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  • Writer's pictureKayla Williams

You're Lucky You Are White


Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images/ Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Analyzing the Declaration of Independence where “men were created equal” was the most popular line to come from this highly regarded text, I am in class. Actively engaged and doing a close reading of the work of 5 men, that in their time of living, I would have been one of their slaves. Or, possibly, one of the enslaved women Thomas Jefferson raped. Yet, we read on and idealize the founding fathers who created this “great” nation. In a rectangular room with the most uncomfortable seats that keep pinching the sides of my buttocks, grey is the only color I can think of when I enter the space. A color, customary to unfinished walls. The lights are dim not by choice, but because no one got around to fixing them. In this stockroom turned classroom is where my Capstone course on Humanism, Science, and Technology meet, and for the first couple of weeks we have been discussing the human and society.


As time passes the professor moves our attention to another written work of art. “The Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man” by William Apess is the next on the list of close readings. A reading that served as a response to the Declaration, that illuminates the true reality of the overused quote that “men were created equal”, which was truly only intended for white men. If you notice I only said men because it was not for women either.


With the hopes that the class would be able to explain what the title suggests, my professor, short in stature with big ideas bouncing off the sides of his skull, ask to the class.

“What is a looking glass?”


If I knew what was going to transpire next, I would have raised my hand, opened my mouth, and blurted out any curvaceous word to sound like I knew what I was saying; only to prevent the next minute from transpiring and knocking my head into a never-ending spiral of yours and mine. A mental separation of what is accepted and what is not.

But no one answers.


“It’s a mirror,” he says enthusiastically.

“Like Michael Jackson said, ‘If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”


I smile from my seat and notice as he continues that his face slowly changes from inspired to horrified.


“Oh wait, I can’t say that anymore. Did you guys see the documentary, Leaving Neverland? That’s some sick shit. I will not be quoting him again.” His brown suede shoes walk their way back to the board where the phrase enslaved personswas written.

I freeze, yet my mind does not.


***


The day Michael Jackson passed the world around that was mine with certainty, packed up and left. I couldn’t control my breathing and if I tried to refuse to take in the air that felt almost toxic, it would still flow through my lungs without a fight. He was supposed to always be there, and I was supposed to somehow meet him one day. I drowned myself in his striking expressive voice like a hug and it became my imaginary friend. “Man In the Mirror” was one of those songs that sung me to sleep at night and often times woke me up in the morning when my mom was in one of her moods.


This mood, I would define as “Fuck it, I’m going to sing as loud as I want” and that she did.

Man in the Mirror wasn’t the only song that would make an appearance in her liberating morning quest. Many amazing artists like Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, R. Kelly, and Bebe Winans. Sometimes on rare occasions, I’d hear a rush of honey coming from a disembodied person. It was Elvis Presley in the form of one of my favorite songs “I Can’t Help Falling in Love”, but I didn’t know it was him then. It was just a voice.


For the remainder of the class, I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. If I did, pure noise would sprout out of my mouth. A noise that silences a room in a way that is not sweet but bitter. Bittersweet, perhaps for me because I’d feel great after all the fire searing my inner linings, left my lungs. I sat there quiet, working my mind around what he said and why it bothered me so much, that I couldn’t focus on next week's homework. I wondered if anyone in the room noticed my shift in energy.


Later I was told by a classmate, “I knew something was wrong because you didn’t move for 10 minutes.”


When it was over, it wasn’t. I left the room at full speed and called the first person I could think of. They didn’t answer, so I called my brother. He stayed quiet as I poured out my heart to him about the unfairness and craziness that is 2019 with the uncovering of all these artists and their monstrous past. I felt like everything I once loved was slipping away and it brought me to tears. How can I and others sit in a classroom reading about men who committed the same if not worst acts than the artists we choose to “cancel”. Why can I quote Thomas Jefferson in essays but not play an R. Kelly song? Why should I have to explain to someone why I connect with Michael Jackson’s music, or even Bill Cosby’s show. Why do I have to brace myself for the conversation that follows that statement?

“Isn’t he a pedophile? Or a rapist?”

It’s not fair.


