Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lessons from the Steel Mill...Understanding Papa Joe

Among the many notable oddities in the aftermath of Michael Jackson's death was the behavior of his iconic and, literally, iron-fisted father, Papa Joe.

We collectively cringed at utter lack of public grief over his son's sudden death and his cheesing, preening appearance at the BET Awards. We rolled our eyes watching him promote his record label at a subsequent news conference. We wanted him to be quiet and the family seemed to listen -- Papa Joe has once again retreated from the public's eye and Jermaine, sans that crazy, conked hair, has emerged as a formidable family spokesman.

But to really understand Papa Joe, you have to go back to the steel mill.

Papa Joe, now 80, worked in Gary, Indiana's steel mill, US Steel, for years, managing to eke out a meager living to support his brood of 9 children. The mill was steady work for many Black men of that generation. But it was dead end, heartbreaking, soul-crushing work that exploited the labor Black men provided it, while being firmly entrenched in the type of institutional racism that denied them promotions and raises that they deserved. And let's face it, Gary, Indiana -- "the G.I." -- ain't a great place to live.

For many of those men, if they had any opportunity to get out -- any at all -- they'd do it.

For my own father, just a year younger than Joe Jackson, working the blast furnace at the steel mill on Chicago's far Southeast Side was a way to save money for college. He was smart, professional and a solid worker -- exactly the type of man they wanted to keep on board.

My dad had a plan from the beginning that didn't involve spending the rest of his life working in a blast furnace and when he had amassed enough money to return to school and tendered his resignation, Dad's white supervisor laughed. Told my dad that a "smart boy like him" could go a long way at the steel mill and wondered aloud why he'd want to return to college. The supervisor initially didn't even turn in dad's name as having quit because he was so convinced that dad would come back.

My dad collected his last paycheck and never returned.

He always told this story whenever we were driving along Torrence Avenue the minute we got a whiff of the foul-smelling emissions from the old mill. He's grateful he was able to use that steel mill money as a springboard for a successful career in academia where he ultimately earned a bachelors, two masters, and is "ABD" on a doctoral degree.

For Papa Joe, escaping the steel mill and the limited life that came with it meant pushing his five oldest sons to perfect their musical skills in what would become the Jackson 5ive, the most popular pop group of its generation, and perhaps unbeknownst to him, to create the greatest pop singer and entertainer of all time, Michael Jackson.

While I don't condone Joe Jackson's style of parenting or business management, I understand it as the motivation of a bygone era. An era where a man's love was measured by how well he could provide for his family and how tough he could make his children to shield him from the harshness of a racist world. There's no mistaking that Joe is a cold and violent man.

But he's also very shrewd and disciplined, and whether we like it or not, laid the blueprint for superstardom of the man we mourn and celebrate today, Michael Joseph Jackson.

Thinking of Michael's own difficult relationship with this father reminds me of the passage in Toni Morrison's masterpiece "Sula" where Hannah questions her mother's love and Eva responds, "What you talkin' bout did I love you? I stayed alive for you!"

Watching the Jacksons miniseries on VH-1 over the weekend -- again -- reminded me just how desperate Papa Joe was to get his family out of Gary. Extreme tactics or not, like Eva, Joe Jackson loved his family desperately. He loved his family enough to get them out of the G.I.

I also thought of how accurately that desperation is captured in Samuel L. Kelley's stage play "Pill Hill," currently showing at Chicago's eta Creative Arts Foundation. eta is Chicago's oldest African-American cultural arts and theater institution and, ironically, is located just a few miles from the Southeast Side neighborhoods where the story is set.

"Pill Hill" follows the lives of six Black men, all close friends, over a decade between the early 70s and early 80s as they negotiate their own precarious relationships to Chicago's steel mill. Will they make it out and find good jobs that will move them into the nearby, prized Pill Hill neighborhood? Some of them do whatever it takes to make it out. Others are resigned to the relative financial stability the mill brings. Still others, like the protagonist (also named Joe) straddles both worlds -- smart enough for college but lured and pacified by getting those "next two or three paychecks" from the mill.

I took my father to see "Pill Hill" for Father's Day and he said it triggered a flood of memories -- some funny, some painful -- about this own tour of duty at the mill. Joe Jackson would probably say the same.

The ubiquitous influence of these mills on an entire generation of Black men -- its heartbreak, its blood money and its motivation for those who wanted out -- can never be underestimated.

It doesn't excuse anything either we, the public, or his own family dislikes about Papa Joe. But it certainly helps understand what he did for his family and why.
Missing Michael,

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