A century before Michael Jackson there was Bert Williams

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As an historian, I tend to link events to their analogues in past times to draw meaning.

So, the sudden passing of Michael Jackson at 50, when he was the most famous person in the world, recalls the similar tragic success of Bert Williams a century earlier.

Bert Williams, whom I’ve been researching as part of Volume 2 of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, 1900-1950; and in the current context statement study of African-American historic and cultural landmarks in San Francisco,  was also the most famous entertainer in the world at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.    He was the first African-American to make a record; the first to perform on Broadway, the first to join the Ziegfeld Follies and made command performances before the Queen of England.

There are several surface similarities to Jackson.  Despite his fame, he literally had to go overseas just to enjoy limited freedom; and he was most known for the way he changed his appearance by using blackface.

Both got to be the greatest entertainer on earth because of their business savvy to create ways to bypass racial discrimination by morphing their images to fit a society which valued something other than who they were.   However, there was a personal toll for each of them.  An eloquent eulogy of Williams in the NAACP magazine The Crisis lamented that Williams had died of a “broken heart” because he had never had the opportunity to express his real identity.

As Jackson dominates the global media scene, crashing major news sites, and pushing other events off the air waves, it is most remarkable that no one can say for sure what Jackson’s real identity was (not for lack of trying).    Students of literature often say that each character in a fiction piece is an idea.  The quest in reading any such work is to figure out which idea the author is expressing through any character.

I believe the same applies to life.  Jackson’s singular talents none the less were presented through the same idea which Williams lived out, which Ellison captured in The Invisible Man, which Fanon expressed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.   The idea is the quest for self-definition among those who are seen as invisible.   That makes Michael Jackson’s plot relevant to all who share that challenge.

In Volume 3 of Our Roots Run Deep, I present a photo of Jackson with Quincy Jones and Jane Fonda in which Jackson still sports an AFRO and has the flesh tones which our generation remembers from the days of the Jackson 5.   In historic preservation, we evaluate buildings based on the extent to which they retain their original form.   I’ve always felt that the only authentic historic way to present Jackson to posterity is the way he originally looked.

What Williams and Jackson both made was the Faustian choice, to give a mass audience what they believed they wanted.   Williams essentially helped create Harlem by moving into the area, gave birth to a whole genre of  “colored” plays and behind the scenes funded the development of jazz.   Jackson defined what it meant to be a celebrity at the end of the 20th century by drawing from the wardrobe, mystique and allure of predecessors like Little Richard and James Brown in a smooth, deracialized consumer culture that linked an entire world.    Williams had a continuing connection to the communities which gave birth to him, so we know more about the angst he faced.

The one lesson Jackson did not learn from Williams was the mistake of trying to go it alone, as a singular cultural icon.   His mentor, Berry Gordy, gave birth to Jackson and his family group as part of the Motown institution.  Various forces conspired to atomize his creation and send his stable of artists in a number of directions.   But the essential message of Motown is still perhaps the dominant force on radio and in popular music.

Brand Michael Jackson required a continuing series of spectacles which overtook its leading light as he sought to find himself under a searing public microscope.    Instead, or in addition to, buying the Beatles catalog,  Jackson might have found more personal satisfaction in buying Motown, instead of the conglomerates which have watered down that iconic force.

It was telling to watch the Nightline footage of Jackson with his two young children named Prince and Paris, both names which convey authenticity.   I’ve often wondered if Jackson secretly or implicity wished he were his contemporary Prince, who managed to pull off being an iconoclast, yet maintain control of his business and emotional life, and still be just as creative musically.  For Prince, the universal appeal seems more authentic, in the same way that President Obama was able to leverage his bi-racial heritage.

Or Jackson might have adopted the stoicism of Stevie Wonder, another child prodigy, whose grounding allows him to focus on owning an independent radio station in Los Angeles while having the patience to have his music drive not only the King holiday but also an historic presidential campaign.   Stevie was willing to let the game come to him, on his terms.

This weekend, most of the rest of the black music industry will descend on Los Angeles for the BET Awards, which will become the first memorial service of sorts for Jackson.   Practically all of the stars are living in some fashion the script created by Jackson, going for celebrity as the measure of success.  As many of my generation have observed, there’s nothing to remember about today’s music because we really don’t know where it’s coming from, even if it does drive big profits for major entertainment conglomerates.

Williams’ trademark song was “Nobody.”   The Crisis writer reflected that its underlying theme was the entertainer’s lament that fame had not brought him the satisfaction of being himself.  The same could be said of the late Jackson, a man whom every body in the world knew of, but whom nobody, including himself, really knew.

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