Part 1 of 3
We should all be thankful when real progress is made. But progress made without due regard for the wisdom and guidance willingly shared by our leaders, elders, and ancestors may prove to do more harm than good in the long run.
Celebrated actor and filmmaker, Tyler Perry, made a similar remark on the opening night of his film, Madea Goes To Jail. In response to a question from a famous celebrity interviewer, Perry explained that as African American people pursue success and "(walk) through this life, there are people who have gone before us who we need to really pay attention to because they have things that they can offer" to help us get through the challenges we face.
As an African American man and student of history, I immediately agreed with his statement. I appreciate being able to study the lives and lessons of "people who have gone before us" to enrich my life, guide my path toward success, and help solve all of my daily problems. But as I listened to his remark, I understood that the people I go to for guidance most often are different than the people Tyler Perry referred to. He spoke of turning to modern day celebrities and business people. But I turn to our most learned elders and ancestors. Their wisdom lives in books.
I turned to them again recently after having a series of discussions with several strong, beautiful African American women concerning Tyler Perry's film. I asked my Sister's to share their thoughts on the film's concept, its title character, and the billboards that began advertising the movie weeks before it opened.
As for me, I have no appreciation for the Madea character. The mug shot style billboards that were scattered all over our community felt like a strange attack of some sort from within. I don't see anything funny with a Black man in outrageous women's outfits. I can't laugh at the site of an undignified elder on the way to jail, especially a woman elder. This so-called joke aggravated me on many deep levels, but at first I didn't fully understand why. I did understand that there's nothing funny about going to jail, though. Particularly for people with gender identity issues.
So as I often do in times of distress, I turned to my Sisters to share my concerns and balance my perspective. I may have even been turning to them for some measure of comfort, and I'm not ashamed to admit that.
In either case, I quickly realized that my Sisters had a range of opinions that did not agree with my own. Their thoughts were so carefree that I was surprised at first. They suggested several things. Among them, I was told many times that "You need to have more fun. You're being way too serious. This is just a comedy.", they said. "It won't have the long term negative impact that you're talking about."
They also told me to "think about all the money Tyler Perry is making" on his Madea films, and "the (unspecified) good he is doing for our community" as a result. They talked about the benefit of laughing at ourselves. So I asked, "Should we really be laughing at blatant, exaggerated stereotypes on the screen? And shouldn't we try to fix our most self destructive behaviors rather than treating them like a joke?" I felt better when more Sisters began joining the Sister who agreed with my points from the start.
But when I told a Sister I recently met that I planned to write about my concerns, she became so upset that I was left within one word of being speechless. All I could say was "Wow!" as she angrily defended her favorite filmmaker like he was a best friend or beloved relative. She strongly urged me to "find something more worthwhile to write about" before ending our phone call in a way that has kept us from speaking since.
I had enough after that exchange, so I took Tyler Perry's advice even before he offered it. I turned to the lives and teachings of "people who have gone before us" to rationalize my Sister's response and better understand my own objections to this film, the billboards, and the title character.
I first turned to the words of our foremother and master teacher, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, as I thought about a statement I hear regularly at the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles. At Friday night Black and World News Forum or Sunday Soul Sessions, master teacher Dr. Maulana Karenga often quotes from a classic 1892 book titled A Voice From the South, where Dr. Cooper explains "…there is a feminine as well as masculine side to truth…"
In other words, Mother Cooper teaches us that women and men often see the things that we encounter in the world in different ways.
"But why is that?", I wondered.