Tuesday, October 28, 2014

An Appropriate Voice for Black America?

                In reading Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, I had some difficulty in distinguishing between the character of Madea and the author of Tyler Perry. And I think that the distinction should be made clear: as the highest paid man in the entertainment industry (as of 2011) and a highly influential voice in popular media, Tyler Perry’s views and opinions have a significant impact on the lives of others, particularly in the black community. Because of this, a lot of weight is placed on Perry to define and represent the image of black America. With that in mind, I don’t think we can call Don’t Make a Black Woman an absolute satire and can even claim that Perry more or less agrees with Madea. The humor is not in what she says (as it often is in satire) but in the way in which she says it. Madea warns her readers at the beginning that she’s “going to keep it real.” I think Bridget is right in saying that the humor derives from the shock value: some readers might think it’s funny to hear an older black woman talking about sex and hip hop. The actual content of what she says is another matter, and I think it’s in this respect that Perry actually agrees with Madea. He might figuratively blush upon hearing his character say some of these things his character says, but he would probably agree with her opinions and beliefs.
            Considering Perry’s position, his alignment with Madea is troubling. Instead of providing a fresh voice for the black community, Perry recycles the same tired tropes about men and women of color. While Madea criticizes rap artists for using profanity and degrading slurs, she readily tells a young girl that she’s a “ho” because she has sex “with a lot of people,” and says that she will “marry a man for benefits in a minute.” As black women are doubly marginalized in America, it seems foolish to reinforce these destructive stereotypes: that women are just looking for money, that women are “sluts” if they enjoy sex, etc. Her solutions to social issues in the black community are too facile. I support her efforts to encourage young people to pursue their passions, but is it really just an issue of “waking up”? Shouldn’t Perry be advocating real political change, rather than trotting out this old idea that black youth are lazy and unmotivated?
            It might seem useless to make an issue out of such an insignificant and light-hearted book, but when one of the most prominent black voices in the entertainment industry uses his position to push out familiar platitudes instead of real criticism of race relations, I think the emancipator power of humor fails. The immensely wealthy Perry, who apparently lives on a 17-acre estate, lives a life unlike that of the typical black community that he describes in his book, and yet he feels obliged to poke fun at working class people in that community. He has become the voice of the establishment, using his humor book to push, in the final pages, his lucrative franchise of “DVDs and films” and advocating, sometimes through Madea, “acting white” and playing up to the expectations of white America to achieve the “American dream.”

            As a white man, I can’t speak to the truth or falsity of Perry’s depiction of black America, but multiple journalists have criticized Perry for what is little more than a caricature. Jamilah Lemieux, in an open letter to Perry, thanks him for employing so many black men and women in the film industry, but said that she’d “like to see people who look like me on TV.” She complains that people of color “have been fed the same images of ourselves over and over and over because they sell,” and that Perry has done little to say something genuine and authentic. To be honest, I don’t think that Perry will continue to be the voice of black America much longer (although it isn’t for a white man like me to say). It’s encouraging to see more and more black comedians breaking into the mainstream: stand-up comics like Hannibal Buress and Dave Chapelle and sketch artists like Eric Andre and Key and Peele have made names for themselves in defying the establishment and giving a new voice to black America. Chappelle in particular has been incredibly mindful of the way he uses stereotypes in his act, even refusing to continue his successful television show because he feared that it reinforced destructive images of African Americans. In the future, we may see fewer easy familiarities and more of sensitive and careful criticism in black comedy.

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