Oxford Union Address
Oxford University, England
Heal the Kid Initiative
Thank you, Dear Friends, from the bottom of my heart for such a lovely and spirited welcome and thank you, Mr. President, for your invitation to me. I am so honored to accept. Thank you, Rabbi Shumuley, who served here as rabbi for eleven years. You and I have been working so hard to start HEAL THE KIDS and our book about childlike qualities. Through all of our efforts, you have been such a supportive and loving friend. I also want to thank Toba Freidman, our director of operations at HEAL THE KIDS, for returning tonight to her alma mater where she served as a Marshal Scholar…as well as Marilyn Piels, another central member of our HEAL THE KIDS team.
I’m humbled to be lecturing in a place that has previously been filled by such notable figures as Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein, Ronald Reagan, Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X. I even heard that Kermit the Frog made an appearance here. I’ve always felt a kinship with Kermit’s message that it’s not easy being green. I’m sure he didn’t find it any easier being up here than I do. As I look around Oxford, I can’t help but be aware of the majesty and grandeur of this institution, not to mention the brilliance of the great and gifted minds that have roamed these streets for centuries. The walls of Oxford have not only housed the greatest philosophical and scientific geniuses, they have also ushered forth some of the most cherished creators of children’s literature from JRRTolkien, to CS Lewis. Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” is immortalized in the stained glass windows of Christ’s Church, and, even one of my fellow Americans, the beloved Dr. Suess. He graced these halls and then went on to leave his mark on the imaginations of young children throughout the world.
I suppose I should start by listing my qualifications to speak before you this evening. Friends, I do not have, to claim, an academic expertise of other speakers who have addressed this hall. Just as they could lay little claim at being adept at the moonwalk. And, you know, Albert Einstein, particularly, was really terrible at that. But, I do have a claim to having experienced more cultures than most people will ever see. Human knowledge, not only consists of libraries of parchments and ink, but it’s also comprised of the volumes of knowledge that are written on the human heart…on the human soul and engraved on the human psyche. And Friends, I have encountered so much in this short lifetime of mine, that I still cannot believe I am only 42. I often tell Shmuley that in SOUL years, I’m sure I’m at least 80. And tonight, I even walk like I’m 80. So please harken to my message, because what I have to tell you tonight can bring healing to humanity and healing to the planet.
Through the Grace of God, I have been fortunate to have achieved many of my artistic and professional aspirations early in my lifetime. But, these accomplishments alone are not who I am. Indeed, the cheery five-year-old who belted out “Rockin Robin” and “Ben” to adoring fans was not indicative of the boy behind the smile. Tonight, I come before you, less an icon of pop (whatever that means anyway), and more as an icon of a generation…a generation that no longer knows what it means to be children.
All of us are products of our childhood. But, I am a product of the lack of childhood…an absence of that precious and wondrous age when we frolic playfully without a care in the world, basking in the adoration of parents and relatives, where our biggest concern is studying for that big spelling test on Monday morning. Those of you who are familiar with the Jackson Five know that I began performing at the tender age of five and that ever since then, I haven’t stopped dancing and singing. But, while performing and making music undoubtedly remain as many of my greatest joys, when I was young I wanted more than anything else to be a typical little boy. I wanted to build tree houses, have water balloon fights and play hide-and-seek with my friends. But, fate had it otherwise and all I could do was envy the laughter and playtime that seemed to be going on all around me. There was no rest from my professional lifestyle, for on Sundays, I would go Pioneering…work that Jehovah’s Witnesses do. And it was then that I was able to see the magic of other people’s childhood. Since I was already a celebrity, I would have to put on a disguise…a fat suit, a wig, a beard and glasses, and we would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California going door to door or making the rounds of shopping malls, distributing our Watchtower magazines. I loved to set foot in all those regular suburban houses and catch sight of the fireplaces and Lay Z Boy armchairs with kids playing Monopoly and Grandmas babysitting…all those wonderful, ordinary starry scenes of everyday life. Many, I know, would argue that these things seem like no big deal. But, to Me they were mesmerizing. I used to think that I was unique that I was without a childhood. I believed that indeed there were only a handful of people with whom I could share those feelings. When I recently met with Shirley Temple Black, the great child star of the 1930’s and 40’s, we said nothing to each other at first, we simply cried together…for she could share the pain with me that only others like my close friends Elizabeth Taylor and McCauley Culkin could. I do not tell you this to gain your sympathy, but, to impress upon you my important point…it is not just Hollywood child stars that have suffered from a non-existent childhood. Today, it’s a universal calamity, a global catastrophe.
