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The Baldwin Prophecy

james-baldwin“The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…”

From “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood.” Originally published in Playboy, 1985. It can now be found in Baldwin: Collected Essays (highly recommended).

From the same essay:

“Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated–in the main, abominably–because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Angel Arkhangael January 7, 2012, 9:27 am

    Sometimes I wished Michael Jackson had not know all of this phnomenal success and fame, and still be alive today, living a simple life surrounded by wife and children.

    I miss you, MJ

  • Nina Y F January 8, 2012, 10:57 pm

    This remains one of the most prescient things ever written about Michael’s predicament (and I’ve read a lot)! And the “cacophony” continues…. and to this day, the din is still resonantly echoes the of sexual and racial panic—and guilt—of an entire culture, as Baldwin so aptly puts it.

    A few years ago I undertook to read all of Baldwin’s published essays and most of his fiction—I couldn’t put his books down. A phenomenal writer; he had a way of cutting through all the bull____. I wish Michael and he had met. Thank you, Joe.

  • constance pierce January 9, 2012, 7:33 am

    I so much appreciate your highlighting the writings of James Baldwin and I concur with what Nina expressed about Baldwin’s prescient words.

    “…they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”

    The fictional characters of Benjy in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and, in another way, Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot came into my mind …
    (a tragic childlike character who strives with heartbreaking persistence to promote compassion to the tortured duplicitous who surround him in his life).

    So many artists, writers, composers throughout time … bearing a kind of suffering … this awful projection of the cumulative “shadow” of the culture they can not help but reveal.

    I look forward to more writers reflecting on Michael’s aesthetic connections or even odd commonalities with artists, writers, and composers of the last few centuries. Surely he was a transcendentalist at heart, like Emerson, and yet I also sometimes sense that he shared the apocalyptic vision of such artists such as Blake and Goya.

    Joe, Thank you for all you do to excavate the depth and expanse of Michael’s import to our culture and our time.

  • Judith Mason January 9, 2012, 11:13 pm

    Preach it James Baldwin!

    “Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated–in the main, abominably–because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”

    It was all true before you knew it, true when you realized it and wrote it, and it’s still true.

  • Elizabeth January 13, 2012, 10:53 pm

    “…fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all.”

    Truer words were never spoken. Those who persecuted him, and those who followed like sheep, simply could not fathom that anyone so successful could also be so kind, so humble. so good. That has everything to do with who they are, and nothing to do with Michael.

  • Nina Y F January 16, 2012, 12:53 am

    We should remember that the “cacophony” that James Baldwin spoke about emanated just as much (if not more) from fans and well-wishers, in the press and elsewhere, as from detractors.

    The essay was published in 1985, which was right around the pinnacle zenith of Michael’s success with “Thriller,” and the delirious adulation that surrounded him at the time. There would be a backlash, of course—which is just what Baldwin is predicting here.

  • Kelly February 8, 2012, 4:59 pm

    I have been an MJ fan since 1979, but first saw him on Ed Sullivan when I was only 8yrs old and he was about 12. I knew then that he was a genius. At 8yrs old I stared at the tv looking at MJ singing and dancing like no other and I couldn’t speak, I was mesmerized….totally. I can still see myself standing there watching and words failed me. I was a white girl loving everything I saw and knowing that he was extremely talented but you know what (and this is very true)….while I was watching…I never cared about him being black, I only saw a kid about my age who was singing, dancing his heart out.

    I was a die hard fan by the time Off The Wall came out and when he performed Billie Jean on stage I knew that I was seeing history, if that performance didn’t tell you that you were watching a true genius then you have really missed out. There will never be another MJ. I LOVE YOU MJJ!! And, I must add this last comment….I have always thought that Chuck Berry was extremely UNDERrated.

  • Kelly February 8, 2012, 5:02 pm

    And I also wish Michael and you would have met, thank you Joe for all your very true words.