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Another side of the maligned Joe Jackson

George E. Curry

Another side of the maligned Joe Jackson

In the non-stop hoopla surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, Joe Jackson has become the person everyone loves to hate. TV commentators drop all pretense of objectivity, openly dismissing him as a kook and making fun of his admittedly incoherent answers. And though he was later proven correct, they laughed at his assertion that Michael Jackson may have been killed.

What made me take a second look at Joe Jackson was a statement he made on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” The elder Jackson said that he had recommended that his son be paid in euros rather than U.S. dollars for his upcoming concerts in London. That showed me that, as one of my elementary school teachers said, he was using his head for more than a hat rack.

And I began to think about what they said about the domineering fathers of Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams and, in this case, the original Jackson 5. Yes, they were all pushy and ambitious fathers — so pushy that they pushed their children right to the top of their respective professions.

Of course, Joe Jackson’s greatest claim to fame was not that he molded one of the most successful groups in music from the rough streets of Gary, Ind., but that he beat his kids. There were many stories told about Jackson pounding his kids with his fists when they made a mistake, of his throwing them against walls and, in one instance, holding Michael upside down by one leg and pummeling him.

If true, no one can condone such acts.

However, lost in all the storytelling is the fact that the Jackson 5 became the first American group to have their first four singles rocket to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. And that Michael and Janet went on to international stardom as solo artists.

If you’re going to talk about Joe Jackson, talk about the good as well as the bad.

The most interesting perspective of Joe Jackson came from Michael in a fascinating speech he gave at Oxford University on March 21, 2001.

“You probably weren’t surprised to hear that I did not have an idyllic childhood,” he said. “The strain and tension that exists in my relationship with my own father is well-documented.

“My father is a tough man and he pushed my brothers and me hard, from the earliest age, to be the best performers we could be,” Michael continued. “He had great difficulty showing affection. He never really told me he loved me. And he never really complimented me either.

“If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he told me it was a lousy show.

“He seemed intent, above all else, on making us a commercial success. And at that, he was more than adept. My father was a managerial genius and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way that he pushed us. He trained me as a showman and under his guidance, I couldn’t miss a step.”

Looking at his father from the perspective of an adult, Michael said:

“I have started reflecting on the fact that my father grew up in the South, in a very poor family. He came of age during the Depression and his own father, who struggled to feed his children, showed little affection toward his family and raised my father and his siblings with an iron fist. Who could have imagined what it was like to grow up a poor black man in the South, robbed of dignity, bereft of hope, struggling to become a man in a world that saw my father as subordinate? I was the first black artist to be played on MTV and I remember how big a deal it was even then. And that was in the ’80s!

“My father moved to Indiana and had a large family of his own, working long hours in the steel mills, work that kills the lungs and humbles the spirit, all to support his family. Is it any wonder that he found it difficult to expose his feelings? Is it any mystery that he hardened his heart, that he raised the emotional ramparts? And most of all, is it any wonder why he pushed his sons so hard to succeed as performers, so that they could be saved from what he knew to be a life of indignity and poverty?”

He explained, “I am forced to think of my own father, and despite my earlier denials, I am forced to admit that he must have loved me. He did love me, and I know that. There were little things that showed it.”

Michael said for his own healing, he needed to forgive his father.

“I have begun to see that even my father’s harshness was a kind of love — an imperfect love, to be sure, but love nonetheless. He pushed me because he loved me. Because he wanted no man ever to look down at his offspring.

“And now with time, rather than bitterness, I feel blessing. In the place of anger, I have found absolution. And in the place of revenge, I have found reconciliation. And my initial fury has slowly given way to forgiveness.”

If Michael Jackson could forgive his father, why can’t everyone else?

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach.