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It’s time to forgive Joe Jackson

As we struggle with the patriach’s complicated legacy, know that Michael Jackson would want us to forgive him

It’s easy to remember Joe Jackson as an abusive father whose quest to create superstar children resulted in one supremely gifted yet tortured soul. But Michael Jackson would want us to forgive him.

If that’s even possible.

Joe Jackson died Wednesday at age 89. His son Michael was the greatest musical entertainer of all time (no disrespect to Beyoncé) – a singer and showman whose humanitarian contributions are often overshadowed by his massive catalog of timeless hits. But Michael also was profoundly damaged, inside and out. He transformed his appearance from Afroed brown-skinned beauty to bleached-and-permed apparition. He was accused of child molestation. He died in 2009, at age 50, of an overdose of prescription drugs he used to fight crippling insomnia.

Joe Jackson took a lot of the blame for his son’s troubles.

Born in 1926 in Fountain Hill, Arkansas, the Jackson patriarch moved with his divorced mother to East Chicago, Indiana. He dropped out of high school to work at a steel mill and became a Golden Gloves boxer, then married Katherine Esther Scruse in 1949. As their 10 children (one died at childbirth) began to arrive, Jackson struggled to provide for his family. Then, the small-time rhythm and blues musician discovered that his kids had talent.

This is where the Joe Jackson story begins. He was a ruthless taskmaster, forcing his children to practice long hours, often beating them with a hand, belt or switch when they missed a note or a step. He made the children call him Joseph – not Dad. As he started taking the older kids on the road, Jackson flagrantly cheated on his wife as she watched the babies back home.

As much harm as Jackson did with his actions, what he failed to do also haunted his children.

“He had great difficulty showing me affection. He never really told me he loved me,” Michael said in a 2001 speech to the Oxford Union. “And he never really complimented me either. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he would say nothing. He seemed intent, above all else, in making us a commercial success.

“He never said I love you while looking me straight in the eye; he never played a game with me. He never gave me a piggyback ride; he never threw a pillow at me, or a water balloon.”

Michael, born in 1958, began performing almost full time when he was 5 years old. The youngest sibling, Janet, was born in 1966. By 1970, the Jackson 5 had four pop hits on the Motown record label: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There,” the last of which sold 10 million copies.

None of that would have happened without Joe Jackson. His children have credited his discipline and business savvy – such as leaving Motown for a more lucrative deal with CBS – for much of their success. The music industry is a treacherous, violent business. A weaker man than Joe Jackson could not have navigated his family through those shark-infested waters.

All of Jackson’s children – including Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, La Toya, Marlon and Randy – had successful music careers. Janet was a superstar in the 1980s and ‘90s and has been hailed as a music icon. Michael sold more than 750 million albums, including Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. Michael’s music still makes everybody move, from the trillest thugs to the grayest grandmas, on dance floors around the world.

But our memories of Michael are tinged with sadness, regret, and judgment of his father. “I am the product of a lack of a childhood,” Michael said at Oxford. How could we not connect that loss to Michael’s eternally childlike voice and habits – to his infatuation with, and, God forbid, his alleged sexual attraction to, young boys?

“Ours is a generation that has witnessed the abrogation of the parent-child covenant,” Michael said. “A generation that has everything on the outside – wealth, success, fancy clothing and fancy cars, but an aching emptiness on the inside.”

Yet Michael yearned to move past Joe’s physical and emotional abuse. Michael understood that Joe was a product of his time, when the belt or the switch was seen as the last protection between a rambunctious child and the merciless violence of Jim Crow America. Michael knew that Joe saw life in America as stacked against the black man, so opportunities had to be seized by any means necessary.

Michael believed that what Joe did to him was despicable, yet understandable.

“I have begun to see that even my father’s harshness was a kind of love, an imperfect love, to be sure, but love nonetheless. He pushed me because he loved me. Because he wanted no man ever to look down at his offspring. And now with time, rather than bitterness, I feel blessing. In the place of anger, I have found absolution. And in the place of revenge I have found reconciliation. And my initial fury has slowly given way to forgiveness.”

But not forgetfulness.

In his will, Michael did not leave a cent to Joe Jackson.

If Joe Jackson’s most tragic victim could forgive him, so can we.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.