An Open Letter to Michael Jackson

You were my first. Back when the other kids were swaying to nursery rhymes, I wanted to rock with you. I had everything I needed -- a portable stereo and an album of you singing with the Jackson Five. According to my mother, I would drag around my little stereo, and I would put you on, and I would dance. Nothing else in the world could have made me happier.

I remember you. Your lips were full and your nose was wide and your face was brown. This only rates mentioning because it is no longer true, so untrue, in fact, that sometimes I wonder if I imagined you as you once were. I'm sure at night, as a child, I dreamed of the boy with the afro who sang and spun on his heels like a miniature James Brown.

I wish that boy had become a man. That wish seemed reasonable all the way through "Off the Wall," when your nose grew narrower and hair more lank, but you were still visibly black. With every subsequent album your relationship to your original appearance grew fainter and fainter, until you were no longer even an echo of yourself. But the further you fled from black masculinity, the more international crowds lionized you. Today you are a grotesque.

And an alleged child molester -- that too? If we can believe what we see in the camera lens -- that this pale alien being (recently parodied in "Scary Movie 3") was once cute little Michael -- then we can believe anything. The danger for us is that we will judge you by your appearance. The danger for you is that you have set up a situation, with your reckless behavior around your own children and others', that we cannot help but judge.

In his book The Hip Hop Generation," Bakari Kitwana relentlessly outlines America's broken promise to black males. Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and unbalanced enforcement of drug laws have helped make prison a waystation or home for many more black men than white. In Los Angeles and Cincinnati, frustrated youth up-end their own neighborhoods to draw attention to police brutality. The global economy undermines the fortunes of lower-skilled workers, many of them African-Americans. The military, in many cases, remains the only way out.

This social warfare has hardened many black men, aiding and abetting the culture of hypermasculinity that permeates hip hop. It's hard to be a sister and be down with the bitch/'ho lyrics, hard to be down with men who spout rhymes full of anti-female fury. Commercial hip hop may appeal to young women who can pretend that the men are calling out someone else, but to an older head like myself it sounds as if they are speaking my name. I cannot listen to it. I cannot dance.

But I long to take the floor with the same childish glee that I did when you and I were together. I desperately want you to be there for me, to reassure me that things aren't so bad that the primary options open to black men are hatred of black women or physical and mental disintegration. I would like to think that you, the shadow Michael who never had a chance to grow up, wouldn't treat me the way those other men do. But I'm the furthest thing from your mind.

In your absence, the absence of a Michael I can relate to, I have only questions. Why does America destroy and pervert black men? Were you squeezed between racism and perfectionism until your very soul compressed? And what about those without your millions of dollars? What options are left for them?

I feel -- and I know it cannot be true, for I still breathe -- that if you cannot exist, I cannot exist. If there is no room for a loving black masculinity in the world, I fear there is little room for the black feminine as well. You, Michael Jackson, are not all black men, and for that I am grateful. But your decline says more about America than we can bear to hear.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

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