Childhood has become the great catastrophe of modern day living. All around us we are producing scores of kids who have not had joy, who have not been accorded the right, who have not been allowed the freedom of knowing what it’s like to be a kid. Today’s children are constantly encouraged to grow up faster, as if this period known as childhood is a burdensome stage to be endured and ushered through as swiftly as possible. And on that subject, I am certainly one of the world’s greatest experts Ours is a generation that has witnessed the abrogation of the PARENT/CHILD COVENANT. Psychologists are publishing libraries of books detailing the destructive effects of denying one’s children the unconditional love that is so necessary to their healthy development of their mind and character. And because of all the neglect, too many of our kids essentially have to raise themselves. They are growing more distant from their parents and grandparents and other family members as all around us the indestructible bond that once glued together generations unravels. This violation bred a new generation…GENERATION O…let’s call it Generation O that has now picked up the torch from Generation X. The O stands for a generation that has everyting on the OUTSIDE…wealth, success, fancy clothing and fancy cars, but an aching emptiness on the INSIDE. That cavity in our chests, that barronness at our core, that void in our center is the place where the heart once beat and which love once occupied. It’s not just the kids who are suffering. It’s the parents as well. For, the more we cultivate little adults in kids’ bodies, the more removed we ourselves become from our own child-like qualities, and there is so much about being a child that is worth retaining in adult life.
LOVE-Ladies and Gentlemen-LOVE is the human family’s most precious legacy, its richest bequest, it’s golden inheritance that is handed down from one generation to the other. Previous ages may not have had the wealth we enjoy. Their houses may have lacked electricity and they squeezed their many kids into small homes with no central heating. But those homes had no darkness nor were they cold. They were lit bright with the glow of love and they were warmed snugly with the very heat of the human heart. Parents, undistracted by the lust for luxury and status, accorded their children primacy in their lives. As you all know, our two countries broke from each other over what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “certain inalienable rights.” And, while we Americans and British might dispute the justice of his claims, what is never in dispute is that children have certain obvious rights, and the gradual erosion of those rights has led to scores of children worldwide being denied the joys and security of childhood. I would therefore like to propose tonight that we install in every home a CHILDREN’S UNIVERSAL BILL OF RIGHTS, the tenets of which are these:
THE RIGHT TO BE LOVED WITHOUT HAVING TO EARN IT.
THE RIGHT TO BE PROTECTED WITHOUT HAVING TO DESERVE IT.
THE RIGHT TO FEEL VALUABLE EVEN IF YOU COME INTO THE WORLD WITH NOTHING.
THE RIGHT TO BE LISTENED TO WITHOUT HAVING TO BE INTERESTING.
THE RIGHT TO BE READ A BEDTIME STORY WITHOUT HAVING TO COMPETE WITH THE EVENING NEWS OR EAST ENDERS.
THE RIGHT TO AN EDUCATION WITHOUT HAVING TO DODGE BULLETS AT SCHOOL.
THE RIGHT TO BE THOUGHT OF AS ADORABLE (EVEN IF YOU HAVE THE FACE ONLY A MOTHER COULD LOVE.)
Friends, the foundation of all human knowledge, the beginning of human consciousness must be that each and every one of us is an object of love. BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, BEFORE YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE RED HAIR OR BROWN…BEFORE YOU KNOW IF YOU ARE BLACK OR WHITE, BEFORE YOU KNOW WHAT RELIGION YOU ARE A PART OF…YOU HAVE TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE LOVED!
About 12 years ago, when I was just about to start my BAD TOUR, a little boy came with his parents to my California home. He was dying of cancer and he told me how much he loved me and my music. His parents told me that he wasn’t going to live…that any day he could just go. I said to him, “Look, I am going to be coming to your hometown in Kansas to start my tour in 3 months. I want you to come to the show. I am going to give you this jacket that I wore in one of my videos.” His eyes lit up and he said, “YOU’RE GOING TO GIVE ME YOUR JACKET?” I said, “YES! I’m going to give you the jacket, but, you have to promise that you will wear it to the show!”
