(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.
The "Julie and Kevin" episode aired shortly after the Los Angeles riots. For black viewers, the spat wasn't about a thrown candlestick but a resonating truth: Whites can remain clueless about the struggles of black or brown people and still fruitfully exist in America. But as people of color, we need to fully understand whiteness in order to function and thrive; it's lesson No. 1 of being a minority in America.
Powell received the label of an "angry black man," a stereotype we would see more of in reality television. But if he had raged at Heather B., the black female cast member in the loft, instead of Gentry, would America still have perceived him as angry? Are you angry only if you are challenging whites?
Until then — on the street or in television — I had never seen a black man boldly confront a white woman. If it had been 1962, Powell would have been lynched. On the other hand, I rarely saw a woman stand up, eyeball to eyeball, in a confrontation with a man. Both broke ground in their own way.
Social media's response to Powell proves that we are not postracial. After 21 years, his comments on privilege and class still confuse the masses. How much have we evolved after two decades and a black president? Voting rights, the so-called Birther movement, stop and frisk in New York City, "Stand your ground" in Florida — we may even have regressed. Every conversation from The Real World in 1992 is still relevant in 2013, which is deeply disturbing.
This past weekend, MTV also aired previews of the new season in Portland, which begins on Wednesday. There is no one who resembles a Kevin Powell or Pedro Zamora or Julie Gentry. In 2013's Real World, we see carefully edited savages, roaring and whoring on television with less dignity than grotesque beasts at the zoo. If the Real World: New York was a time capsule of 1992, then what does the once-groundbreaking series represent in 2013?
Clay Cane is the host of Clay Cane Live on WWRL 1600 AM. Follow him on Twitter.