Oct 10, 2009
The Man in the Mirror
About a month ago, President Obama gave a speech to schoolchildren. As with most everything our president does these days, much of the country rose up in indignation and horror at this blatant example of audacity and hubris on his part. Who exactly does he think he is to dare to speak to the children of this country! But our school, being predominantly African American, harbors no such animosity towards the president, and we swiftly rearranged our schedule so the kids could watch the speech.
We gathered in the spacious lobby of the school where the SmartBoard and projector had been set up so that we could watch the speech on a live internet stream. While we waited, someone—I can’t imagine who—decided it might be a good idea for us to watch a Youtube video of Michael Jackson’s song, “Man in the Mirror.” The more I think about it, the more I find it quite remarkable that someone thought this was the appropriate prelude to the presidents speech.
For me the juxtaposition of these two black icons was jarring—pop star and president, one man worshiped for his charisma and talent, the other adored for. . . well perhaps for the same thing? But certainly the job of president is far more serious and important than that of mass entertainer, and in the black community here in America, I think our admiration for Obama has been less about oratory skills (which, frankly, are dime a dozen in this community), smooth charisma, and hopeful vision, than simply about the fact that he is one of us. He has accomplished what many thought would be impossible in our lifetime.
But I digress. There was Michael Jackson whirling magically about the stage, all his pyrotechnic dance moves on display—this was the late 80’s right before he began his long slide into weirdness. I remember this Jackson well. I was the same age then as my students are now, and Michael was huge. Everybody was trying to imitate his moves, copying his distinctive wardrobe, and singing his songs. He was the epitome of cool. What I find interesting is that, at least in my school, this is true again. It feels like 1988 all over again. The boys are all trying to imitate his steps. Everyone is humming to his songs—“Smooth Criminal”, “Billie Jean”, “Bad”, and “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough”—all written a decade or more before these kids were even born. It reminded me that regardless of his personal baggage, his increasing eccentricities and bizarre morality, there was a time when this man had unquestionable genius. Genius that is, in fact, timeless. These kids don’t connect the pale-skinned freak with the vibrant, magnetic singer/dancer they try to copy. They just know the old tunes, resurrected with Jackson’s death, sound fresh and exciting and his moves are marvelous and riveting.
But I couldn’t help questioning the lasting value of this talent. The video includes clips of hysterical crowds weeping at the very site of him, anguished fans straining frantically to get just a little closer to him. It seemed absurd. Was he really worth all of that? Is any human built to receive worship? One might argue that in a sense it was this idolizing of the man, this need for him that so many had that left him so lonely, and ultimately might have contributed to his untimely death.
The frenzied worship of the fans contrasting with the clips of real life heroics and the message of the song itself is quite ironic
So the video ended, and we switched to Wakefield High School where another American icon, idolized by some, excoriated by others took the stage. President Obama addressed America’s schoolchildren, and his message was not the “I am the socialist Messiah you have waited for” expected by his implacable detractors. It was not the indoctrination of the worst manifestations of creeping liberalism. It was a message that was, ironically, “conservative.” Work hard. Stay in school. Play by the rules. Don’t make your circumstances an excuse not to do your best and achieve great things. Don’t give up, you can succeed, you can make a difference, if you keep trying. He essentially challenged America’s students to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There was no mention of government handouts, no promises of entitlement, and no aggrieved whining. Not that any of this mattered to the men and women who make big bucks from criticizing him. The man could win the Nobel Peace Prize and they’d still be mad. Wait a second. . .
But the right wing radio response isn’t what mattered that day. What mattered is that our kids, some teetering on the edge of a wasted life, heard a vital message repeated and reinforced, from someone who looked like them, who had made it, who had achieved what they might be tempted to believe was impossible. You can’t get any higher than the leader of the free world. If he could do it, these angry, young men and uncertain young women could too. And when you add that special spiritual turbo boost found in our school where we fully rely on God—then truly anything is possible.
It was then that I realized that the man is neither here nor there. He may be the unhappy king of pop, or the much-maligned President of the United States. He might be a writer of songs and or a shaper of policies. He may come to a sad and sudden end or rise to the highest job in the land. He may be loved or despised. Some might have taken away from the Obama/Jackson pairing, that the former is a better role model than the latter. That our kids should be less enamored of entertainers and more with genuine leaders. Others might have seen them both as charlatans. Or both as heroes. But for me, I realized that at the end of the day, a man is a man—simply human. It’s the message that matters. And on that day, the message was the same:
“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change.”
My kids this year. I took these photos just this past Monday. They were enjoying ice cream sundaes in celebration of a birthday. Unfortunately, by the end of the week the celebrant had been suspended from school for a week for vandalizing my desk area. Tough week, I'll tell you, but I worry more for him than me. The struggle for some of these kids to "make that change" goes on. And for me, the mission is not so different here in America, than it was in the "mission field." I, and these precious young men and women, still need your prayers.