The other day I was flicking around on TV and I came across an old Pat Boone/ Shirley Jones movie on one of those retro channels. It was from 1957. Pat Boone was on the verge of becoming one of the biggest stars in the country, both as an actor and a singer. If you’re too young to remember him, he personified the lily-white, wholesome Christian image of the fifties. He’d take cool and raunchy Little Richard songs and make them as sexless as possible so that they could be heard on mainstream white radio stations. (Long ago I read that Little Richard tried to sing Tutti Frutti so fast that Pat Boone wouldn’t be able to cover it. Boone just slowed it down, unwittingly singing about gay sex while snapping his fingers and wearing his yellow cardigan). The term Race Music had been and was still being used to describe any music performed by what were then called Negro performers. Even on the radio, the colour of your skin mattered.
I began to wonder how the black kids felt back in those days when the only faces they saw on television or movie screens similar to their own were maids and butlers and gardeners? Or they only heard stereo-typed racist representations of themselves in radio plays.
It wasn’t just black people. Until people like Ali and Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte came around, just about everything you saw or heard in white mainstream America was a degrading racial stereo-type. It could be also true for women, Hispanics, Asians or homosexuals. Micky Rooney as a “Chinaman”. Peter Sellers as an Indian. White people in make-up playing Native-Americans. Jack Tripper with limp wrists. The Irish as drunks, Arabs as terrorists, the list goes on and on.
Even as a child of the seventies, this was what I was exposed to. That’s why shows like All in the Family or Maude were important. Decade by decade, year by year, episode by episode, election by election, the mainstream started to change a little bit here and there. But it sure has taken a long time. And it still feels like things are moving at a glacial pace these days.
So when a politician or an op-ed writer laments the loss of mainstream values, they are really talking about Pat Boone in 1957. White, Christian, male values. When the gays stayed quiet, the coloureds knew their place and women voted as their husbands did.
The Mississippi River is the most important river in America, both historically and still today. But it has hundreds of tributaries and each of those other rivers has innumerable tributaries as well. And without these smaller rivers, the Mississippi would dry up and cease to exist. Everyone of these rivers changes everyday and each of their individual changes quite literally changes the main stream.
I don’t know what the mainstream is anymore. But I know what mine is. And mine is likely different from yours and yours is likely different from your neighbour’s. But until we can agree that the mainstream needs all of the rivers and creeks and lakes and ponds that nurture it and feed it, it will be like any other river that just stopped flowing. And we’ll all cease to be fed by it.