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It’s a Hard Knock Legacy: Appreciating the Lessons of Joe Jackson

The family’s patriarch was a deeply flawed man who rose above racism to guide his family to unparalleled heights of stardom

Greg Tate on Joe Jackson

In the wake of Joe Jackson's death, Greg Tate reckons with the remarkable legacy and deep flaws of the late patriarch.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Depending on the time of day and the angle from which one chooses to assess their gloried runs, or the spiritual damage, the Jackson family saga can seem like either the African-American Dream or the Blackest Greek tragedy ever. Only in Black America – where the nation’s worst intentions battle with the better angels of its nature over the same double-consciousness riddled bodies – could the best and the worst of ourselves be so riotously entangled from the get-go.

With the death of the Jackson family patriarch, Mr. Joseph Walter Jackson, we are forced to return to the scene of tabloid Twitterversed America’s endless love/hate affair with the Jackson clan – their hagiography-worthy rises, messy, pearl-clutching falls and perpetual, heart-palpitating resurrections.

In that sense, the Jacksons stay in the picture as an encapsulating mirror of our love/hate affair with Blackfolk in general and of Blackfolk’s most obvious response to that tortured and neurotic ambivalence: We don’t die, we multiply – heroically, operatically, confoundingly, elegantly, tackily and disturbingly too. Who are we without our antipathies, sympathies, contradictions and unanswerable confusions around all things Jackson?

So whatever animus or disdain you’ve allowed yourself to develop as an MJ fan for the mere mention of Joe Jackson’s name, you’re forced to recognize that no Joe Jackson, no Michael Jackson – and no Janet Jackson, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, LaToya, Rebbie and Paris Jackson either.

As one is also forced to do about the toxic hyper-masculine complexities of Miles Davis, Ike Turner, James Brown, Berry Gordy. No Miles, no Trane; no Ike, no Tina; no James, no Black and Proud, no hip-hop; and to a less-abusive but no-less-miserly extent, no Berry Gordy, no Marvin, no Stevie, no Michael and no template for recombinating art, free enterprise and politics in the modern Black world.

Wrestling with the masculinites of classic R&B’s most patriarchal demi-urges means wrangling with the Jim Crow America that made their enormous successes possible and problematic in the same breath.

In Joe Jackson’s case he pulled off not only the unprecedented but the wildly improbable – stage-managed five of his own pre-tween and teen spawn to international success in what was once the toughest battleground in American entertainment: chitterling-circuit–era R&B of the Theatre Owners Booking Association. A vaudeville-and-minstrelsy–built touring empire also known as Tough on Black Asses.

Much of the public ire for Joe Jackson derives from how tough he has unapologetically admitted he was on the Black asses of his own genetic line. Unpacking why he felt so justified in beating kids’ behinds with belt buckles in pursuit of R&B Babylon requires a bit of racially empathetic time-traveling.

It’s 1962. You’re Joe Jackson, husband of Katherine, father to a brood of 10 baby Jacksons and a crane operator at US Steel plant in Gary, Indiana – the backwater gut of what will soon be rust-belt middle America and already rife with poverty, dysfunction and gang wars.

In 1927, the year before you were born in Fountain Hill, Arkansas, a Black man named John Carter was lynched in nearby Little Rock and then publicly burned in the business center of the city’s Black section. Seven years earlier and 200 miles away, a thriving portion of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street was incinerated by a genocidal mob composed of the nation’s pale-skinned, race-psychotic majority, and aerially firebombed by the state government.

To be Black and overtly prosperous was tantamount to inviting a death sentence in the era of Jim Crow terrorism Joe Jackson was born into. But Joe Jackson’s Depression-era generation of enormously ambitious, indefatigable Black men multiplied and foolhardily pursued that brass ring as if the Dreamland was theirs to occupy. Nevermind lacking the qualifying pigment, brothers of Joe Jackson’s time and mien envisioned their familial fates rising up singing and dancing from the muddy bottom of America’s lower depths.

You’re an industrial steelworker with a night job who’s got 10 mouths to feed all scrunched up in a one-bedroom home. You’ve abandoned your personal dreams of success as a boxer and musician – smarting about the latter since your last band’s leader quit the Falcons, then went off to form minor doo-wop legends the Spaniels.

