I am a thoroughly heterosexual, happily married African American male. So I was dismayed when this year’s Academy Awards host said, “What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars?” Chris Rock added, “Show me one.”
True, I don’t know any straight black male who shares my passion for the Academy Awards. But, then again, Rock demanded to be shown only one. Well, here I am, Chris, a living, breathing disgrace to African American machismo. Could it be that there are other brothers out there who share my Oscar shame?
Perhaps I should mention that between 1973 and 1993, I never missed broadcasts of the Super Bowl, the NBA championships, World Series, NCAA Final Four, Grammys and even that swishiest of awards shows, the Tonys. Contrary to another of Rock’s statements, I was never in the least bit interested in the Oscars as a fashion show. It was the thrill of the competition that I enjoyed.
If I am a disappointment to Rock, the feeling is mutual. For years, he’s been my favorite comic. Since hearing his trenchant observations on America’s racial confusion and hypocrisy -- citing Bill Clinton as “the first black president,” riffing on the differences between “black people” and “niggas” -- I’ve long considered him the true heir to the great Richard Pryor. Chris Rock was the last comedian I expected to indulge in what I call the Black Authenticity Test, or the BAT.
A great many African Americans sooner or later get hit over the head with the BAT. This is, essentially, the question of: Are you really black? Or black enough? Or living up to whatever standard of blackness any given person wants to apply to you? Of course, it isn’t only black Americans who indulge in the Black Authenticity Test. Plenty of white people swing the BAT as well. I’ve known African Americans who have been mocked for learning Chinese, listening to classical music or taking up skiing. None of these pursuits were considered black enough by the wielders of the BAT.
Rock’s comment about Oscar-watching represents a modified use of the BAT. According to his view, I am not necessarily nonblack. I’m just a black “girlie man.”
I found Rock’s massive generalization all the more depressing in light of the fact that a few years ago, in a Vanity Fair profile, he revealed one of the most brazenly inauthentic of black tastes: an appreciation of the films of Woody Allen. He even went so far as to name “Crimes and Misdemeanors” a masterpiece of modern cinema. Do I dare point out that Allen’s 1989 classic was nominated for Oscars in the best director, best original screenplay and best supporting actor categories? (Martin Landau, incidentally, lost that year to the straight black male Denzel Washington, who took home the prize for “Glory.”)
Sadly, it’s been a long time since I last watched the Academy Awards ceremony live. Twelve years ago, I moved to Paris, where the show is broadcast in the wee hours on an expensive cable channel to which I don’t subscribe. But when I wake up next Monday, the first thing I’ll do is check the Internet to see who won what.
One final confession: In the last few years, I’ve acquired an even more racially and sexually suspect habit than Oscar-watching. I’ve become a total sucker for France’s Cesar Awards. Sorry, Chris.