By Dr. Willie James Jennings
Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
Dr. J. Kameron Carter
Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
Jennings: Jay, I was amazed by the memorial service for Michael Jackson. What struck me immediately was the deeply Christian, deeply “black church form” that service embodied. From the surprising presence and position of the casket adorned with flowers to the position of the podium, the setting turned the Staples Center in Los Angeles into a sanctuary. Yet beyond the setting, we saw the performance of an ecclesial memory of how to mourn the dead and how to draw the dead bodies of black men next to the body of God. This is a practice black Christians the world over know how to do very well, not because we want such knowledge but because we have been forced into its endless repetition. I was struck by how the singers such as Mariah Carey and Lionel Richie drew deeply from the well of church singing, that blues drenched, old 100s idiom. But the first highlight for me was Queen Latifah's reading of Maya Angelou brilliant poem:
Beloveds, now we know that we know nothing,
now that our bright and shining star can slip away from our fingertips like a puff of summer wind.
Without notice, our dear love can escape our doting embrace.
Sing our songs among the stars
and walk our dances across the face of the moon.
In the instant that Michael is gone, we know nothing.
No clocks can tell time.
No oceans can rush our tides with the abrupt absence of our treasure.
Though we are many, each of us is achingly alone, piercingly alone.
Only when we confess our confusion can we remember that he was a gift to us
and we did have him.
He came to us from the creator, trailing creativity in abundance.
Despite the anguish, his life was sheathed in mother love, family love,
and survived and did more than that.
He thrived with passion and compassion, humor and style.
We had him whether we know who he was or did not know, he was ours and and we were his.
We had him, beautiful, delighting our eyes.
His hat, aslant over his brow, and took a pose on his toes for all of us.
And we laughed and stomped our feet for him.
We were enchanted with his passion because he held nothing.
He gave us all he had been given.
Today in Tokyo, beneath the Eiffel Tower, in Ghana’s Black Star Square.
In Johannesburg and Pittsburgh, in Birmingham, Alabama, and Birmingham, England
We are missing Michael.
But we do know we had him, and we are the world.
Angelou's genius was beautifully framed by the powerful commanding presence of Queen Latifah. Angelou's stunning biblical cadence captures one of the deepest realities of black artistic performance as we witnessed it in Michael Jackson, and that is, the ability to carry others inside our bodies, inside our pain and inside our expressive transcendence.
Carter: Yes Willie, your observations are spot-on. The Jackson memorial service calls for serious intellectual, I would go so far as to say, Christian intellectual reflection. For indeed, as again you rightly say, the service mimed in many ways signal features of black church life, so much so that the Staples Center metamorphosed into the Staples Sanctuary. It was replete with soloists and choirs, testimonials and witnesses, and alas preacher and all ─ in the person of Al Sharpton as eulogist.
Sharpton’s remarks roused the crowd and raised the roof. There was his homiletically polished line: “To the Jackson kids I say, there was nothin’ strange about your dad; it was strange what yo’ daddy had to deal with.” And there was the ever-so subtle alignment of MJ’s life with the wider strides of the civil rights movement and with Martin Luther King, Jr. Some, I’m sure may feel that such a suggestion goes too far. But Sharpton as preacher at Staples Sanctuary was making a point certainly worth pondering.
Martin and Michael, Sharpton intimated, were “dreamers ─ dreamers of a different social world, a different social reality. King dreamed in the heat of the 1950s and 1960s. His dream bore its greatest fruit in the world of politics and policy with the great Civil Rights legislations. Jackson dreamed in the soul and then post-soul eras of the 1970s, 80s, and beyond. The fruit of his dream was the transformation of the world of artistic and musical culture. Linking the two eras and the two figures as he did ─ and here Sharpton’s rhetorical gifts and genius piqued in its subtlety ─ was the “dream.” Both dreamed ─ as has Afro-Christianity the world over ─ a different world in the midst of this strange world. Invoking black church life as the form in which to funeralize Michael Jackson powerfully evoked this deeper and wide tradition of black folks in the modern world.
It also struck me, Willie, that something else was accomplished in memorializing Michael Jackson in black church form. It profoundly humanized him in the midst of media narratives in which Michael often came off as freakish or that otherwise put a question mark next to his humanity. Well, true to black church form, the memorial service ─ from the cracking voice of Jermaine Jackson to the funny anecdotes of Smokey Robinson to Brook Shields’ tears to the groans of Jackson’s little daughter Paris ─ captured a Michael Jackson. Michael the human being ─ the father, the friend, the humanitarian, someone who gave almost a third of his income to do good works. And insofar as the memorial service humanized Michael, it followed in the tradition of black churches the world. It humanizes those who have had a question mark placed next to their humanity, calling it into question. Between the media presentation of Michael Jackson and the memorial presentation of him in black church form, we see a struggle of narration, the wages of story telling. It does remind one of King again, for the March on Washington also narrated civil rights inside of the form of the black church.
One last thing. And here I am thinking of the universality of Jackson the man and the universality of his memorial service. As Jackson was a black man who was a figure of universal reach (his voice brought together those from Japan to Birmingham, from Senegal and Berlin to Brazil, from Britain to the Bronx), the black church form in which he was memorialized also exemplified the universal reach of black church life. Michael Jackson (along with Lionel Richie) penned in the 1980s, I think it was, “We are the World.” Well, people the world over, numbering in the millions, watched his memorial service. But here’s the thing: as they watched it, they were drawn into the form and into the bosom of the pain and hope of the black church tradition at its best.
In all, the memorial, as I said, leaves much for us to think about and talk through.
Jennings: Jay, absolutely, in a very important way Michael’s memorial service flashed across the world the humanizing power of black church gestures. Once again, I am deeply impressed by the truth and power of Sharpton. He is also a figure like Michael often inscribed in narrative that render him freakish, fiendish or an abject political failure. None of which are true, but all of which seeks to conceal the profoundly organic power of the man. As with James Brown, the godfather of soul, so too now with the king of pop, Sharpton’s close relationship with these men and his ability to contextualize their lives on the broader landscapes of America’s story and the story of global black existence has placed Sharpton in a unique historic space.
That space is indeed a preaching space. I was amazed at his deployment of the preacher refrain, “Thank ya,” “Thank ya, Michael.” We are quite familiar with this refrain as carrying forward the celebratory climax of a sermon, evoking the work of God bound up with a dying and rising Son. Yet here Sharpton drew Michael’s life inside this majestic sigh of Christian gratitude. I never cease to be stunned by the creative power of black preachers to expand a Christological frame around any and every moment of pain.
Speaking of pain, I was also struck by the labored singing of so many of the performers. I cannot imagine what it must be like to enter the expressive mode while the pain of loss is so fresh. You could see the struggle on Lionel Richie’s face as he tried to sing his beautiful song, Jesus. You could also see it on Usher, and of course, Jermaine’s sensitive singing. Even Stevie Wonder’s poignant performance was labored as he pressed through the sadness soaked moment. My point here is that their performances exposed the clear sense that this is an untimely death, a death that should not be.