Past is always prologue, though, for a never-say-die striver like Joe Jackson. And after recognizing musical talent in three of your male-spawn, you began rehearsing them like musical Marines for the merciless gladiator arena where James Brown was King, Aretha Franklin is Queen and Crown Princess Diana Ross had set the fashion and beauty standard for post-revolutionary 1970s Black America.

These Jackson 5 you’ve spawned quickly go through the usual channels for fledgling R&B acts – regional talent shows, a radio hit, a shot at the Apollo amateur contest. But what comes next is where Jackson’s story diverts dramatically from most hopefuls of the time. Because within short order those midget Marine song-and-dance men you’ve prepped for the TOBA’s hard-knock life get signed to the big leagues.

Jackson 5

Motown, the platinum-standard operation of R&B. Motown, whose own founding father, Berry Gordy – a friggin’ W.C. Fields of Soulsville – is on record for how much he hated the very idea of kids on his label. But Motown is also the company that by 1968 is only rivaled by the Beatles for churning out global pop music. Meaning you, Joe Jackson, have tortuously designed these offshoots of yours to perform and arguably even outperform James Brown and Motown’s formidable top tier of stage acts, like the (tempting) Temptations, Four Tops, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye.

All of Motown’s other talent had come from the Detroit projects and gone though the label’s elite finishing school, had gotten their rough edges smoothed over (down to proper dining etiquette) and musical gifts honed by veteran life-coaches and choreographers such as blessed and beloved Baba Cholly Atkins.

Only you – Joseph from Fountain Hill, Arkansas, pop. 175 – got them to a Motown level in your family backyard. Even more remarkably, they show up ready to seamlessly function within Motown’s quick-change assembly-line recording process, with Joe supervising each session. Just imagine – some no-nonsense two-fisted dude shows up out of the American outback at your place of employment with his barely legal band of working rascals and says they can do the job as good or better than any veteran adult crew in the shop, and miraculously it turns out he ain’t bullshitting!

In the halcyon era of late-Sixties and Seventies R&B, the Jackson 5 sang, danced and played on a competitive level with the likes of Sly and the Family Stone and Rufus with Chaka Khan. But moreover Joe Jackson had so well-prepared them for the life they were about to embark on that between 1973 and 1975, they went on a world tour encompassing over a dozen countries and 160 concerts in an era where Earth, Wind & Fire and the Rolling Stones toured half as much over far shorter distances.

Now of course, as with any Jackson the world knows on a first-name basis, we could choose to go down the tabloid trail with Papa Joe, talk about LaToya’s now regrettably disavowed accusations of sexual abuse, decades of adultery, the now 43-year-old lovechild Joh’Vonnie, his abysmal business decisions, awkward and unacceptable media appearances and of course the litany of guilty-as-charged parental bullying and corporal-punishment abuses. About which, this reporter, as a Black man raised in the same era as MJ and his siblings, knows there was no conversation in the national culture back then that said American parents or vice-principals couldn’t beat their kids with belts, sticks and paddles to, ostensibly and however insanely, “protect them from those mean streets.” The ends of belt buckles don’t justify the means and we should never provide even retro-apologias for historic child abuse, but Jackson’s way was widespread in America at the time, and I’ve got friends whose stories of being brutally “raised by the hand” make the Jackson kids’ sound just this side of mildly horrific.

But as someone who’s spent the better portion of his adult life watching Black people go down in flames in the tarpit of American entertainment and then served up as “UNSUNG” fodder (or just narrowly escape that fate, tails on fire all the same), we feel compelled to eschew judgement for now and give Papa Joe Jackson his props.

Because at least three of the most definitive pop acts of the later 20th century came through his boot camp and he and wife Katherine’s golden loins. The fact that his family is still spoken of, no matter whether admiringly or appallingly, in the present tense, 50 years after launching, in a 15-minute game, is a testament to his innate skills as one of America’s great talent-developing impresarios.

Even more significantly it’s a testament to all the everyday music-business vampirism that never got to work its way inside to destroy the rest of his family at their height the way it did our beloved and troubled Michael.

Yeah, let’s all just marinate on that futhermucking reality for a minute. MJ may indeed have cleaved and butchered his beautiful Wakandan features because the “nauseating” face he saw in the mirror was Papa Joe’s. But the ass that paternalistic Afro-Cherokee warrior face once-upon-a-time-at-Motown saved from the fate of the DeBarges was MJ’s own.

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