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Honoring Michael Jackson on what would have been his 57th birthday, here is a repost of a piece we published by Sharon Kyle.

michael jackson the trailblazer

I was already in a somewhat somber mood on the morning of June 25, 2009 after hearing on the radio that Farrah Fawcett had lost her battle with cancer. Of course, I didn't know her, but that didn't mean I couldn’t be saddened, especially after having seen the documentary she produced—“Farrah’s Story”— which provided a window into what had been her world for the last two years of her life as she battled cancer.

I came away hoping she'd win the fight and admiring her more for the courage she showed in revealing her unadorned self on screen. But I also came away feeling a little more determined to fight for the right to healthcare. Farrah Fawcett’s documentary made it clear that money and privilege give you entre into a world of healthcare that few ever see. The extensive treatments possibly added a couple of years to her life.

Then at about 2:30 p.m. on the same day, I was making a presentation to a group of business managers about the benefits of using a new business software application. Pretty much everyone in the room, myself included, seemed to want to be elsewhere. I was getting the normal amount of grumbling and resistance you get when you're trying to teach old dogs new tricks when suddenly one of the managers in a jovial, upbeat tone interjected, "Hey, everybody, Michael Jackson suffered cardiac arrest and is being taken to the hospital." Then she added, "Just thought I'd throw that out to bring some levity to the room." For a fraction of a second, there was silence -- then a bit of laughter. I didn't get the joke. I asked if she were serious. She said, “Yes.” Moments later, the meeting concluded. I immediately rushed to my car tuning the radio to the news station.

Like the rest of the world, I was shocked and saddened to hear that Michael Jackson was gone. Another tragic, seemingly senseless loss.

The LA Progressive is a political and social justice site. We generally refrain from posting articles about the entertainment industry. As the publisher, I usually adhere to our policy mainly because the entertainment industry gets more coverage than it deserves. But the passing of Michael Jackson is not just an entertainment story. So even though our original intention was to handle the story of Michael Jackson’s and Farrah Fawcett’s passings like any other entertainment piece – leave them for mainstream media, we reconsidered because these people were not just entertainers.

The fact that Michael Jackson was more than an entertainer struck me the moment I heard the insensitive remark of my colleague but on reflection it occurred to me that Michael Jackson’s life had not had the same impact on her as it had had on me. So I thought I'd share.

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Michael Jackson had a significant impact on the battle against cultural apartheid, particularly in the entertainment industry. He may have been an insignificant entertainer to the woman in my meeting, but to most in the black community, he symbolized so much more.

We live in a country that is, for the most part, just as culturally, ethnically, and racially segregated as it was when American apartheid was government sanctioned. If this was a harmless phenomenon, I wouldn’t be writing about it. But there’s been enough research and conclusive evidence to suggest that segregation is harmful to American society on many fronts. By having the walls that separate us chipped away, ever so slightly, we all benefit.

As much as I would like this to not be true, the entertainment industry often has as much or more of an impact on American’s behavior as our schools. For this reason, changes in that industry have far-reaching consequences just as maintaining the status quo in that industry has had far-reaching effects.

I was born the year before Michael Jackson was born. In other words, Michael Jackson’s image, music, reputation—everything about him—has been a part of my world since I was 12 or 13 years old.

Now comes the part that I find difficult to explain to people who are not black although Asian Americans and Latinos often understand this. During the first 12 years of my life, I saw tens of thousands of images—perhaps hundreds of thousands—on television, in magazines, in the newspapers, in books, in advertising, in the movies representing political figures, judges, teachers, doctors, police officers—even my paper dolls and Barbie dolls— the kinds of people our society respects were always white. I rarely saw a person who looked like me depicted in any kind of media. As a child, I couldn’t understand the damaging effect that could have but it did.

As a middle-aged woman, I can see the negative impact that has on all aspects of society. Even today, there are areas of society where it is quite “normal” to not see faces of color reflected. It's normal to not see faces of color in jury boxes but to see plenty of them in prisons. It's normal to see overwhelmingly white police departments policing overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. It's normal to see the echelons of executive management fully populated with only white faces. Up until January 20, 2009, it was quite normal to not see a face of color in the White House. The imagery that is promoted in commercials, in movies, books, magazines helps to normalize. We don’t find it odd that there continues to be huge racial and gender disparities in the upper echelons of management in almost all industries in America. We accept this and I contend that our acceptance is partly due to the steady diet of images bombarding us from the media that tell us what normal looks like.

Michael Jackson was a trail blazer who opened doors to the benefit of many. He was the first to integrate MTV. It’s true I don’t watch MTV but I don’t ride the buses of Montgomery, Alabama either. Still, I believe I have benefitted by the work done to integrate both and Michael Jackson's contribution to the entertainment industry was nothing less than phenomenal. He will be missed.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LAProgressive