Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)


IT IS 1971. I AM FOURTEEN YEARS OLD, AND I AM lacing up my black platform shoes. My mother is putting on her lipstick, and my sister, three years younger than I and a Jackson 5 fanatic, is picking out her Afro. As I wait on the ladies in my life, I sit on my bed in the public housing bedroom I share with my sister, flipping through copies of Right On! magazine, which, in the years before BET’s 106 & Park, is the way young black kids kept up with their teen idols. I read about a pickup basketball game at the Jackson family’s Encino home and wonder if I could take Jermaine off the dribble.

My sister and mother are now ready. We grab our coats and then knock on our neighbors’ door. Betty and her son exit their apartment, and we all ride down the elevator from the sixth floor. We live in the Samuel J. Tilden housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn, an area that is one of the worst ghettos in America.

We walk down Livonia Avenue, with the sixteen-story Tilden buildings to our right and the elevated IRT subway tracks looming to our left. Before we go upstairs to the elevated train, my mother buys Wrigley’s Spearmint gum at the local candy store on Rockaway Avenue, as we all keep an eye out for the junkies who hang menacingly on the corner.

The long ride takes my family and friends from Brownsville, near the end of the IRT line, across Brooklyn through Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Park Slope, downtown Brooklyn, and then into Manhattan, running under Wall Street, through Greenwich Village up to the garment district, and finally to West 34th Street. On that long ride we talk about previous trips to Manhattan. My mother, who’s studying to become a teacher, has taken us to many events in “the city,” from Mary Poppins at Radio City Music Hall to Ossie Davis’s Purlie Victorious, with Melba Moore, on Broadway.

But this family outing will be one of the most memorable of our lives. We get off at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, joining the throngs of black and white families filing into Madison Square Garden. This version of the “World’s Greatest Arena” is only about four years old and has already been the site of the first Ali-Frazier heavyweight championship fight and the New York Knicks’ first NBA title. I’ve listened to so many games on the radio being played in this building, and yet it’s only my second time inside.

We sit up high in the green seats to the right of the stage, but we are too excited to be upset about our nosebleed location. My mother is happy because Chuck Jackson, a deep-voiced soul singer and a longtime favorite, is one of the opening acts, obviously placed on the bill as an acknowledgment to all the parents in the house. (I don’t realize until a few years later that the Commodores with Lionel Ritchie were the other opener; they performed a brief set.)

When the Jackson 5 takes the stage, the piercing screams of teenage girls fill the Garden. Michael moves swiftly across the stage, a little dynamo who reminds me of Mighty Mouse, the hyperactive Saturday morning cartoon character I love. The Jackson boys in their multicolored outfits glide across the Garden stage, and their Afros, perfect ovals of jet-black hair, look like halos. Though the crowd is very integrated, there’s a palpable sense of pride emanating from the many black families in attendance.

The Jackson brothers, as well as their parents, Joe and Katherine, represent our potential and dreams. If they could emerge from the working-class slum of Gary, Indiana, so might my family escape public housing in Brooklyn. The Jacksons represent a growing sense of possibility for my family and me. Maybe one day I could even write a book about Michael Jackson. In a world where a black family, lead by an astoundingly talented little boy, could sell out an arena in New York City, anything could happen.