Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Who Has the Authority?

Catlin Castan
Who Has the Authority?
            In the “Epilogue” of Tyler Perry’s Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, he reveals: “Laughter is the anesthetic I use to get to everything else”(253). Consistent with my working (semester-long) theory that defines humor as a temporary guise, or universal buffer that helps to dilute the harshness of reality, Perry implements the character of Madea—a humor buffer that comes in the shape of a large outrageous black woman.
            In both the “Foreword” and “Epilogue” sections of the book, Tyler Perry (the author) speaks to us directly about the characterization and function of Madea within his text. As early as page number one, Perry describes Madea as a maternal concept—a grandmother-figure that everybody wants to have, even despite social differences. He, then, explains that his Madea—the one we meet in his book—is allowed to say whatever she wants to whoever she wants because the foundation of her character is built upon the values of honesty and trust—not on what is politically correct or socially normative. Here, we notice that similar to the satire we have read, Madea’s criticism excludes no one—including herself—she has no problem talking about her full-figured body, ex-career as a stripper, or (at times) psychotic behavior but she also has no problem calling you out on your personals flaws. Frequently throughout the book, Madea even explicitly states: “This may hurt your feelings, but I’m going to be really honest”(30). This reflexive, all-encompassing use of humor allows Madea to articulate her advice in a productive and constructive manner, and not at the expense of others. However, Perry also states, “I hope you can separate her great wisdom from some of the totally ridiculous things she sometimes has to say”(xi). In this moment, Perry is saying that although Madea has a loud mouth and a bold attitude, that if we “read between the words” we might uncover extremely valuable human insights.
            Perry encourages us to engage in Madea’s humor, but—at the same time—warns us that our engagement in Madea’s laughter also prompts a certain kind of moral responsibility on our part. On page 226, the voice of Madea and of Perry’s seemingly begin to blur as “Madea” explains:
             “I’m a person who likes to take action . . . Don’t waste my time if you ain’t         going to do it. So if you take the advice and you put it into action, then you are    somebody I want to talk to. That’s how I’m going to challenge you . . . The           minute you get the information on what you need to do, you’re responsible      for it”
In this excerpt, Perry directly challenges us to take action and to put his advice into use. In other words, Perry has written this book as a piece of advice—a source of motivation for his readers—with the hope that upon reading his book, his readers will be inspired to become “even better human beings”(254).
            While I definitely enjoyed reading Perry’s book, I had a hard time reconciling the narrative gaps between author, character, and subject matter. Specifically, I wondered if it was fair, or perhaps even truly accurate, for a middle aged black man to dictate the voice of a old black women—I wondered if Perry had the authorial authority to write from a perspective so foreign from his own. Yes, they share the same racial identity, but there are also several other important identifying factors, such as: age and gender. Similar to the multitude of criticisms that surround white authors who attempt to write black narratives, this same structure of injustice or unfairness occurs amongst the minority group of women. This notion of authority strongly resonated with my service learning experience at Tunbridge. At least once a week Mrs. Metzger and Ms. Lee—both white females--designate a time where they talk to the kids about race and social differences. In addition, each month the principal, Ms. Adams, a white female, visits our pre-K classroom to help reinforce these lessons and teach the kids about Black history and how to reconcile racial differences. However, all 21 students, except for one, are black. Here, an issue of authority comes into play. While Mrs. Metzger, Ms. Lee, and Ms. Adams all approach these lessons with kindness and love, I will admit that it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

            Growing up in a predominately white town, when teachers discussed black history in school, authority was never an issue because both the instructor and audience were the same race: white. Interestingly, though, when the instructor remains white, but the audience shifts to being black, like in my pre-K classroom, I feel a sense of discomfort. Perhaps this is because it seems to be unnatural and implicitly insensitive to discuss the social implications or struggles of a race or minority group that you do not belong to—that you have no authentic experience of being a part of.

Lastly, somewhat unrelated to my last point, but how can we truly accept the advice of Madea knowing that she is a fictive presence—a mere character within a book? Perry admittedly writes in his foreword “she can get away with stating some opinions I’d be afraid to say”(ix). How are we able to walk away from reading this book feeling hopeful knowing that the only type of person who can achieve this type of social work, who is allowed to have an opinion, is a “Madea”—a man-made concept within a book. Is Perry, then, suggesting that the "Madea" figure in our society is an endangered species that we need to cultivate and protect? Or is he saying that the Madea figure is already extinct?

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