How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Before Grief Summary and Analysis

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Walker recalls the way Michael Jackson and his siblings influenced his own family’s life as they grew up in the late 1960s. The Jacksons originated from a town only thirty miles away from where Walker lived, and seeing a Black family find fame following a decade of assassinations and race riots proved captivating to the Walker family. Walker and his five siblings argued over which of them got to be Michael as they sang and danced along with the Jackson Five on television. 

The Walker parents attributed the Jackson family’s success to hard work and God’s blessings. The Jacksons were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Walker siblings found some similarities between this denomination and their own, the Worldwide Church of God. Both forbade the celebrations of typical holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and both discouraged associating with those who were not church members. Walker understood how these constraints formed particularly tight bonds between siblings. The success of the Jackson 5 seemed to be breaking boundaries of racial tolerance and acceptance across America, and the Walker parents relaxed some of their religious rules, such as banning television on the Sabbath, so that their children could experience the way the Jacksons were impacting national culture. 

Eventually, Michael Jackson’s fame surpassed that of his siblings, and he went on to find solo success. Yet this success came with a price, and the adorable image of young Michael belting out lead vocals among his older siblings gave way to conflicting images of the older Michael spending nights Lisa Marie Presley, traveling with Bubbles the chimpanzee, and hosting sleepovers with young children.

Even the response to his death proved controversial. Jackson’s sudden death was talked about for weeks; some believed the media coverage was justified for a man who had become the King of Pop, while others scorned the adoration of a “low-life” of society. Jackson was called a freak, and a documentary accusing Jackson of child molestation and rape left Walker feeling like he’d never understood his former childhood idol.


An iconic figure in American culture, Michael Jackson left behind a complicated legacy that is difficult to reconcile. On one hand, he reshaped American culture in a way that proved foundational to Black entertainers who followed him. His sound, style, and performing were original and creative, and young people, regardless of race, emulated his work. His song “Billie Jean” was the first video by a Black artist to which MTV gave serious airtime. His relationships with white women such as Brooke Shields and Lisa Marie Presley fostered new conversations about interracial dating. Yet in his later years, Jackson presented an increasingly troubling image, with allegations of sexual misconduct with minors making headlines alongside bizarre photos of his Neverland Ranch. Jackson’s appearance changed noticeably in his later years, as his “color faded and his nose shriveled.” Alongside this strange transformation of America’s beloved pop icon came a growing body of evidence that Jackson was addicted to various drugs. The young and adorable Michael Jackson was easy for the nation to embrace, but he grew into a man who presented a complicated portrait of American fame. Jackson’s death stopped the world as Americans were transported back to a time when they recalled “singing and dancing” in celebration of Jackson’s creative genius—but only for a moment.

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