I was trying to make him hold on. I said, “When you come to the show, I want to see you in this jacket and in this glove.” I gave him one of my rhinestone gloves which I never give to anyone. He was in heaven.
But, maybe he was too close to heaven, because when I came to his town, he had already died and they had buried him in the glove and jacket. He was just 10 years old. God knows and I know that he tried his best to hold on. But, at least when he died, he knew he was loved, not only by his parents, but, even by me, as a near stranger. I also loved him. He knew with all that love that he didn’t come into the world alone and certainly didn’t leave it alone. IF YOU ENTER THE WORLD KNOWING YOU ARE LOVED, AND YOU LEAVE KNOWING THE SAME, THEN, EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN BETWEEN CAN BE DEALT WITH.
A professor may degrade you, but you will not feel degraded. A boss may crush you but you will not feel crushed. A corporate gladiator might vanquish you but you will still triumph. How could any of them truly prevail in pulling you down. For you know that you are the object worthy of love. The rest is packaging.
If you don’t have that memory of being loved, you are condemned to search the world for something to fill you up. But, no matter how much money you make or how famous you become, you will still feel empty. What you are searching for is unconditional love, unqualified acceptance. And, that was the one thing that was denied you at birth.
Friends, let me paint a picture for you. Here is a typical day in America…6 youths under the age of 20 will commit suicide…12 children under the age of 20 will die from firearms…REMEMBER, THIS IS A DAY, NOT A YEAR…399 kids will be arrested for drug abuse…1,352 babies will be born to teen mothers. THIS IS HAPPENING IN ONE OF THE RICHEST, MOST DEVELOPED COUNTRIES IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. YES! In my country there is an epidemic of violence that parallels no other industrial nation. These are the ways young people in America express their hurts, their anger. But, don’t think that there is not the same pain and anguish among their counterparts in the UK. Studies in this country show that every single hour, 3 teens in the UK inflict harm upon themselves often cutting or burning themselves, burning their bodies or taking an overdose. This is how they have chosen to cope with the pain of neglect and emotional agony. In Britain, 20% of families will only sit down and have dinner together once a year. ONCE A YEAR! And what about the time-honored tradition of reading your kids a bedtime story. Research from the 1980’s showed that children who are read to had far greater literacy and significantly outperformed their peers at school. And yet, less than 33% of British children ages 2-8 have a regular bedtime story read to them. You may not think much of that until you take into account that 75% of their parents DID have a bedtime story when they were that age.
Clearly, we do not have to ask ourselves where all of this pain, anger and violent behavior comes from. It is self-evident that children are thundering against neglect, quaking against indifference and crying just to be noticed.
The various child-protection agencies in the US say that millions of children are victims of maltreatment in the form of neglect. In rich homes, privileged homes, wired to the hilt with every electronic gadget…homes where parents come home, but they’re really still at the office. And, the kids…well, their kids just make do with whatever emotional crumbs they get. And, you don’t get much from watching a lot of television and computer games and videos. These hard, cold numbers which for me wrench the soul and shake the spirit, should indicate to you why I have developed so much of my time and resources into making our new HEAL THE KIDS INITIATIVE a colossal success. Our goal is simple…to recreate the parent/child bond…to renew its promise and light the way forward for all the beautiful children who are destined one day to walk this earth. But, since this is my first public lecture, and you have so warmly welcomed me into your hearts, I feel that I want to tell you more. We each have our own story and in that sense statistics can become personal.
They say that parenting is like dancing. You take one step and your child takes another. I have discovered that getting parents to rededicate themselves to their children is only half the story. The other half is preparing the children to reaccept the parents. When I was very young, I remember that we had this crazy mutt dog named Black Girl. She was a mix of wolf and retriever. Not only wasn’t she much of a guard dog, she was such a scared and nervous thing that it is a wonder that she did not pass out every time a truck rumbled by or a thunderstorm swept into Indiana. My sister, Janet and I gave that dog so much love, but we never really won back the sense of trust that had been stolen by her previous owner. We knew he used to beat her. We didn’t know with what, but, whatever it was, it was enough to suck the spirit right out of that dog. A lot of kids today are hurt puppies who have weaned themselves off the need for love. They couldn’t care less about their parents. Left to their own devices, they cherish their independence. They have moved on in life and have left their parents behind. Then there are the far worse cases of children who harbour animosity and resentment toward their parents so that any overature that their parents might undertake would be thrown forcefully back in their faces.
