Words fail Jackson, and he may not understand why

June 26, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

When the going gets tough, said the sage, the weird turn pro. Which brings us to Michael Jackson.

The going got tough recently. On the basis of some rough lyrics on his new album, Jackson is accused of being an anti- Semite. Jackson responds, as of old, that some of his best friends are Jewish. But he's also the ultimate we-are-the-world, everybody's-my-brother messenger. Everyone is his best friend.

So, probably, or at least maybe, he's not anti-Semitic.

If he isn't, then there's nothing to be upset about in the lyrics, even if the words themselves are upsetting as hell.

That's part of art -- the upsetting- people part. In his new album, the new Michael Jackson is angry. He considers himself a victim. And he writes a song about victims.

Here are the offending lyrics:

Jew me, sue me

Everybody do me;

Kick me, kike me

Don't you black-or-white me.

Some Jewish groups, and maybe others, were insulted. Jackson apologized and said he would change the lyrics. He said he was sorry that he offended anyone.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. One is that he did it for the publicity in order to sell albums. Another is that the new angry Michael Jackson showed, for once, his true colors. Another is that he meant just what he said he meant in the title -- "They Don't Care About Us." Meaning blacks, Jews and, mostly, Michael Jackson himself.

Dark images, in art, can sometimes bring light.

But, in art and elsewhere, here's something that's certain. Words are dangerous.

If you need any more evidence of that, check the spoiled white kids from Greenwich, Conn., who wrote, in code, "Kill All Niggers" in their high school yearbook.

I don't know these kids. But, here's a guess: being young and stupid, they embraced the most provocative, most incendiary, most damaging terminology they could find, thinking it would make them seem cool, rather than just dumb.

Their behavior became a cause celebre because rich, white kids are supposed to know better than to be openly racist. Greenwich is thought to be a skinhead-free neighborhood.

It does make you question, though, the now popular concept that we have attained a color-blind society. We're not even close.

As we know, nothing can offend, even now, on the same level as the N-word. The N-word is not confined to Greenwich yearbooks. It's back as a literary battleground with the recent discovery of an "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" manuscript.

"Huck Finn" was, of course, Mark Twain's greatest work. Hemingway said all great American literature ultimately finds its source in this novel about Huck, Jim and their river.

In the novel, there are more than 200 sightings of the N-word. Yes, people have counted. Some of these same people have tried to get the novel removed from school libraries because of the N-word.

With this new manuscript, which includes a previously unknown chapter that you can find in the current New Yorker, there will be new versions of the book and renewed arguments about it.

In the chapter, Jim, the runaway slave befriended by Huck, is at his minstrelese worst while telling Huck a ghost story. It could be that Twain dropped it for that reason.

A Southerner himself, Twain brings Huck, uneducated and uncivilized, to see that Jim is not simply a slave but a person. Huck and Jim become actual friends. Huck risks his own place in society, and, as he sees it, in God's eyes, to help Jim escape.

There's powerful stuff there. There's high comedy and there's high tragedy, all told in the dialect of the time.

"Huck Finn" wouldn't be the same book without the N-word, which is used by Jim as well as Huck. It was a dehumanizing word then, just as it is now. But it's getting through the language to something like truth, as Jim and Huck ride the raft down the Mississippi, that makes the book so important.

And, despite the book's weaknesses, especially in its ending, Twain tells the story of our nation and its great curse in language that is haunting.

Words are powerful. Twain knew that, of course. It's something that Jackson, though a better dancer than Twain, might still be learning.

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