against the punishment. The Enlightened One thinks he’s above his Father.” Joshua shook his head in violent protest, tears streaming down his cheeks once again. The Father grinned at his own malice.

The children’s eyes brightened, a tangible excitement fermenting in their bones. The Father walked to the door, complacent. “Remind him of his place, children.” The children nodded sweetly as the Father walked out, closing the door shut. Joshua looked into their glowing eyes, hungry and savage, waiting to tear away the final remnants of his soul.