Monday, June 29, 2009


Last week I learned something I had not previously known. I learned that Michael Jackson was black. The news surprised me more than a little. Having never once wondered about his skin colour, I found myself thinking over and over again about the huge changes that took place in the last half of the twentieth century.
I can’t say I was ever an avid Jackson fan, and a blind person is definitely not the most likely person to observe skin tone, but still I am surprised because my state of not-knowing has been going on for a very long time. I didn’t know it back in the days when his sweet voice sang the song about Ben. I didn’t know it when Thriller made it big. I hadn’t discovered it at the turn of the century. In fact, I might never have found it out had his death not surprised the media so much that they stopped all conversation about anything else for several days, thus rendering themselves desperate to say something—anything about Michael Jackson. It was during that never-ending, mind-numbing deluge of over-information that the word got out.
If there’s a medium that ought to be colour-blind, you’d think it would be radio. In this day and age it would not be unusual for an up-and-coming singer to be black without my knowing it, but that was certainly not the case when I was young. Skin colour was everything back in the days of early rock and roll, back in the days when Elvivs was making it big. In those days there was black radio and white radio. A white singer could take a song from black radio, a song never heard by whites, and turn that song into a hit.
Without being aware of it, I listened to white radio. It wasn’t a conscious choice. White radio was all we had here in Canada. When I was a teen-ager my transistor radio pumped out an endless drone of news about the riots that plagued cities and universities across the United States. I listened at first in wonder, then turned off the radio to save the batteries for the music. Unruly crowds of bottle-throwing building-burning mobs were of no interest to me. There was, I supposed, a certain level of inequity. But I did not fully understand that black people were not allowed to vote, or assume positions of leadership, or take certain jobs in hotels, or use washrooms that I would use. Even if I had understood, I would likely have said that all this trouble wasn’t likely to fix anything.
I liked to think that I was a civilized teen-ager, civilized and practical. If I had had dreams about how things could be, a vision of a better future, I might have wished that, by the time the early seventies rolled around, a famous singer could be black without my knowing it. I might have wished that it could take 38 years for me to hear the news. Then again, if I had fully understood how things really were, how much things would have to change in a very short time, I probably would have thought these wishes could never come true.
So I really am delighted to learn that Michael Jackson was black—even more delighted that I didn’t know it. There was no reason why I should have known it. Things had changed so much, yet so subtly that Michael Jackson was presented on my radio—my white radio. It’s a story I will try to remember when I want to hope things can change.

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