Tonight, I don’t want any of us to make this mistake. That’s why I’m calling upon all the world’s children-beginning with all of us here tonight-to forgive our parents. If we felt neglected…FORGIVE. Forgive them and teach them how to love again. You probably weren’t surprised to hear that I did not have an idyllic childhood. The strain and tension that exists in my relationship with my father is well documented. My father is a tough man and he pushed my brothers and me hard, really hard from the earliest age…for the best. He wanted us to be the best performers we could possibly be. He had great difficulty showing affection. He never really told me he loved me. And, he never really complimented me either. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. If I did an OK show, he would say nothing. He seemed intent, above all else, (I need a tissue, I’m sorry) he seemed intent, above all else, on making us a commercial success. At that he was more than adept. My father was a managerial genius and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way that he pushed us. He trained me as a showman and under his guidance I couldn’t miss a step. But, what I really wanted was a DAD. I wanted a father who showed me love and my father never did that. 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. But, I remember once when I was about 4 years old, there was a little carnival and he picked me up and put me on a pony. It was a tiny gesture, probably something he forgot five minutes later. But, because of that moment, I have a special place in my heart for him. Because, that’s how kids are…the little things mean so much. THEY MEAN SO MUCH! To me, that moment meant everything. I only experienced it one time, but that one time made me feel good about him and about the world.
But, now I am a father myself and one day I was thinking about my own children, Prince and Paris, and how I wanted them to think of me when they grow up. To be sure, I would like them to remember how I always wanted them with me wherever I went. How I always tried to put them before anything else. But, there are also challenges in their lives. Because my kids are stalked by paparazzi, they can’t always go to the park or to the movies with me. So, what if they resent me when they grow older. What if they resent how my choices impacted their youth? Why weren’t we given an average childhood like the other kids, they might ask. And, at the moment, I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt. That they would say to themselves, “Our Daddy did the best he could given the unique circumstances that he faced. He may not have been perfect, but he was a warm and decent man who tried to give us all the love in the world.” I hope that they will always focus on the positive things, on the sacrifices I willingly made for them and not criticize the things they had to give up or the errors I’ve made and will certainly continue to make in raising them.
For we have all been someone’s child and we know that despite the very best of plans and efforts, mistakes will always occur. That’s just being human. And when I think about this, how I hope that my children will not judge me unkindly and will forgive me, forgive my shortcomings, I am forced to think of my own father and despite my earlier denial, I am forced to admit that he must have loved me. He did love me and I know that. There were little things that showed that…I was a kid and I had a real sweet tooth. We all did. My father knew that, so every few weeks, I would come downstairs in the morning and there on the kitchen counter was a bag of glazed donuts. No note, no explanation…just the donuts. It was like Santa Claus. Sometimes, I would think about staying up late at night so I could see him leave them there, but just like Santa Claus, I didn’t want to ruin the magic for fear he would never do it again. My father had to leave them secretly at night so as no one would catch him with his guard down. He was scared of human emotion. He didn’t understand it or know how to deal with it. BUT, HE DID KNOW GLAZED DONUTS. And, when I allow the flood gates to open up, there are other memories that come rushing back…memories of other tiny gestures, however imperfect, that showed that he did what he could. So tonight, rather than focusing on what my father did not do…I want to focus on all the things he did do and on his own personal challenges.
I just started reflecting on the fact that my father grew up in the South in a very poor family. He came of age during the Depression and his own father struggled to feed his children, showed little affection towards his family and raised him…he raised my father and his siblings with an iron fist. Who could have imagined what it was like to grow up a poor, black man in the South, robbed of dignity, bereft of hope, struggling to become a man in a world that saw my father as subordinate. I was the first Black artist to be played on MTV and I remember how big a deal that was even then…and, that was in the 1980’s!
