Archive for May, 2007

Madea Ain’t Funny

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Am I the only black woman in America who doesn’t find Tyler Perry’s outrageous “Madea” character funny? It seems so. If “Madea” has wracked up over $150 million at the box office for Perry as experts have surmised, then what’s my problem, you ask. It’s very simple. I am not a fan of stupid comedy. Nor do I find this man-playing-as-a-woman stuff funny. Didn’t like Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.” Didn’t like Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” And I definitely don’t like media’s portrayal of black women as loud, overbearing, manipulative, crude, and hideously overweight. Hence, none of Tyler Perry‘s “Madea” movies is in my fab-five. Madea, in my opinion, is neither funny nor endearing. She’s a caricature. Her complexion is lighter, and she may be, according to black people’s infamous reckoning, “big-boned” instead of obese, but there’s little difference between Madea and Eddy Murphy’s Rasputia character in “Norbit” or Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma character in the movie “Big Momma’s House.”

There are images of black women that white people have created for white people (Aunt Jemima and nappy-headed ho*s). And there are images of black women that certain black filmmakers have created for black people. Both are ugly caricatures of black women based on distorted information about us. Distortions of us by Perry, Murphy, and Martin are especially hurtful because they play up a stereotype of the black woman as unbearable, ergo unlovable. It’s as though they read Patrick Moynihan’s infamous 1965 report that said that black women’s overbearing strength is the cause of the disintegration of the black family and decided to make money on the report. Perry, Murphy, and Lawrence didn’t create the image of the fat, overbearing black woman, to be sure. The image has been around for decades. But they are the latest in a string of those who have profited shamelessly from the hurtful stereotype of black women. They don wigs and layers of latex to play overbearing, fat, black women with little interest in the psychological and interior world of the women they portray.

The constituency for Perry’s work is mostly churchgoing African-American women. His combination of slap-stick comedy, foot-stomping gospel music, an in-love and in-trouble black woman storyline, thrown in with a few life lessons about God, family, and love for good measure, appeals to his mostly churchgoing African-American female audience. “African-American women are the most loyal fan base you’ll ever have,” said Perry in an interview. “You don’t need to worry about eating for the rest of your life, because they will support you with everything they have. As long as you don’t marry outside the race, you are in.”

Let’s face it: black women in America have an image problem. On one side, we battle against images of the scantily-clad, nubile black woman, butt gyrating in front of the camera, dancing to the sound of misogynistic rap lyrics. On the other side, there’s the image of the loud, boisterous, mean, fat (often, middle-age) black woman who’s too crude and overbearing for any black man with any sense to desire. Whether your body size is thin, plus-size, or somewhere in between, we have to see these caricatures for what they are. They are not funny. Above all, we need to stop giving our hard-earned money to folks to poke fun at us while they laugh all the way to the bank.

If it’s true, as they say, that 70% of black women are overweight (and it probably is), it’s not funny. There’s nothing funny about the fact that black women suffer overwhelmingly from Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, early strokes, and other complications related to obesity. It’s not funny that black women suffer a greater threat of dying from heart disease than do women of other races. Movies by Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and even Tyler Perry’s upcoming television series “House of Payne” (which spares us “Madea” but features an overweight mother and father figure) do nothing to combat obesity in our community, and they do nothing to uplift black women.

Hey, sister in the second row with the jumbo soft drink and large box of butter popcorn. Let’s get outta here. This ain’t funny.

Meet me at the gym.

War: What is it Good For?

Friday, May 25th, 2007

I have this ritual in the morning.

The radio next to the bed comes on at 6:30am, but I must wake fast enough to hit the snooze button before the NPR announcer, in his round-up of today’s headline news, has a chance to announce the day’s total of U.S. soldiers killed in bomb attacks. I must wake up, but I don’t want to know. I can’t face hearing so soon that more innocent men and women, both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi people, have perished. I could change the time I wake up, you say, or change the radio channel so that I wake to local traffic alerts or news about the weather, but then I’d feel like one of those willfully ignorant Americans that I’m always railing against. I want to know the news. I will not be indifferent to the freedoms our young soldiers provide. I must stay abreast of all that’s going on. I just can’t bear hearing the tally. Lord help.

But there’s no avoiding the truth. Democrats dropped a provision ordering troops home from Iraq beginning this fall and helped Congress pass on yesterday a revised $120 billion spending bill, providing $95 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through September. By voting more money for Bush’s war, the Congress granted permission to a president who has no plan, for a cause he can’t explain, at a cost that none of us can count, to keep our sons and daughters indeterminately in this war.

Decades ago politicians, especially U.S. presidents, were expected to have spent some time serving their country in one of the branches of the armed services. The elite enrolled their sons in the military as a rite-of-passage into manhood with the hope that the discipline and contacts their young scions made during their tour of duty would provide them a platform for future careers as leaders in the areas of business or politics. Times have changed. Virtually none of the members of this Congress has children serving in the military, and few of the newer members sworn into Congress have any first-hand knowledge of combat. Ours is a generation of policy makers who, in large part, hail from a class of soccer-dads and soccer-moms where the very words ‘boot camp’ are pejorative, conjuring up the image of a camp where ‘troubled youths at risk” are sent. It’s easy to vote to leave young people fighting in Iraq on your behalf when none of them come from your neighborhoods, and their parents aren’t anyone you’re likely to encounter on the golf course or at your favorite posh spa.

While my paternal grandfather was a veteran, none of the men from my immediate family serve in this war. But there are men, young black men, from my church who do serve in various branches of the military and whose names we keep on the prayer list.

