Behind the Scenes: Mourning Michael Jackson at the BET Awards

In between takes of the BET awards Sunday night in Los Angeles, Jamie Foxx continued a dialogue that he'd begun the night before at a BET pre-party. At both events, Foxx lamented how "they" (white America, presumably) had taken Michael Jackson away from us (African-Americans, definitely), and now we'd have to take him back. His tone and sentiment echoed the feeling of the week for many African-Americans as they began to come to terms with the death of the one of the world's biggest stars. That included me.

As I sat in the audience at the awards, transfixed by the images of Michael that passed on the screen through the night, I couldn't help but wipe away tears. When his baby sister, Janet, walked on the stage, her words really hit me like an arrow and put into context what many African-Americans are feeling in the wake of Jackson's death. Janet Jackson told the audience that her brother was "icon to most—but, he was family to us.'' And that's exactly what Michael Jackson was to most African-Americans: family.

Looking at all those pictures of a younger Jackson before the nose jobs and skin-color change was like looking into my own family's photo album. The hair, the clothes and the closeness of the Jackson family resembled any black family across the country, and the reason so much pride and an immediate connection was felt when the Jackson's became international superstars.

To mainstream America, it may appear strange that the African-American community has in the last few days so defiantly claimed Jackson as their own in the wake of such ambivalent feelings about the pop star in recent years. But in reality, it makes perfect sense. Families disagree and families fall out and they may even refuse to speak to one another for years on end, but the love never really goes away.

Love was the overall vibe at the pre-awards-show event Saturday night where Foxx led a small group made up of Jill Scott, Macy Gray, Morgan Freeman, and Chaka Khan into an impromptu singalong of Jackson's classic hit "Rock with You." Some tears were shed while others, like producer Teddy Riley—who arranged and produced Jackson's hit "Remember the Time"—spoke of the good times he had with the singer to any who'd listen. "I had nothing but love for Michael, and I understood what stardom could do to you," said Riley. "And he was the biggest star of all—so he felt it more than anyone else."

Jackson's ascent into mass superstardom after the release of Thriller in 1983 was a surprise to many but not for loyal African-Americans who'd followed Jackson from a beautiful child through his awkward teen years and beyond. While he seemed comfortable and accessible in the cocoon of African-American culture during those times, fame appeared to change Jackson at his core. A skin disease was blamed, as were other ailments in defense of his ever-changing appearance, but African-Americans saw it as a blatant attempt to distance himself from his history.

In truth, Jackson's desire to look different in a world that did not then nor now embrace brown skin, kinky hair, and full lips (unless those lips are on Angelina Jolie's face) was a painful reminder of our own insecurities as a minority group still searching for validation. His tortured view of himself, even in the light of world adoration, gave little hope that total acceptance could be ours. Interestingly enough, nose jobs are now the No. 1 surgery requested by African-Americans when undergoing plastic surgery. And the numbers of blacks receiving plastic surgery has tripled in the last 10 years.

Jackson's troubles in recent years involving allegations of molestation also strained the community's relationship with him. Many believed it was a setup—given that all the accusers were white or non-African-American, not unlike the way they felt about O. J. Simpson. Others just felt embarrassed that Jackson had brought yet another negative image of black men to the forefront.

I most certainly had a complicated relationship with Jackson. Though his album cover Off The Wall remained on my bedroom door through high school, I, too, ignore Jackson after the release of his mega-hit Thriller. He wasn't the gorgeous little boy I'd fallen in love with as a child and even adored during his teenage bouts of acne and voice changes. I refused to watch his court battles or follow his highly publicized national interviews that were the talk of the town. I couldn't bear to look at him and what he'd done to himself and chose to remember him easing on down the road with Diana Ross in The Wiz or rocking his Jheri curl in the "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" video.

As the days go by and the funeral of Jackson occurs, the outpouring of African-American grief will be on full view: grief over a riff that seemed to grow wider over the years and grief for the loss of a family member that we never had a chance to make peace with. But more than anything else for me, it will be grief based on a heartfelt love that never fully went away.