On 14 November 1991 the music video for Michael Jackson’s new single, ‘Black Or White’, was premiered. The film was the most anticipated music video of all time and was televised simultaneously on MTV, VH1, BET, Fox and on channels around the world.
The musical portion of the film begins with a suburban, white father being transported to Africa. Michael Jackson is introduced, dancing among native Zulus.
“I took my baby on a Saturday bang. ‘Boy, is that girl with you?’ ‘Yes, we’re one and the same.’”
The opening verse of the song represents a conversation Jackson is having with a racist, who is offended by the sight of a black man with a white girl.
The word ‘boy’ is a racial slur, a word that racists used in reference to their black slaves.
‘The use of “boy” to refer to African American men is widely understood to be racially discriminatory. If not a proxy for “nigger” it is, at the very least, a close cousin.’ (JOHN HITHON v. TYSON FOODS, INC., Defendant-Appellee-Cross-Appellant 1996)
We can find the derogatory use of the word ‘boy’ in numerous other Michael Jackson songs.
‘Pull over, boy!’ is a refrain that features repeatedly in ‘Speed Demon’, a song in which Jackson complains about elements of society ‘preachin’ ’bout my life like you’re the law’. (Depicted in Jackson’s 1988 film Moonwalker as white law enforcement).
Most notably, however, we hear the use of the word ‘boy’ in one of his biggest hits, ‘Beat It’. ‘Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man’ – lyrics that are repeated almost verbatim in the Spike Lee-directed Malcolm X biography, which Jackson (along with sister Janet) is said to have helped finance. A song that was apparently about gang violence now becomes a story about lynching: ‘There’s fire in their eyes…’
“I ain’t scared of no sheets…”
As the ‘Black Or White’ video progresses, Michael sings ‘I ain’t scared of no sheets’ while bursting through imagery of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning rally.
The ‘sheets’ referred to are the white hooded robes of the hate group.
It’s not the first time Jackson expresses his opinion of the Klan to his audience, as we see similar footage in the montage-based video for Jackson’s earlier ‘Man In The Mirror’.
At the end of the bridge section, Jackson lets out a scream while holding his one-gloved fist high, in the universally recognised black power salute.
“You remind me of a black panther…”
The video ends with a black panther silently walking around the set of the music video. Michael explained his use of the black panther in an interview he gave to MTV in 1999.
The African American Michael Jackson tells his African American sister Janet ‘you remind me of a black panther’, at a point in her career when she was dressed in an all-black uniform, with a troupe of dancers wearing the same uniform, while recording her socio-political concept album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.
The statue of George Washington
As the panther walks out of the studio he stops to roar at a statue of George Washington, first president of the new United States of America, slave trader and owner of over 300 slaves.
Nigger Go Home
As the film progresses, the panther morphs into Jackson, who goes on to destroy racist graffiti scrawled on the street, including the slogans ‘Nigger Go Home’, ‘No More Wetbacks’ (an ethnic slur usually aimed at Mexican illegal immigrants in the United States), ‘Hitler Lives’, Swastika images and finally ‘KKK Rules’.
The Black Panther Party
After that show of anger and rebellion, Jackson morphs back to a black panther.
Note the slow, deliberate manner of the metamorphosis. One clearly sees Jackson physically morphing into the Black Panther Party’s logo.
The aggression in the latter part of the film is put into context by the film’s director, John Landis. ‘Michael sensed the violence and unrest that ended up exploding in the LA riots. Michael tapped into something at that moment. He was obviously not so far off the mark in terms of frustration and rage.’ It’s not the only time that Jackson reveals to his audience his political views and allegiances.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
In early 1993 Jackson was invited to perform the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Following a medley of some of his greatest hits, Jackson performed ‘Black Or White’, during which a crowd of choreographed dancers unfurled two huge banners depicting one black hand shaking one white hand.
It’s a significant moment: the symbol that is unfurled is in fact the original logo of the civil rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The SNCC was headed by both Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown before they both went on to join the Black Panther Party.
Later on that same year, Michael Jackson became the subject of a police investigation.
© The Michael Jackson Academia Project