Recently, I sat on a discussion panel in Florida A&M University’s Writing Resource Center where three other colleagues of mine & I were invited to discuss our literary contributions to the English department’s required Freshman Communicative Skills II reader, Writing from the Hill. The custom text, which includes an anthology of poems, short stories, creative non-fiction, visuals, & a play, reflects a literary genius that the department expects will foster the creative genius in our predominantly Black learners. The reader also includes one sample text of each genre (sans the play) from faculty members so that students can relate to their teachers as writers, too. Contributing teacher-writers include: short story writer, Melanie A. Rawls; poet, Kristine Snodgrass; creative non-fiction writer, Rick Campbell; & I, visual artist, Kendra N. Bryant.
During our discussion on Melanie A. Rawls’ excerpt of her short story, “Who You Love . . .,” one of my students claimed that Rawls’ main character, Cherokee, reminds him of Tyler Perry. More specifically, Cherokee–who protects herself from rape by holding her aggressor at gunpoint (a shot gun, actually) & then keeping him tied to a chair until her husband & sons come home, at which point, they all have dinner together–mirrors Tyler Perry’s Madea. My student didn’t think of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, or his own grandmother; but he thought of Madea–our 21st century minstrel in drag.
Now, I totally understand that Tyler Perry serves as a point of departure for many students’ experiences with film & popular culture. I also understand that Madea is seemingly emblematic of an aggressively strong, gun carrying Black woman who goes to all lengths to protect herself & her loved ones. & I understand that despite her hyperbolic, vindictive nature, apparently, many of her fans view Madea as a more satirical character than the clown I think she is. I totally get it: Madea has become Black folk’s cultural heroin–oops. I mean, “heroine.”
Although I was surprised that my student compared Cherokee to Madea, I understood his comparison. I would even support his decision to write a thorough essay titled, “The Madea in Cherokee.” Yet, despite the clear relationship between Cherokee & Madea, Madea’s invitation into our panel discussion still bothers me. Let me explain.
Although I am a classroom teacher who believes that I should meet my students where they are, that class assignments should reflect their experiences, that I should communicate instruction in a language they understand, & that I should provide lessons that help them make meaning of their own lives, I am a bit overwhelmed–even drained–by my teacherly responsibilities, which seems to grow larger & wider as a result of popular culture’s irresponsible behaviors.
While I often bring popular culture into classroom discussion in order to assist with student comprehension, I am saddened that so many of my University students seemingly don’t have (or care to mention) any other references outside of the ones reflected via popular culture. If popular culture–particularly ideas that are not critically analyzed–is my students’ only point of reference, then the 21st century White patriarchy is just as successful at brainwashing Blacks as the mythical Willie Lynch.
In other words, popular culture (mainstream TV, radio, film) is predominantly controlled by Whites–& when it’s not (like Oprah’s OWN), it definitely is White-influenced. (Note: Some folks believe Bill Cosby was publicly lynched because he was promising to purchase NBC. Ijs. Read CNN’s article here.) Anyway, although most of us choose what information we allow to penetrate our minds & hearts, media control is out of our control, unless we opt for a monastic or Amish lifestyle. Undoubtedly, Tyler Perry, whose birth name is Emmitt, by the way, is a great example of this penetrating–of the media’s control over our thinking.
Tyler Perry’s Madea has starred in nine plays, eight Box Office films, & an animated film; has made guest appearances in two television series (Love Thy Neighbor & House of Payne), while mentioned in Meet the Browns; and has “authored” a book, Don’t Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, 2006. Her Wikipedia page is just as long as Harriet Tubman’s, Sojourner Truth’s, & Rosa Park’s, & she’s been parodied in both South Park & Saturday Night Live. Wait. Madea has a Wikipedia page? Not even fictional characters like Morrison’s Sula, Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown, nor Alice Walker’s Sophia–from whom Madea borrows the line, “All my life I had to fight”–has her own Wikipedia page. Argh! Nevertheless, because Tyler Perry’s Madea character dominates popular culture, the dominion minimizes (damn near erases) other literary, historical, & even familial references that are just as significant to Black culture–if not more than–Perry’s Madea.
Now, to be fair, a day after the panel discussion, I did ask other students how they felt about their classmate’s Madea comparison. While they claim they were indifferent, after some probing, one student did say he saw Walker’s Sophia in Cherokee; another said she thought of Harriet Tubman, & another expressed remembering her own grandmother as shared thru her mother’s story-telling. Of course, none of these students mentioned any of those comparisons during the panel discussion. As a result, their silence more or less invited Madea to further penetrate & govern another predominantly Black space. Why are we giving Tyler Perry & Madea so much of our energy? Ugh! I’ll stop my own energizing now.
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Neither one person nor one system is to blame for students’ limited knowledge re: self, history, religion, law, literature & the like. & I am specifically referring to the African American Millennial student & the basic knowledge bank that (I think) s/he should carry with her/him into a University. While I am not much of a conspiracy theorist, I am under the impression that superstructures (as Karl Marx defines them) are used to maintain White power & privilege, & therefore, Tyler Perry & Madea are mere pawns in a bigger scheme to keep Black folk on a short leash.
While students have more access to information than any other generation before them, they still know (or remember or are interested in) very little beyond the popular culture that pervades their daily lives. For instance, to date, as a post secondary English teacher at a historically Black university, I’ve had a student tell me that Martin Luther King led the 1995 Million Man March & another define “apartheid” as “apartment.” Other students have mindlessly claimed racism & segregation occurred “back in the day,” while a few complained that the Civil Rights Movement is boring. I’ve had one student insist that Beyoncé is life, while another argued that Lil Wayne shouldn’t have been criticized for his derogatory reference to Emmett Till because it educated listeners on the 15-year-old Chicagoan who was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a White woman. & this semester, aside from Madea entering a literary discussion, many of my students confessed that they never realized the negative connotations associated with the word “black.”
From the looks of it, popular culture is, indeed, Willie Lynching our 21st century students. Alas, until more of our main stream entertainers insist on releasing works that do more than depict Black folks as shuckers & jivers, as superficial reality stars, as gang banging thugs, & as violently profane World Stars Hip Hoppers, the job of the classroom teacher to enlighten & restore her students’ humanity will continue to be an uphill battle.