Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Is that only funny when Janice says it?!"

During our discussion on Tuesday, the class raised an important point: does race and culture play into what is appropriate for one to say or do, and/or what one finds funny? In his book Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, Tyler Perry directly and indirectly addresses this point. Many of Madea's ideas, concerns, and advice are a result of her character type as a black grandmother. Because of this, some of the jokes become "inside jokes" among the black race. Madea (or rather Perry) is well aware of this. Indeed, at certain points in the story the character Madea will address the audience and say outright, "If you're not black, you might not get this." (For example, within the first paragraph of her introduction, Madea suggests her non-black reader should consult a black friend when it comes to the confusing parts of the story. This is on page xiii-xiv.)

At certain points in the story, I found myself a little lost when Madea began to talk about a certain cultural or generational tidbit. The Jheri curl, for example, really got me. I had to Google it: did you know that despite the two expensive kinds of chemicals and plastic head-wrap needed to maintain this hair style, it was still considered the "easier," "wash-and-wear" style of the 1980's? (Thanks, Wikipedia!) I've added a picture of the late, the great Michael Jackson sporting this 'do for those who are interested in a visual. (See below) I don't know if this is a "I'm not black" or a "I was born in 1989" thing, but either way, I found this particular point in the story to be a place where I felt lost culturally and Madea didn't help me out.

Sometimes I feel lost culturally when I'm at service, too. I've been volunteering at Don Miller House, a hospice home for people who have AIDS/HIV. Out of the five residents in the house, four of them are black. Loyola volunteers who come to the house are typically white, which provides for a very interesting dynamic at the dinner table. One of the residents, Sherry (name changed) has a very slight mental disability and will often latch on to a word or phrase in conversation and repeat it several times. I didn't catch how it started between Sherry and another resident, but before I knew it, both women were saying, "Excuuuuse ME!" with a lot of sass, but in a good-natured, joking way. I decided to join in on the joke and tried imitating the way they were saying the phrase and shaking their heads. The two women thought it was hilarious that I was trying to fit in with them. Similarly, Sherry and I have had dance-offs in the past, where she will start breaking it down, and I follow. Often she has more fun laughing at me dancing than actually moving to the beat herself.
Interestingly enough, this kind of dancing is exactly what Perry-as-Madea talks about in the book. On page 36 she says (and we talked about this in class), "And if you really want to bust your gut laughing, watch white people dance to black music." Sherry has busted her gut laughing while watching me copy her dance moves. Madea doesn't lie!

It seems to me that the observations Perry makes about black and white culture in his book are justified, at least in my own personal experience. There are parts of the traditional "black" culture (and similarly, parts of the traditional "white" culture--has anyone seen that don't cross over to the other side. At the same time, I think we are at the point in our society, or rather, I am at the point in my service, where I can make a lighthearted attempt to cross some of those boundaries. Whenever this happens, it always proves for a hilarious time.

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