Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Humor Builds Bridges (But You Already Knew That)

Tyler Perry’s Don’t Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings resonates strongly with me and my service at Guilford Elementary Middle School not only because of some of the content and character specific to the black community (the students who attend Guilford are predominantly black), but also because Madea addresses children, their behavior in society, and their upbringing. Perry manages to do this with a balance of the distinctly humorous instances and the distinctly advisory and serious ones.

At my last visit to Guilford, the kids of National Academic League had just won a game the previous day but were hard at work doing more studying in preparation for the following week’s game. When I arrived, it was clear that they were still hyped up from their win, as it was taking a lot of time to get them to settle down. However, their position, as their team coach informed me, was still one of uncertainty. Despite winning their game, they still had a long way to go, and for that reason, were still required to run through facts a few of them knew as well as the backs of their hands. There wasn’t, understandably, much of a jocular or joking air, especially in comparison to the other times I had gone to Guilford. There was a very apparent (for me, at least) sense of tension in the room, which, though not quite a shield impermeable to laughter and humor, did make it harder for humor to find its way into the classroom.

One girl I was tutoring (the same one I had tutored last time) was given a study packet that was not hers, and she was extremely upset about it. She had filled out all of the answers and solved all of the problems in her old packet, and she was annoyed that she’d have to do the work all over again. She was perfectly inconsolable and, consequently, she was less enthused about having to run through facts with me. Any attempt to humor her, whether it was making fun of myself or poking fun at one of her teammates, was ineffective. One of the things that Madea says in her book is, “But the children think you’re out there joking, laughing, and listening to their kind of music and you’re hanging right there with them and having a good time. Then, before they even know it, you’ve left some wisdom in them that they can use. So make them laugh” (248-249). Being unable to make this student laugh or to share a laugh with her inherently made me more uncomfortable in my position as a student volunteer. While responsive to the academic questions I was asking her, her sour mood made her, I believe, unresponsive to me as a person. At a certain point, I stopped trying to make her laugh (or even smile), and so focused on my duty as a volunteer. I was there to run fact drills.

Perry’s book presents to us readers an undulation of high points (funny stuff) and low points (the serious stuff), but the fact that he balances out each makes the book and the character of Madea more believable and real. The format of the book, in a way, mirrors life in general, in that it highlights both good times and the bad. For example, in Part Ten, Madea explains why she thinks gossip is unnecessary. “I live in the ghetto,” she says. “I’ve got to walk two blocks to get to the store and try not to get shot. I’ve got enough excitement” (228). She is speaking truths about herself and her life that are not commonly admitted so bluntly, and they are presented so barefaced that there really is no point in gilding it with humor. However, as soon as that part ends, she goes on to her “worst fear.” The first thing she says? “Michael Jackson” (228). So Perry balances the heavy with the lighthearted and makes sure not to saturate us with too much of either; and in doing so, he relays messages that resonate within us. He even says “all the things that I have endured were for the benefit of helping potentially millions of other people, helping us to laugh through this life” (252). His humor, in effect, is being used to reach out to others, to build bridges among individuals.

Such was not the case, however, in my most recent experience at Guilford. Because the girl I was tutoring was all doom and gloom, I did not have the opportunity to leave her with some “wisdom” as Madea would say because there was no humor or laughter to pave the way to build a bridge. There was no way for me to connect with her because certainly her life story and mine were different in many ways, and without laughter or humor present to place us in a common, shared position (that is, a position where we could both laugh at the same thing), I became even more sensitive to those differences. I suddenly grew more aware that I was Asian, she was Black. I was a college student, she was a middle-schooler. My sense of humor was different from hers and that’s why she was not laughing. Instead of developing a sense of community with her, I started to think about divisions.

But Perry refuses to allow that to happen in his book. The advice and the experiences described are not one-sided, and so he gives us both the good and the bad and we are able to deal with them just as he and Madea have. He manages to reach out to us because he makes us laugh—at him, with him, through him—but he’s not one to ignore the differences among us either. Though parts of Madea’s life are obviously particular to her and her only, the laughter she instills in us allows us to connect and relate with her regardless of her differences. Perry states that “we have the power to change” (230). I suppose it’s true that I could have tried harder to cheer up the student I was tutoring, but it’s difficult when every attempt fails at the hands of sour emotion. I believe humor definitely has the power to build bridges, but, granted, it won’t always be easy.

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