Monday, March 28, 2016

Social Hieroglyphs & the White Interpretive Horizon: Michael Jackson and Paul Robeson

It seems gratuitous to centre the white imaginary in discussing Michael Jackson and Paul Robeson, in attempting to delineate differences created via the ways white media and racial decoding inflected their commercial viabilities and artistic merits. There is also very little material for me to understand how my own interpretations are engendered by my subject position -- a brown person who grew up in non-Western nation. Representations of blackness in India are funneled through Hollywood gatekeepers; there is no room for critical self-reflection of how black bodies are disempowered and vilified in my own culture, neither is there space to examine coterminous racial identities to build on solidarity between darker-skinned people. 

I grew up with a 'white gaze' towards all non-Indian, non-white identities (complicated by the ways white media sold stereotypes about my people back to us.) The only people who where afforded dimensionality in the popular cultures I grew up with were those who looked like me and white Westerners. It is with this understanding that I do want to examine Jackson and Robeson's individual and intersecting relationships to white capitalism and white-media, even as I acknowledge that this deconstruction, this constant focus on how white people see black people, follows an insidious logic of placation and consumption. 

Dyer stresses on not reducing white and black views on Robeson to binaries, even as his argument depend on the dichotomous discourses created by black and white viewers and scholars. Stardom for the racial other is contingent on their appeal to a normative white interpretation. Both were trailblazers embedded in white environments, environments that were capitalist, industrial, intent on sensationalization, and vampiric in their consumption of blackness and alterity.  Jackson and Robeson both relied on and manipulated the narratives that would be ascribed to them: Jackson star image was a 'social hieroglyph' while Robeson's was "crossing over" (a bridge?)
"Robeson brought with him the complex struggle of white and black meanings that his image condensed...this is significant not so much at the level of script and dialogue, as at the level of various affective devices that work to contain and defuse those black meanings to offer the viewer the pathos of a beautiful, passive racial emblem." 
While Robeson was blackness was never contested, even though the possible meanings of that blackness and the immediate ecosystems it was embedded within offer polyvalent meanings. The very site of Michael Jackson's body, on the other hand, was contested: "neither child nor man, not clearly either black or white and with androgynous image that is neither masculine or feminine...a commodity form that demands, yet defies, decoding."

Robeson could be immediately reduced to familiar coordinates of black masculinity, and reactions to that image, whether by him or by other black perspectives were set up against the norm, while Michael Jackson's very being was articulated by ambiguity. These different significations also exist within temporalities in which they propelled change: was pop culture the same after Robeson? After Jackson? Has the white imaginary changed, or is it the positionality of blackness that has changed?

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