I have not been a Joseph Walter Jackson sympathizer. When I was in the beauty salon last week, my stylist asked if I could tell him to shut up. I was disappointed that I did not have his phone number.
Since the mini-series, “The Jacksons – An American Dream,” in 1992, I have typically referred to him as “the crazy daddy.” What got me was the scene with him running around the pool frantically screaming about a couple of towels being left outside. It was absurd that someone who in the not-so-distant past was sharing a 900-square-foot home with 10 others would be so worked up about towels around the pool at a mansion, especially when the towels were used by those who earned the money to purchase the mansion in the first place.
There has been other evidence of his apparent lunacy. Exhibit 1: His insistence that his children call him “Joseph.” Can you imagine the spectacle of small children being forbidden to call their dad “Dad?”
Exhibit 100 is his newest musical venture, a boot camp for rappers. Exactly who would volunteer and pay to participate in Camp Geezer? And, beside all that, those eyebrows are just demonic.
While watching his recent appearance on “Larry King Live,” though, my feelings softened. He said plenty to maintain his standing as “the crazy daddy,” but I also heard something that shook me. Joseph talked about how he worked two jobs, and how he always fed his nine children.
It was déjà vu.
My father was one of those men – that is, one who worked extraordinarily hard to keep food on the table. He also spent the last half of his life consumed with anger toward his own father, believing that he could have done much better by him, his mother and his nine siblings. My uncle Bennie didn’t share the bitterness, defending their father with comments like, “Some people love to talk about my daddy, but I tell you, I ain’t never went to bed hungry.”
Bennie’s was the standard by which most black men of their time (my father and uncles were born between 1912 and 1933) measured success as family men. Joseph (born in 1929) met that standard and exceeded it. He was a homeowner. None of his boys were involved in gangs or crime. He dedicated time, money, and ingenuity to make his boys successful.
Of course I have always been curious about whether he was sincerely interested in cultivating their talents, or simply intent on leaving his steel mill job by any means necessary. The motivation was probably both.
He, like my grandfather, thought his offspring existed to serve him and his purposes. But he also held immense pride in his progeny. When asked about Michael’s kids, he said he wanted them to grow up as “strong Jacksons.” His kids’ accomplishments meant that he, as a Jackson, bore good fruit.
Regarding his alleged emotional and physical abuse, he steadfastly and speciously denied it. We all know he administered corporal punishment, but his definition of abuse is not the same one Child Protective Services uses. Like my father and uncles, he undoubtedly thinks it ridiculous for the government or anyone else to dictate his parenting style.
In pondering Joseph, you also have to realize that he was a young father; two months shy of 21 when his first child was born, only 40 when his boys hit the big time. His youthfulness gave him energy and optimism, but not always patience and wisdom. It is not uncommon for young fathers to believe they have to demonstrate their strength by control and fear rather than by reason – just ask a few of my older cousins.
Many who shoulder tremendous responsibility at that age never get to function at optimum levels because they can’t get past survival mode. And we could go on forever about how black men of his day ruled with iron fists at home because they were powerless everywhere else.
As society has progressed, our standards for men have changed. The bar has been raised. Unfortunately for Joseph, widespread acceptance of the new expectations didn’t come along until after his children were largely grown. The 2000s find him behind a curve he was ahead of in the 1960s.
A friend from south Georgia has an expression that is at least somewhat fitting: “If they knew better, they’d do better.” When I ran that quote by my dad (a master of quotes himself), he liked it. Too bad he didn’t cut his dad enough slack to apply it to him.
I now promise to give Joseph some room for error based on the environment in which he came of age. (But I still wish he’d drop the boot camp idea, and that black straw fedora.)
Janice Allen Jackson is a Charlotte resident, member of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, freelance writer and management consultant.