As we discussed in class, Perry’s adopted persona has a distinctive voice that effectively commands attention with conviction, avoiding the preachy self-important tone characteristic of many advice books. This voice gives Madea the power to confront incredibly uncomfortable realities of racial, socioeconomic and gender divides to enormous effect in her signature no-holds-barred, yet warm and humorous, way.
At Govans Elementary where I do service, there is one young man (for confidentiality’s sake, I’ll call him K) whose skin is not quite as dark as his fellow students. K is a sensitive kid—I don’t think I’ve seen him come in to class once without seeming noticeably distracted and upset by a mean comment made by one of the other children. This week, he was so upset that he had to leave the classroom; the teacher asked me to follow him and try to get to the root of the problem. I asked K what was going on, and he told me, with his brows knotted in frustration, that one of the kids had called him ‘white.’ (It’s happened before, as you can well imagine.) Trying a different tack than my standard productive encouragement, I tried to channel Madea and confront the situation in a direct and funny way. Turning to him with an eyebrow raised in mock offense, I asked, “What’s so bad about being white? I’m white.” K was noticeably thrown off-balance by this change in tune, shooting me a puzzled look and looking pretty lost about what to say next. Clearly, Madea’s style is most effective in her own voice to a developmentally appropriate audience—my intended point about the arbitrariness of implied negative connotations about race did not seem to connect. Even so, I was still glad that I tried it her way. It’s useful to be thrown off balance every now and then. I steered the conversation to a more general, but every bit as Madea-esque, place, asking K if he planned on allowing belittlers to hold him back from learning and getting the best preparation he could have for his state-mandated test the next day. I think that one of Madea’s strongest messages is finding agency in yourself to better your own situation; her tree analogy in her ‘last word’ regarding the types of people that enter our lives struck me as beautiful and—classic Madea—poignantly truthful.
But how is one supposed to reconcile Madea’s peaceful message of letting parasitic “leaves” fall off and blow away in the wind with her own default method for dealing with irritating people—taking off her earrings and whuppin’ some ass? As disparate as this advice may seem at first, I think it ultimately rests on the common foundation of self-confidence. Madea is nothing if not confident—it is this quality in her voice that made me drink in the wisdom of this book so effortlessly! She is as uniformly unapologetic when telling us to put a dead fish head in a scented candle as she is when telling us that we are completely worthy of our own and others’ respect. Although ridiculous, exaggerated advice—i.e., keeping the peace with your ‘piece’, a 9mm semi-automatic—is spliced within the more readily discernible sage nuggets of wisdom, the line between the two never seems blurred. Madea lives up to the claim staked in the title—the commentary she provides is always uninhibited. The uninhibited nature of her words is what allows for comedy to coalesce so well with truth. If I had given K some glossy message of self-affirmation, such as “You are perfect just as you are,” it’s clear to me that the impact would be transitory at best. Humor, as well as advice, must come from a place of confidence and be met with confidence on the receiving end in order to connect. Without confidence, our laughter and our life are going to remain inhibited. Madea’s central message of “Get up and do something. Confront it,” (229) does not imply the type of confrontation involving steel and a hair-trigger. It just means facing everything in life head-on—our own personal insecurities and those who seek to vex them. Even turning the other cheek (and the other other cheek) involves action and conviction. Madea imparts the valuable lesson that direct confrontation is not only the best way to be funny, but the best way to live.