In a part of the book of Jeremiah where we are supposed to find comfort, we find these words by the prophet spoken in the wake of war:

A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because her children are no more.
(Jer. 31:15)

Did I mention that there are many mornings when I don’t reach the snooze button in time? The announcer comes on, “A bomb went off in Bagdad killing…”

Oprah: Poor Girl, Rich Girl

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

For those of us who have had moments when we’ve fantasized about what it must be like to have Oprah’s millions, we got our answer this week.

It is great to be a wealthy icon, I suppose, but it’s also lonely and perilous.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news you know that Oprah’s dad, Vernon Winfrey, has been withholding an important bit of news, namely he’s writing a tell-all book about his famous daughter.

Oprah is quoted saying that she laughed when one of her assistants said, “The Daily News is calling. They say they heard your father is writing a book about you.” Oprah replied, “That’s impossible. I can assure them it’s not true.” But then Oprah’s sister said, “I think you should call your father.” “I called him and it turned out he is writing a book. The worst part of it was him saying, ‘I meant to tell you I’ve been working on it.” Oprah was understandably upset. After all, she’d just seen her father a few months ago when he accompanied her on one her trips to Africa. Asked point blank how she felt about the fact that her father was writing a book about her, Winfrey replied. “I won’t say ‘devastated,’ but I was stunned. The last person in the world to be doing a book about me is Vernon Winfrey,” she added. “The last person.”

It’s that last sentence that makes me hurt for Oprah, and I’m not one who keeps up with her shows nor her change of hairstyles. I feel her pain when she says that her father was the last person she expected this from.

Oprah was devastated alright. But she’s old enough and smart enough now to know that there are some truths you keep to yourself. Learning from others that your father is writing about you has to feel like a blow to the solar plexus. It’s enough to leave a woman staring for hours out her penthouse window with tears running down her cheeks. You know now that you are really alone. For a price, everyone will tell what they know about you– even if you’ve told it already.

What is it like to be an uber-rich, mega-celebrity like Oprah Winfrey? It means that you can’t trust anyone to protect you, not even your own father.

Should Oprah forgive her father? Is that possible in a situation like this? Perhaps it is for some folks. But forgiveness is not the only path to resolution, I don’t think.

Sometimes in our struggles with the hurts and betrayal we suffer, it’s enough to understand what made folks behave as they did and do what they did to us. Understanding. There’s, admittedly, sadness in understanding, a sadness in coming to grips with the fact that people are not who you hoped they were and needed them to be. But with the passing of time, it’s a sadness that’s no longer tinged with anger. Which comes close enough to forgiveness.

Michelle Obama: Unbought and Unbossed

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

Let’s be honest. America doesn’t know what to make of smart, articulate, independent-thinking, professional black women.

When 43-year-old Michelle Obama announced a little over a week ago her decision to step down from her job as VP of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, the Washington Post ran the news as a front page article, as did many other news organizations.

While wives of other candidates are probably scrambling as well to make adjustments in their lifestyles and schedules as a result of their husbands’ campaigns, Michelle Obama’s career moves are fascinating to the American public for several reasons.

First, professional women opting out of their high achieving careers is a trend story that’s been running for nearly a generation now. Obama’s decision to quit her job keeps the spotlight on the professional and personal choices career women must often make.You’ve seen the magazine illustration: Two women glaring at each other, about to take a swing with their satchels — one a briefcase, the other a diaper bag. “Every other month [since] I’ve had children I’ve struggled with the notion of ‘Am I being a good parent? Can I stay home? Should I stay home? How do I balance it all?’ ” Obama said in the Post interview. No one questions whether men can have it all (i.e., a family life and a successful and satisfying career). But a woman who expects to combine family life with a successful and satisfying career, while supporting her husband in his career pursuits, comes off as unrealistic and foolhearted to those with different ideas about women’s roles.

Secondly, in the past aspiring First Ladies paid a lot of lip service to being professional women, but women like Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Edwards, and others are trendsetters. Like Hillary Clinton before them who was hammered by the press for seeking to make the most of her role as a White House player, Michelle Obama represents a new breed of smart, candid, sophisticated, opinionated, high-achieving women who happen to be married to men who aspire to public office.

Michelle Obama attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, and has devoted decades of hard work to building a successful, lucrative career. With two daughters, 8 and 5 years old, Obama has shown she has the drive and temerity to juggle motherhood and demanding full-time executive responsibilities along with supporting her spouse’s political ambitions. Her decision to step down from her VP duties at the University of Chicago makes folk wonder, however, whether Michelle Obama aims not only to play a larger role in her husband’s campaign, but does she intend to meddle more in policy making itself.

The third reason Michelle Obama’s every move grabs headline news is because Americans get apoplectic trying imagine an African American woman as their “First Lady.” Black women have been lots of things in the American imagination, but “First Lady” is not one of them. Michelle Obama forces the American public to ponder not only, “What will it be like to have an African American woman as First Lady?,” but “What will it be like to have a Michelle Obama-sort-of African American woman as First Lady?” Listening to Michelle Obama speak you figure out soon enough that she’s the kind of “unbought and unbossed” black woman (to use Shirley Chisholm’s self-description) who eventually draws the fangs of an American public that has some rather fixed notions in their heads about black women.

Refuse to play the role of the grinning, obese, mindless Mammy, Sister Michelle, and there’s hell to pay in America. But, hey, what else is new?