Abstract: Though they were active in different decades, the famous American author James Baldwin and international music icon Michael Jackson both believed they never had a childhood. This article looks at the similarities in their formative years, which influenced the art they created.
Op-Ed Piece by Kerry Hennigan, official columnist of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, and editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.
Hennigan, Kerry. ““Have you seen my childhood?” – Michael Jackson, James Baldwin and childhoods lost” Opinion Piece, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 4, no. 2 (2017). Published electronically 07/11/17. https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/childhood/.
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A Note From the Editors: Kerry Hennigan’s Op-Ed article which follows expresses the opinion of Kerry herself, and not necessarily the journal as a whole. Here at The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies we appreciate inspired and incisive academic debate, as we hope will be provoked by the piece below. We also encourage authors and journalists from throughout the world to bring their ideas and opinions to the journal in the form of op-ed pieces that we publish periodically. If you would like to submit an article for publication, find out how here.
“Have you seen my childhood?” – Michael Jackson, James Baldwin and childhoods lost
By Kerry Hennigan
Looking at the lives of celebrated American author James Baldwin (1924-1987) and international music icon Michael Jackson (1958-2009), it is possible to find similarities beyond their nationality and ethnicity, and their achievements of fame and recognition in their chosen fields. Without taking the analogies too far, because, of course, there are many differences, we can nevertheless make some cautious comparisons in relation to their respective childhoods, or their perceptions thereof. By referencing Baldwin’s essays, books and interviews, and Jackson’s autobiography, interviews and songs, such an exercise can provide greater understanding of the lives and sensibilities of both Baldwin and Jackson, as well as greater appreciation of their achievements.
In an interview given around the time he was 50 years old, James Baldwin revealed he “never had a childhood” having been required to help raise his siblings. Born illegitimate, he was raised by a brutal stepfather named David Baldwin (a factory worker who became a preacher) who kept his emotional distance from his family. His wife, Baldwin’s mother Emma, called the husband to whom she bore a further eight children, “Mr. Baldwin”. David Baldwin often beat his children, and “I do not remember, in all those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home” Baldwin recalled in Notes of a Native Son published in 1955. (1)
James Baldwin was Harlem-born, but went to a prestigious public high school with classmates who were white and Jewish, causing him to question some of the religious and social beliefs in which he had been indoctrinated at home and in church. After high school he put his plans for college on hold to take whatever work he could find to support his family. (His father died when Baldwin was 19 years old.)
Though decades removed from Baldwin’s youth, Michael Jackson’s portrayal of the high school student Darryl, who returns to Harlem at the end of the term, is probably not dissimilar to the situation that Baldwin personally experienced. “’Bad’ is a song about the street,” Jackson wrote in his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk. “It’s about a kid from a bad neighborhood who gets to go away to a private school. He comes back to the old neighborhood when he’s on a break from school and the kids from the neighborhood start giving him trouble.” (2)
Also one of nine children in a working class family and raised with a strict religious upbringing, Jackson’s prodigious talent as a performer – exhibited from a very young age – meant that a carefree childhood was impossible once he fronted the family band and became instrumental in its international success. He didn’t lack for schooling or sibling companionship, but parental affection came predominantly from his mother. His father, Joseph Jackson, directed his energies towards achieving success for his family and a life far removed from their humble two-bedroom house in Gary, Indiana, and the nearby East Chicago steel mill where Joseph had worked as a crane operator.
Though later remembering his childhood as mostly involving work, Michael Jackson admitted he loved to sing, and wasn’t forced into show business by his parents. (3) However, despite being the key to his family’s success, he wasn’t spared the physical and emotional abuses of corporal punishment and derogatory name-calling, both of which had life-long repercussions. His father further distanced himself emotionally from his children by insisting they call him “Joseph”.
In Moonwalk, Jackson recalled getting beaten by his father for things that happened mostly outside the endless rehearsals. “Dad would make me so mad and hurt that I’d try to get back at him and get beaten all the more. I’d take a shoe and throw it at him, or I’d just fight back, swinging my fists. That’s why I got it more than all my brothers combined. I would fight back and my father would kill me, just tear me up. Mother told me I’d fight back even when I was very little, but I don’t remember that. I do remember running under tables to get away from him, and making him angrier. We had a turbulent relationship.” (4)
In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin recalled of his own father: “I began to wonder what it could have felt like for such a man to have had nine children whom he could barely feed. He used to make little jokes about our poverty, which never, of course, seemed very funny to us; they could not have seemed very funny to him, either, or else our all too feeble response to them would never have caused such rages.” (5) This statement reminds us that, whatever the family dynamics may be, they cannot be divorced from the socio-economic reality the family inhabits. Families, like the individuals who comprise them, do not exist in isolation, even though some individuals that comprise the family unit may feel isolated in their frustrations or their longing for affection.
Jackson’s feelings about his childhood were further expressed in the song Childhood (1995) which he declared to be his most autobiographical work. But by the time the song came out on his album HIStory, Past, Present and Future. Book 1, he had already spoken frankly with Oprah Winfrey (in 1993) about his father, the beatings and his reactions to them. (6) The “lost childhood” refrain was one we heard often over the years, and while he had somewhat reconciled with Joseph Jackson after becoming a father himself, even telling him that he loved him, in the end Jackson still keenly felt the loss of a carefree youth.
On the iPhone recording made by Jackson’s personal physician Conrad Murray (subsequently played as evidence at Murray’s involuntary manslaughter trial following the singer’s sudden death), Jackson makes a heartfelt statement about helping sick children. He wanted to use his proceeds from the This Is It concerts to build a children’s hospital, with a movie theatre and games rooms to keep the children happy and occupied so as to facilitate their healing. “My performances will be up there helping my children and [will] always be my dream. I love them. I love them because I didn’t have a childhood. I had no childhood. I feel their pain. I feel their hurt. I can deal with it. ‘Heal the World,’ ‘We Are The World,’ ‘Will You Be There,’ ‘The Lost Children’… These are the songs I’ve written because I hurt, you know, I hurt.” (7)
It is impossible to estimate how much of this childhood angst propelled the creative geniuses of Baldwin and Jackson. But we can at least be certain that, where these men came from, and what they endured, informed and influenced the art they created.
(1) Clifford Thompson “Jimmy’s Blues” Los Angeles Review of Books https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/jimmys-blues/
(2) Michael Jackson “Moonwalk” (1988) Arrow Books paperback edition 2010
(5) James Baldwin “Notes of a Native Son” (1955) accessed from http://www.csudh.edu/ccauthen/570f15/baldwin.pdf
(6) “Michael Jackson talks to Oprah” https://vimeo.com/64605674
Recommended additional reading:
Joseph Vogel “The Baldwin Prophecy” [on Michael Jackson] http://www.joevogel.net/the-baldwin-prophecy
“searching for the world that I come from” photo collage compiled and edited by Kerry Hennigan, September 2017. Copyright of the photographs used remains vested in the respective owners/copyright holders. No copyright infringement is intended in their use for this academic exercise.