R.I.P. MJ – A future media literacy project

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last Thursday I turned in my classroom keys and told my teacher friends and colleagues to have a good summer break. Walking home, as I customarily do, I thought of my plans for the summer. More time at the gym, Latin dancing, attending few a media literacy conferences – the normal exciting stuff teachers do to reenergize ourselves for the next school year. When I finally got home, turned on the television, I saw the news flash that Michael Jackson was rushed to the hospital and died.

I sat stunned at the news. I grew up with Michael and The Jackson 5. “ABC," “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” were my muse.

I, like many black boys during this R & B era, wanted to be like “Mike.”

Although my would-be Afro had its challenges: my hair was more like Don King’s, not free and flowing like Michael’s bushy curly top. And to make matters worse, my high-pitched voice changed right at the onset of puberty. But I still identified with Michael.

While I sat in my cave – that’s what I call my space in my house where I have access to my media bundle of cable TV, Internet and phone – I called my older sister and asked her if she heard the news. As we commiserated, she told me she got a text message from Kagiso, my hip teenage son. He told her he was sad over the news. He texted to her that one of the first gifts he recalled receiving was cassette tape she gave him of Michael’s bestselling album, “Thriller.” That was news to me. I always thought the ”Thriller” cassette was mine. Anyway, I guess we co-owned it. Maybe that’s where he gets his love of dance from?

Thato, my middle son, came home upset. He had been on a bus and was incensed that some young people were laughing when they heard the news of Michael ‘s passing. I consoled him not to read too much into the laughs. I see it all the time. In class, students will laugh nervously at topics that make them uncomfortable. We laugh sometimes to keep from crying.

Both my sons’ responses to Jackson’s death led me to wonder how my students would respond to the passing of the King of Pop? School is out so I can only imagine: a few might have came to school with makeshift sequin gloves; others would have gossiped about how he died, or murmured about Jackson’s controversial appearance and behavior.

But what lesson could my sons and students take from Jackson’s life? In character education, my students could reflect and respond to the words from his song “Man in the Mirror” or muse from his humanitarian collaboration of “We are the World.” No doubt. The Michael I admired as a child morphed into a spectacle that perplexed, drew adulation and scorn from both the young and old.

I imagine many of my students would have similar reactions like Kagiso and the young people on the bus with Thato. Sad, conflicted and confused about Jackson’s life and legacy. The tribute during the BET Award show didn’t help matters. It was practically a Jamie Fox self promotion informercial.

I do want to know how my students have reacted to this news. Maybe during the school year I can incorporate it into some of my media literary work. I can come up with some creative ways to explore race, gender and identity using Jackson’s biography and discography. I can hear my students now , “Oh Mr. Reed I rather "moon walk" than do another media literacy project.” Anyone have any other ideas?