***


It’s Astoria Day at Astoria Park and my brother and dad are DJing. There is a selection of songs that need to be played at events like this. Songs that are customary but not limited to the black community. Songs like “Step in the Name of Love” or “Happy People”. Both made by a man who was arrested on federal charges alleging sex acts on minors. A total of 18 counts of child pornography, kidnapping, and forced labor. Even so, the crowd wanted his songs to be played and my dad wanted to play it. So he did. It stayed on for about a minute before it was changed because a woman not within the party couldn’t bear to hear his voice blaring from the speaker.

“Turn that rapist off,” she said.

I thought to myself, I wish I was brave enough to say something similar in my film class when we watched “Birth of a Nation”. A landmark film in history that is blatantly racist. Yet, my professor chose to praise the man who made it.

I wish I said, “Turn that racist shit off” but I did not. I left the class and went for the longest bathroom break.


I couldn’t stop thinking of the time “Man in the Mirror” was played from my dad’s speaker, making the cup I placed on the counter slowly creep toward the edge. It flashed before my eyes in the highest quality.


“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”


How can you not want to quote that?

It was at this moment that I realized the trend. There is a divide. A divide that is not very clear when you don’t experience it every day. A divide many will say doesn’t exist but, it’s there. A divide that is placed on you from birth, marked by skin-color, will dictate what you can get away with and what you cannot. It will change how people decide to treat the things that you may contribute to the world. This divide plays the biggest role even if you were not cast for it. It will be the foundation of how society chooses to tell your story in coming years, either in a good light or bad.


***


The day I fell in love with one of Elvis Presley’s songs, I didn’t know it was an Elvis Presley’s song. Patrick Wilson sat in a 70’s styled living room, guitar in hand serenading the family possessed by Valik, that’s when love-struck, and I couldn’t help it. I never expected to fall in love in a theater watching a horror film but there I was. It wasn’t a completely new song because I’ve heard it before, but I never really listened until now. Like a ton of bricks, it weighed down on me to the point I had to know who it was that made this beautiful gem.


I didn’t know much about the American singer Elvis Presley. All I knew was that he was an icon of the 20th century that tended to have a sexually provocative performing style. So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a video by a small YouTuber, Chesley Ambrose titled, “Elvis Presley is a Monster”. This video laid out Presley’s disgusting affinity for underaged girls. He was obsessed with virginity and used his power as a way to prey on his super fans. However, no one talks about it. All the people I’ve mentioned this to never knew and his legacy was never tarnished. It’s like the sickest kept secret. No one batted an eye when Elvis groomed Priscilla Ann

Presley from the age of 14 and eventually married her. He’s like the singing Woody Allen.


The high standards of being an artist flooded through my body, under the fluorescents of one classroom and a darken cavernous cinema. My heart was broken. I loved the art of monstrous men. What do I do with that? Art isn’t enough for many, the character of the artist matter too.

I sat in bed for two weeks after my professor’s words and that traumatizing class, listening to Elvis, waiting for him to mend my heart, but the mending never came. All I could think was — you are lucky you are white.


The air is different when you talk about artists like Woody Allen, Elvis Presley, Harvey Weinstein, and Picasso. The acts that they’ve committed on women seem to go unnoticed in media and if it isn’t completely unnoticed, it’s justified because their art is “remarkable” or “brilliant”. But is remarkable art enough to overlook an unremarkable person? Or is it only okay to not notice these things because those men are white? Are they the men that were created equal?

Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, two sides of the same coin. August brought one legend for pop and the other for rock and roll but only the paler face that never could escape the darkness of their skin seems to be held accountable for anything. Only one must deal with having their life’s work be stripped away or silenced. I couldn’t come to grips with reading the work of slave owners or listening to sweet nothings from a “wise man”.


Wise men say only fools rush in But I can’t help falling in love with you {A fourteen-year-old} Shall I say would it be a sin {Not if you wait until she is of age} Be a sin (I’ll make sure she loves me) If I can’t help falling in love with you


No one seems to know what they do. No one will say, “Oh you listen to that guy that preys on young girls.” No one will make a sound because it’s not important those artists reflect the nation’s most upheld identity.

Yet, even in all this chaos, I still play Elvis and I still play Michael.

It’s a beautiful song.

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