Race and 'The Real World'

In the show's prime, cast members like Kevin Powell boldly confronted social issues. So much has changed.

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Kevin Powell argues with Julie Gentry on The Real World: New York; Powell on The Real World: New York (MTV)

(The Root) -- This weekend, thanks to MTV's marathons of retro seasons of The Real World, I accidentally time-warped back to 1992. Remember that year? George H.W. Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton, "I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston set musical records and the City of Angels burned with the riots over Rodney King. The year was transformative for American culture -- from politics to entertainment to race relations.

And in the summer of '92, if you were a young person in the U.S., you were more than likely addicted to MTV's The Real World. A reality show before the term was coined, The Real World set in New York City was the first and best season of the iconic series. No sex, no punches thrown, no hot tubs -- just young people who possessed a passion for art, dropped into the social experiment of "seven strangers" who "stopped being polite."

Over the years, the grandmamma of reality shows broke new ground by tackling race, religion, homophobia and politics. During the show's controversial second season, The Real World: Los Angeles, Tami Roman shocked audiences by getting an abortion. In the third season, The Real World: San Francisco, viewers fell in love with the beautiful Pedro Zamora, a young man living with HIV/AIDS at the height of the epidemic. Zamora died at the age of 22 on Nov. 11, 1994, a day after the last episode of his season aired.

I was a teenager when The Real World: New York premiered in May of '92 -- and for me, like most youths, the 13-episode series was an eye-opener. More than 20 years later, the staying power of The Real World's first season was evident on Friday night when the show quickly trended on Twitter as vintage episodes played on MTV.

Most of the commentary focused on Kevin Powell and his unforgettable handling of race with white housemates Eric Nies, Becky Blasband and Julie Gentry. Twitter users ranted, "Kevin from The Real World New York (season 1) is an idiot. I hope he looks back and realizes how STUPID he sounds," and "When I was 14 I wanted to punch Kevin in the mouth.. now being 34 I STILL want to punch Kevin in the mouth."

Powell, who was 25 at the time of the series, was bombarded with so many messages, he posted a response on Facebook: "[M]y life work is as a bridge-builder, it is a life of service and giving to others, not the things you are talking about from the early 1990s. It is a sad day, indeed, when we do not think people grow, evolve, change, or become the human beings God intended them to be."

Whether he was stereotypically angry or not, I vividly remember the impact that Powell, a writer and activist who has run for Congress since his reality-TV stint, left on me. First, I always wanted to be a journalist. At the time, I didn't know of a young, black writer. I'd heard of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, but they didn't feel like real people in my teenage mind.

Powell wasn't dancing or rapping; he penned for the New York Times and Rolling Stone -- and my own tastes in geeky magazines and love of reading felt validated. In addition, I rarely saw a black man who was comfortable with gay men. But there was Powell on MTV, embracing openly gay Norman Korpi with no hesitation. 

Powell's commentary on race was nothing innovative (Spike Lee's Malcolm X would be released at the end of 1992); he clearly knew the history of Dred Scott and was familiar with Cornel West and other black intellectuals. Nonetheless, seeing a real 25-year-old black man, whom I could relate to, on television -- not singing or playing sports -- unafraid and unapologetically confronting race, was liberating.

In Powell's infamous argument with Alabama native Gentry, who accused him of threatening to attack her after she interrupted a phone call about a possible job, Powell stressed that she didn't understand his reality. In the context of Gentry and Powell's personal life, it was a random argument of "he said, she said," but for viewers, the scene provided a rare glimpse through the lens of blackness and whiteness. As progressive as these artsy 20-somethings thought they were, no one was above his or her own inherent biases, including Powell.

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