My father moved to Indiana and had a large family of his own, working long hours in the steel mills…work that kills the lungs and humbles the spirit…all to support his family. Is it any wonder that he found it difficult to expose his feelings. Is it a mystery that he hardened his heart…that he raised his emotional ramparts and, most of all, is it any wonder why he pushed his sons so hard to succeed as performers so that they could be saved from what he knew to be a life of indignity and poverty. 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 to ever 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 reconcilliation. And my initial fury has slowly given way to forgiveness.
Almost a decade ago, I founded a children’s charity called HEAL THE WORLD. The title was something I felt inside me. Little did I know, as Shmuley later pointed out, that those two words form the cornerstone of Old Testament prophecy.
DO I REALLY BELIEVE THAT WE CAN HEAL THE WORLD THAT IS RIDDLED WITH WAR AND HATE AND GENOCIDE EVEN TODAY? And, do I really think that we can heal our children who, as the papers reported this morning, can walk into a high school in San Diego and shoot down two beautiful students just at the beginning of their lives? A horrifying reminder of the guns and hatred that shot through Columbine almost 2 years ago. Or, children who can beat a defenseless toddler to death like the tragic story of Jamie Bulger.
OF COURSE I DO! OF COURSE I DO! Or, I wouldn’t be here tonight. But, it all begins with FORGIVENESS because to Heal the World, we first have to heal ourselves. And to Heal the Kids, we first have to heal the child within each and every one of us. As an adult, and as a parent, I realize that I cannot be a whole human being, nor a parent capable of unconditional love, until I put to rest the ghosts of my own childhood. And that’s what I’m asking all of us to do tonight. Live up to the fifth of the Ten Commandments. Honor your parents by not judging them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. That is why I want to forgive my father and to stop judging him. I want to forgive my father because I want a father and this is the only one I got. I want the weight of the past lifted from my shoulders and I want to be free to step into a new relationship with my father for the rest of my life, unhindered by the goblins of the past.
IN A WORLD FILLED WITH HATE, WE MUST STILL DARE TO HOPE. KEEP HOPE ALIVE. IN A WORLD FILLED WITH ANGER, WE MUST STILL DARE TO COMFORT. IN A WORLD FILLED WITH DESPAIR, WE MUST STILL DARE TO DREAM. IN A WORLD FILLED WITH DISTRUST, WE MUST STILL DARE TO BELIEVE.
To all of you tonight who feel let down by your parents, I ask you to let down your disappointment. To all of you tonight who feel cheated by your fathers and mothers, I ask you not to cheat yourselves further. And to all of you who wish to push your parents away, I ask you to extend your hand to them instead. I am asking you, I am asking myself, to give our parents the gift of unconditional love, so that they, too, may learn how to love from us, their children. So that love will finally be restored to a desolate and lonely world.
Shumley once mentioned to me an ancient Biblical prophecy which says that a new world and a new time would come when “the hearts of the people would be restored through the hearts of their children.” MY FRIENDS, WE ARE THAT WORLD, WE ARE THOSE CHILDREN. Mahatma Ghandhi said, ” The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Tonight, be strong. Beyond being strong, risk to the greatest challenge of all, TO RESTORE THAT COVENANT. We must all overcome whatever crippling effects our childhood may have had on our lives and in the words of Jesse Jackson, “Forgive each other, redeem each other and MOVE ON.” This call for forgiveness may not result in Oprah moments the world over with thousands of children making up with their parents, but it will at least be a start, and we’ll be so much happier as a result.
And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, I conclude my remarks tonight with faith, with joy and excitement.
FROM THIS DAY FORWARD…
LET A NEW SONG BE HEARD
LET A NEW SONG BE THE SOUND OF CHILDREN LAUGHING
LET THAT NEW SONG BE THE SOUND OF CHILDREN PLAYING
LET THAT NEW SONG BE THE SOUND OF CHILDREN SINGING
AND, LET THAT NEW SONG BE THE SOUND OF PARENTS LISTENING.
. TOGETHER, LET US CREATE A SYMPHONY OF HEARTS MARVELLING AT THE MIRACLES OF OUR CHILDREN AND BASKING IN THE BEAUTY OF LOVE. LET US HEAL THE WORLD AND BLIGHT ITS PAIN AND MAY WE ALL MAKE BEAUTIFUL MUSIC TOGETHER. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnkzSb7DoDo