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Film

Everything I Need to Know About Being Black I Learned From Kenny Rogers

Mark Harris

For PopMatters TV/Film Columnist Mark Harris, being a minority in a majority world created an ironic, lifelong battle against being force-fed at the teat of popular culture.

Coming of age in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, it became clear to me -- and to those around me -- that I was black. There's no quicker place to clear up your racial ambiguity than Appalachia. Not that I was the victim of a racist, flaming bag of poo or anything like that. The struggle of being a minority is subtler. It's the everyday grind of keeping up with two cultures, our own and that of the prevailing white world.

White people don't know how good they have it. Sure, there's the whole master race thing, but what they overlook is the privilege of "cultural leisure". As a black man, for every Vibe I read, I have to buy a Rolling Stone; for every Spike Lee joint I see, I have to watch a Michael Bay turd. Too much BET, and I'll fall behind on my MTV. And if I do, I'm labeled culturally retarded: "You've never seen The O.C?!" Yet the fact that I've memorized Pookie the Crackhead's dialogue from New Jack City is somehow meaningless. Why are black people always late? Because we're reading Cosmo.

I had my moment of discovery in the fourth grade. As a reward for learning the dreaded "Mary Had a Little Lamb"/"London Bridge Is Falling Down" medley on the recorder, my music teacher let the class bring in one -- and only one -- pop record to play aloud; sort of our own abbreviated, inbred version of American Bandstand. I couldn't wait to enlighten those clodhoppers with the hippest 45 of the day, "Let's Hear It for the Boy" by Deniece Williams. But Chad Crawley, with his beach boy-blonde mullet-cum-rat tail, brought a rival song, "Islands in the Stream" by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. It was put up to a vote. In hindsight, my defeat now seems less surprising than how secure Chad and I were in our masculinity. The vote made one other thing clear: majority rules, and minority drools. My lifelong battle against being force-fed at the teat of popular culture had begun.

Thanks to my parents' unnerving addiction to Paul Harvey, I was able to avoid listening to the radio for most of my adolescence, but my resistance to TV and movies was, as they say, futile. Over the years, the visual arts have introduced me to people and things I have no interest in, from The English Patient and Sanka to Night Ranger and Harper Valley PTA. Although I've never seen it, I know who wins each season of The Bachelor. It ain't the black guy. I've grown out of hip-hop videos, but now that white America has discovered them, I need to stay relevant. Damn your hipness! Say what you will about the horrors of being a minority, but knowing the names of the Mandrell Sisters without even trying justifies reparations. I feel like the black character in every horror movie who has a bad feeling but "goes along with the group", only to end up in some monster's stool sample.

So, how do we abolish this cultural slavery? Our goal must be a new, race-less national aesthetic. Our homogenized, generic culture must be easy to maintain in order to pass it on to our lazy, ungrateful offspring (punk kids). We'll sing color-blind, public domain tunes like "Happy Birthday", "Chopsticks", and the Windows start-up chime. We'll entertain ourselves with shadow puppets, paper football, and tickle fights. And we'll wear frocks. Now, I can hear white people asking, "But what's in it for us?" How 'bout a little thing called "brownie points"? That, and reduced odds of getting shanked.

I'm not blaming anyone for the situation -- except maybe 4th graders who spell culture with a "k". As a wise man (I think it was G.I. Joe) once said, "Knowing is half the battle." Now that you know, it's time for action. Let's come together like drunken frat brothers who explore their sexual curiosity then vow to never speak of it again. After all, islands in the stream: that is what we are. No one in between. How can we be wrong? Sail away with me to another world. And we'll rely on each other. Uh-huh. Making love with each other. Uh-huh.

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