Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Tyler Perry is often accused of “selling out.” What does it mean to “sell out” in modern America, and how do language, race, and class intersect in the answer to this question? I don't have any answers, but a number of observations, based primarily on Perry's own code-switching and the racial comedy of Key and Peele.

“Back around the 1970s,” Perry writes in the Foreword to Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, “the Madeas in our neighborhoods began to disappear and they have left an unmistakable void” (vii). Perry, while talking about Madea in the third person, also suggests that she is an extension of Perry's own thoughts, thoughts that in the 21st century, a man is no longer supposed to say. “Sometimes I'll have something I really want to say and then I'll just hear it coming out of Madea's mouth, in her own words” (ix). Ultimately, Perry believes that Madea is a moralizing figure, as he makes clear in his Epilogue that Madea's humor is meant to lead us to become even better human beings (254). Tyler Perry's use of Madea as a moral figure enables him to completely enter into the character (by cross-dressing) without offending. When Madea says politically incorrect statements, it's clear that Perry isn't mocking the “Madeas” of his youth who spoke like this, but attempting to emulate them. In this regard, Perry's moralizing humor is not too different than many of the other forms of satire and social commentary that we have read in this seminar.

In playing the character of Madea, Perry blurs the lines between fact and fiction, yet always leaving his audience in on the joke. Not only in this book but on-screen, Perry seamlessly transitions between himself and the character of Madea. I think that Perry is doing more than simply “acting,” however. He's code-switching. As this interview between Perry, Oprah, and Madea shows, Perry code-switches between the persona (and speech patterns) of an educated black male in 21st-century America and an old-fashioned “Madea” from his youth.

Madea's spoken language, clear from the interview above with Oprah, is not precisely American Standard English. However, despite this book's simpler language, “Madea” is grammatically correct when she writes. (In Perry's audio recording of this book, a sample of which can be heard on Amazon, the voice of Madea often modifies the proper grammar of the writing and adds more slang.) As she makes clear, Madea approves of “acting white” as long as it is defined as “speaking the king's English, getting a good job, and being able to afford what you want and have the American dream” (92). This seems to be Perry's philosophy, too. In his own life, Perry speaks “the king's English” (like Oprah), as do many of the characters in his films. Perry has been accused by many in the black community of “selling out” by profiting from the promotion black stereotypes, but others in the black community undoubtedly would accuse Perry of selling out by “acting white,” by speaking American Standard English and making more money than anyone in Hollywood.

The intersection of race, code-switching, and humor has been explored in recent years by comedians Key and Peele, who capitalize on their life experience as bi-racial men to write humor that questions stereotypes but is willing to laugh at seemingly insensitive topics. In an increasingly diverse country, the nuances of code-switching will become increasingly more complicated. NPR has even created a blog named “Code Switch” that explores the “frontiers of race, culture, and ethnicity.” In one sense, code-switching is essentially about knowing one's audience. Does one use a formal or informal pattern of speech at work, at school, on the street, or with relatives? Code-switching also raises questions about preserving cultural heritage, a topic which we've explored in this seminar through readings on indigenous peoples. If Perry is attempting to preserve black heritage through the character of Madea, one has to wonder why Perry speaks in standard English in other areas of his life. At the same time, Perry's audience is apparently the working-class black church community; and with this audience in mind, Perry tries to balance the values of education and wealth with the value of growing up in a primarily black community. I can't speak as a member of the black community in the United States in 2014 (nor can any individual black man or woman), but it seems to me that Perry's humor epitomizes some of the conflicts faced by a black man or woman today. Should every young black person aspire to be Barack Obama, or is the President a sell-out to white culture, to white values, and to “the man?” In this sketch, which pokes fun at Obama's code-switching, Key and Peele raise this question, mining the situation for its humor but not providing an answer. I think that their overall message suggests President Obama is acting white, but is most comfortable being black, that is, using the speech patterns and dialect of his black supporters. A more cynical take on the sketch is that the President does whatever it takes to get votes, the same way Perry does anything to make more money.

Interestingly, I think that code-switching raises questions of superiority and justice. As a white man who grew up in a white suburb, I never had to learn how to code-switch, and when I enter places or groups whose primary dialect is different than my own, I expect them to code-switch so that I can understand them. When I've spent time at a local prison just outside of Baltimore, I know that the prisoners code-switch so that we “outsiders” can understand them. Two weeks ago I served as an example in the brief lesson on education given by an older prisoner to two young men (younger than me). “Brother Curtis,” as they call him, told the two younger men that they should imitate my educational aspirations and the way that I carry myself. His advice was nearly indistinguishable from Madea's (and probably Perry's too). And, if these young men want to be released on parole, complete their high school degrees (and hopefully move on to college), and find a good job when they are released, I'll admit that they will best succeed by following Curtis' advice. They need to speak more like me. They need to “act white.” It's not because they aren't intelligent when they speak in ebonics. It's not that intelligent thoughts can't be conveyed in other English dialects. It's that the educated and powerful, both yesterday and today, have spoken the “standard” dialect, and so it becomes the dialect that is passed on and continues to be use in the workforce and in the classroom. In order to advance in America, you need to speak and act a certain way.

Perry doesn't write in dialect like Zora Neale Hurston. Madea uses standard grammar. But Perry does have Madea speak in a way that is not exactly “acting white.” Although I can't explain precisely why Madea can be simultaneously hilarious and infuriating, perhaps it comes from Madea's packaging of “white” values in “black” language. Many people in the African-American community don't seem to mind, and even promote, this approach. But others (like Spike Lee) have criticized Perry. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Spike Lee offers comments on his 1989 film “Do The Right Thing,” a “high-brow” movie about tensions between Italian-Americans and African-Americas in a black neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bed-Stuy. Lee doesn't mention Perry. But he is asked about changes in Bed-Stuy over the last quarter-century, to which Lee responds that gentrification continues to occur, and it isn't only affecting people of color, but anyone who can't afford to live in their own neighborhood. Over the last twenty-five years, “white” values have shifted from valuing suburbs to valuing cities (this comes after the mid-century period when most wealthy Americans moved away from cities to the suburbs). Questions of race are invariably tied up with questions of wealth and class.

I don't know how to bring all of these observations together. I imagine that centuries from now sociologists and philologists will have an easier time explaining the cultural forces at play in 21st-century America. We currently live in the midst of these debates, but I'm only on the margins of the code-switching controversy. In Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, “Madea,” in the introduction, tells her audience: “If you are not a black person and you don't understand something, read that part to a friend who's black and ask for an explanation. If you don't have any black friends, make one on the bus. If they see you reading this book with my face on the cover, they will want to stop and talk to you” (xiv). Two observations: firstly, where I'm from, white people don't take the bus. It's “sketchy.” Secondly, I find it interesting that Madea doesn't predict is how my new black friend on the bus will speak to me.

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