Brown, Garner and other tragedies under the Michael Jackson Microscope

TonayiaToday my ten year old son brought home a writing assignment. His instructions were to print out the lyrics of his favorite song and write about what it means to him. Sounds simple enough.

My son happens to be a fan of Michael Jackson thanks to Mom and Dad’s old CDs and “The Experience” dance game for the Wii. So he tells me that he wants me to print “They Don’t Care About Us.” Knowing the lyrics myself, I felt this was a very deep song for a 4th grade assignment and was curious to know why my son selected this song for his assignment. So I asked, “Do you know what the words in this song mean?”

He looks at me as if I were from Mars and says, “I know some of the words but it is my favorite song to dance to on the Wii.” So my husband and I go into a short lecture on how important it is to understand the words that you put your body in motion to. We pull up the lyrics to the song and my husband reads them aloud and then plays the song for my son to hear again, this time with extra attention to the lyrics. I knew in my mind where this assignment was headed as the lyrics danced around in my head.

“What recent event does this remind you of?” my husband asked.

My son responds, “Michael Brown and I can’t breathe.” I knew he had watched part of ‘Black & Blue’ on CNN which highlighted the tragic death of Eric Garner.

My heart begins to sink, as I listen to him respond to my husband’s questioning. The chorus replays in my head, “All I wanna say is that They don’t really care about us.”

Tears begin to roll down as I watch the look of terror on my son’s face as my husband explains who the “they” can be, how the”they” may view him as a young black boy, and how the “they” may mistreat him or try to punish him. 

My tears flow even faster when my three year old gives me a raisin and says “This will make it better, Mommy.”

My boys are so innocent. So intelligent. Why do I have to have this conversation with my boys? How is this going to impact their self esteem? Knowing that they are growing up in a society that devalues and marginalizes them. Why do I have to participate in planting seeds of inferiority?

I cry harder as I think of all the families impacted by police brutality, racial profiling, unjustified killings that are so deep rooted in that fabric of our country. Damn the justice system for how it is failing our kids, painting them to be criminals and thugs. Stripping the educational system down to nothing in attempts to destroy all hopes of the true equalizer. My tears turned to anger as the lyrics play on in my head: “You’re rapin’ me of my pride…Oh, for God’s sake.”

My son will never look at “Michael Jackson: The Experience” the same again. He will be reminded every time he hears the song about our conversation in the kitchen. He will be reminded of his fear of the “they.” He will be reminded of the images that he continues to see play on the television screen. He will come to understand that the lyrics were written to be heard, not just danced to.

“Tell me what has become of my rights
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I’m tired of bein’ the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came
You know I really do hate to say it
The government don’t wanna see
But if Roosevelt was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be, no, no

Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be, no, no”

I realize that so many families around the nation are forced to have this type of conversation with their brown and black boys. Parents are forced to feel a sense of unrest whenever their children leave the house. But this is not right and we should not be comfortable with that.

To rebuild my son’s self esteem and my sanity we changed the tune to “Man in the Mirror.”

I’m Starting With The Man In
The Mirror
I’m Asking Him To Change
His Ways
And No Message Could Have
Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And
Then Make A Change

And my son decided to do his second favorite Michael Jackson song for homework: “Bad”

Well They Say The Sky’s
The Limit
And To Me That’s Really True
But My Friend You Have
Seen Nothing
Just Wait ‘Til I Get Through . . .

Because I’m Bad, I’m Bad-
Come On

Tonayia Coffer is the mother of four children and a member of the Parents United Leadership Collective.  Read more by Tonayia here.

4 thoughts on “Brown, Garner and other tragedies under the Michael Jackson Microscope

  1. You’ve made excellent song choices to teach your children well. Each of these songs has an important message to convey to all who want the simple fact of their humanity to be fully recognized.

  2. It is worth noting that Michael Jackson, the most successful Black man in history, was a victim of cruel racial bias. This essay by D.B. Anderson, “The Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the Politics of #BlackLivesMatter,” in the Baltimore sun states it very well.

    “Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it. We could always count on Jackson to be the global leader of the band, to give voice to everything we were feeling. His adult catalog is a trove of social activism. Starvation. AIDS. War. Gang violence. Race relations. The environment. It was Jackson who put on concerts for war-torn Sarajevo. It was Jackson who put together a group charity song and concert after 9/11. It was Jackson who used every ounce of his global celebrity to make a difference. He was there.

    What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.

    No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.”

    The article can be found here:

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