Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Michael Jackson's racial conversion

He has spent years attempting to obliterate any trace of his blackness, so why has the singer now turned to the Nation of Islam?

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , NEW YORK

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

When Michael Jackson wrote the lyrics "But if you're thinkin' about my baby/It don't matter if you're black or white" in his hit single Black or White, he could claim significant expertise. Jackson has had a fair crack at being both. First there was the black child star from Gary, Indiana -- which became the most segregated city in America -- who was the ethnic and aesthetic antithesis of the white-skinned, white-bread Osmonds.

Then came the raised cheekbones, thinned nose and lightened skin that transformed him into... something else. The surgeon's knife did not make Jackson white exactly, but it did not leave him looking black either. Instead he took on the characteristics of a transracial experiment, a combination of features that had never before been seen collected in one human being. In the process, Jackson proved that race was a construct by altering his face beyond all racial definition. If ever there was a candidate to tick the box "Other" on the racial categories of forms, it was him.

If his first attempt at racial conversion was cosmetic, his second, more recent one has been political. Only this time he is going in the other direction. In what may yet prove to be his boldest transformation yet, Jackson is trying to reinvent himself as black.

Under siege from both reporters and prosecutors, following charges of seven counts of child molestation, Jackson has reportedly teamed up with the black Muslim racial separatist organization the Nation of Islam. Among other things, the Nation supports the creation of a separate country for black Americans and was founded on the principle that white people -- literally born with tails and fur -- are devils.

Jackson's former spokesman, Stuart Backerman, resigned two weeks ago, claiming that leading members of the Nation have begun making decisions for Jackson on strategy for his legal defense, business affairs and dealing with the media. The Nation's chief of staff and Minister Louis Farrakhan's son-in-law, Leonard Farrakhan, is now working out of the Los Angeles office of Jackson's lawyer Mark Geragos.

"The Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan's son-in-law have taken over completely and are in full and total charge," one senior Jackson employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times. "They have gone in and taken over control of the finances in terms of who's getting paid, how much," the employee added. "They're approving all funds and have decided they have control of the business manager and accountant, without signing authority or power of attorney. They are working out of Geragos's office; in essence they're telling him what to do."

"These people are basically brainwashing him," said the associate, who is also a friend of Jackson's. "They tried to do the same thing to Whitney Houston. They offer a false sense that they can control everything. Everyone is scared of them. They pretty much keep Michael semi-captive."

Another Jackson employee said: "They're negotiating business deals with him. They're negotiating media deals, who can talk, how much. You've got a lawyer who's scared to throw them out. Michael doesn't know what to do with them."

Both the Nation and Jackson insiders deny the claim. "The idea that there is some takeover by the Nation of Islam -- someone is spinning you," said Gregaros. "Nobody has told me what to do and what not to do. Leonard, I believe, is someone Michael consults with, just like in excess of 25 people." But just a couple of days earlier, during a recent televised news conference, Benjamin Muhammad, a senior member of the Nation, was there, larger than life, standing behind Geragos.

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