My best friend, Abby, called me three weeks before our freshman year of college began.
“I found out who my roommate is.”
“Her name’s Bianca. She’s from Baltimore City. The west side. That’s right. And she’s black.” Reading this, you might think her tone was sarcastic, but you’d be wrong. “That. Is. Awesome. I’m gonna be so gangsta by the time we graduate, just you wait.” I swear to you, as I type this, that is exactly what she said. Verbatim. I remember it perfectly because I laughed so hard, I almost peed myself at the age of eighteen.
Not only was Abby’s direct roommate black… her two other suitemates were also black. Picture it: small, blond, straight-from-Harford-County-where-her-only-neighbors-were-dairy-cows white girl (and I do mean WHITE; she lays in the sun for more than ten minutes and she’s the color of steamed lobster) and three large black girls sharing a room and trying to pretend a pasty white-and-black polka dotted elephant isn’t standing smack in the middle of it. Except, if you’d actually been there, you’d have seen that it really is that easy to picture. Because the elephant didn’t exist. I might not be able to articulate what this dynamic really looked like, but here goes…
Abby fit right in. She really did. Just look at the videos Bianca posted on Facebook of the two of them dancing to Soulja Boy and you’ll know exactly what I mean. She fit right in thanks to laughter, as a matter of fact. I kid you not, and I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to use this story since class started. Abby has a way of pointing out the obvious, the mundane, the uncomfortable. Her personality is viewed one of two ways: if you’re uptight, stuffy, arrogant or forever politically/grammatically correct, you feel prodded and sometimes attacked, but if your guard is perpetually lowered, if you breathe optimism, if on a shitty day you feel like laughter is the only thing that will keep you from hurling yourself from a moving vehicle into I95 traffic, you feel freed in Abby’s presence. She’s one of those people whose sense of humor is so natural, so effortless that it seems to be another vital organ, like a heart. So, when she blatantly satirized certain black stereotypes and/or certain aspects of black culture in the presence of her roommates, they laughed along with her as though she were standing on the inside with them, looking out at all the white people who couldn’t in a million years touch such a joke. And the incongruity of this situation is what always struck me as both odd and completely acceptable.
What’s more, a few months after living together, Bianca, Shakira, and Sara took Abby to see Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Abby called me afterward, still laughing to herself, and said, “You have got to see this movie. There’s this character, Madea? A big, black lady… she’s like my grandma’s age or something… and she is balls-out-crazy. I swear. So Bianca says to me, ‘That is SO you when we get old.’” I hadn’t even seen the movie, or read this book yet, and I already knew that Bianca calling Abby a “Madea” was a compliment. And not a small one. So the parallel I see between my best friend of twelve years and a fictional, albeit completely convincing, momma on the block is actually quite comforting.
We spoke in class on Tuesday about Perry’s “right” to take on the perspective of a woman, and an older, wiser woman at that. We spoke about cultural versus racial implications within humor. We spoke about the honesty and power humor offers us, if only we’ll use it wisely. And finishing the second half of the book and thinking about Abby, I found my real life example: a Madea I’ve known forever. That power Perry writes about? The one all women, teachers, musicians, and artists have? Abby has it. She had the uncanny ability to waltz into what could have been a culturally and racially charged situation and turn it into a laugh factory. She deftly straddled the cultural and racial lines so that they seemed not to exist at all. I wish I could put exact words to this, but I just KNOW… not everyone can do that. Not every Harford County-raised white girl could have formed the kind of friendship Abby formed with Bianca. This world is still too narrow-minded. People are still sometimes uncomfortable in their own skins. Like Perry, I think Abby made her way to the inside by simply refusing to give anyone an opportunity to question her right to do so. Perry simply is Madea. Reading his book, I instantly accepted that fact. So even though he’s a man, it makes no difference. And Abby, something of a Madea herself, simply moved in with Bianca and never asked questions. She just told jokes.Finally, there’s the matter of the obvious. I feel like Madea states the obvious more often than not, and yet I feel like I’m receiving fresh advice. Abby does this too. And people sometimes find it annoying, or, perhaps worse, boring. But I think that the obvious is important because if you don’t know it, then you’re probably wandering around getting yourself confused or in trouble without knowing why. More importantly, I feel that what’s most obvious is often most closely aligned with truth. And who doesn’t need more of that? Yes, Madea’s stories were funny, but to be honest, it’s the sound advice I’m thinking of right now. It’s the wisdom I can most readily recall: don’t let anyone push you around, treat you as if you’re less than; don’t worry so much, just laugh more; take things one step at a time because you’re less likely to fall; say what you feel and say it loudly. Those things might seem obvious, but they’re so close that they’re easy to forget, too. And personally, I was glad to have Madea periodically (and Abby, daily) remind me.