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By Regina N. Barnett

Saturday, July 17, 2010


My parents had all the vinyl, tapes, CDs, and even bootleg (later years, with Invicible) that MJ produced.  My house was a subject in the Jackson kingdom.  Plagued in later years by personal strife that reflected in his lack of music production towards the end of his career, Jackson, unfortunately, got lost in the shuffle...er, moonwalk.While I thoroughly enjoy his talent as an artist, I've always been intrigued by his versatility as an artist and the lessons he invoked with his lyrical content. Besides Br'er Rabbit 'nem, Michael Jackson quite possibly could be one of the best Tricksters that ever did it.  

The trickster figure in folklore uses his wits and cunning to remove himself from difficult situations, to teach a lesson, or instill awareness to those around him. (In this case) He was unable to be restricted to a rigid space and often found comfort (and identity) in difficult situations. The Br'er (Brother) stories/fables often showcased the antics of Br'er Rabbit, the original "one-upper."  In slave stories, Br'er Rabbit not only outwitted his fellow animals but also the white farmer, whom he taunted consistently and fervently.  

In "Tar Baby," Br'er Rabbit is tricked by Farmer (or Brer Fox or Bear, depending on the adaptation) and gets stuck to a tar baby (doll made out of tar).  Facing death, Br'er Rabbit begs and pleads for his captors not to throw him into the nearby thorny briar patch because it would be a tortuous demise.  Pleased with the thought of (finally) harming Br'er Rabbit, Farmer throws him into the briar patch waiting to hear the sounds of Br'er Rabbit's slow death.  Instead, Farmer hears Rabbit's laughter and taunting, stating his comfort in his birthplace, and escapes. 

While the briar patch suggests a problematic, often impossible space to navigate, Br'er Rabbit signifies the ability to do so.  Br'er Rabbit was a folk hero, able to do the impossible - get over on the white man. His creation and comfort to navigate those spaces speak to the black experience in white America and slaves desire to rebel against the social hierarchy that viewed them as inferior.    

Toni Morrison's Tar Baby (1981) stretches the Tar Baby plantation story to construct and contextualize black masculinity. Morrison creates her own Br'er Rabbit in Son, a young black man who manipulates both racial and gender spaces on a plantation on La Isles de Chevaliers and New York in order to progress and survive.  Son performs whatever role is placed on him - charmer, bad nigger, buck, abuser, man-child. 

Michael Jackson both aggrandized and fell victim to these spaces. Through one lens, Jackson transcended both his blackness and even genre to become the King of Pop Music.  I guess King of R&B was being held hostage by Bobby Brown at the time of crowning. MJ's ability to blend and deconstruct musical genres to produce a new sound or concept only rivaled the genius of Prince.  Jackson pushed the envelope, refusing to be restricted to static indicators of black music.  Collaborations with artists ranging from Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney to Guns N' Roses Slash shook the spirit, captivated the mind, and left the listener breathless.

Even though Jackson catered his music to all people, I can't help but think about the trajectory of his music in terms of blackness and his masculinity. An inherent need to understand and self-create his manhood reflected throughout his career: "Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Dirty Diana," "Bad," and "Remember the Time" only sample how Jackson positioned himself as a dual performer (as a singer and as a black man).  "Remember the Time," an aesthetic marvel, also paid homage to Jackson's "lost" blackness thought to be voided out of Jackson's life and career.

While his music experimentation blasted him into unrivalled greatness, Jackson's fame was his tar baby and personal life his briar patch.  The strictness and severity of father Joe Jackson while prepping the Jackson 5 in Gary, Indiana to allegations of child abuse in his adult life seeped through Jackson's music and his identity.  He navigated these spaces through his music and interviews fawning the desire for privacy as well as utilizing the media's relentlessness to bring awareness to his politics and humanitarian efforts. 

Jackson whisked through the thorns and bobbles, straight to an untimely demise June 25, 2009. And, similar fashion to Br'er Rabbit, blazed a trail and didn't look back. 

Keep moonwalkin' through the Briar Patch, Br'er Michael.

Regina N. Barnett is a doctoral student in African American Literature and Culture, at Florida State University. She earned her MA in African American Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Currently, her research interests include performance and gender identity, popular black culture, late 20th and 21st century black literature, and Hip Hop.

Ms Barnett blogs at Red Clay Scholar.


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