Monday, October 24, 2011

Pardon me, Rev. Sharpton, but there's no one way to be black

Last week, Al Sharpton's National Action Network (NAN) honored Tyler Perry with the group's Triumph Award for making "a positive impact beyond [his] performance on stage, in the arts...and in the community." Longtime readers of this blog know my feelings about Tyler Perry. I believe many of Perry's performances, plays and films contribute to the toxic dialogue about black women. There is no positive impact to be gained from his persistent use of the uppity, ball-busting, career-obsessed black woman who needs to be taken in hand and set right by a strong black man trope. Black women make up 52 percent of this country's African American population. If you're not doing right by us, then you aren't doing right by the black community.

But, hey, I'm not a huge fan of NAN either, so my first thought at reading about them bestowing an honor on Tyler Perry was "Yeah, sounds about right." I'm no more shocked at this than I was at BET honoring R-uh Kelly. It was Sharpton's rebuke to those of us who don't share Perry's love of minstrelsy and misogyny that got my goat. He called us "proper Negroes" (The hell?) and said:
“This man never apologized for who we were…The ultimate pride is where you don’t have to bend and adjust for others to accept you. … He didn’t go mainstream, he brought mainstream to us.” Read more...
Time for another off shoot of Godwin's Law. Call this one the Negro Litmus Test Rule: The first person to attack an opponent for insufficient blackness loses. (Brother Cornel West, report to the penalty box!)

Sharpton implies that Perry represents some authentic blackness that opponents are distancing themselves from. Perry himself co-signed this view in his speech at the ceremony:

“I stayed with who we are, and what I wish I could get us to understand as a people is that instead of getting your education and running from us, you need to ground and root yourself in who we are. Every other culture in this country knows the value of us as black people but we don’t know it ourselves.”
“Somebody said to me about the ‘House of Payne,’ ‘Why do you have fat black people on television?’ Because there are fat black people in the world. It’s not a stereotype. This is who we are, we need to stop running from our parents and our grandparents and our uncles, we need to stop running from them and embrace them.”

The girth of Perry's characters is not the problem, but nice straw man there, Tyler. First, what is this "who we are" business? Is "who we are" as black people so narrow that it can be defined by a handful of middling comedy flicks? I thought we were a rich and diverse people. Perry's portrayals of black life don't square with my lived experience. His version of "who we are" looks more like broad and shallow stereotype to me. At any rate, my problems with Tyler Perry stem not from him revealing some truth about black culture that I'd rather keep hidden, but his regressive and sexist messages about women and romantic relationships.

Many people have articulated criticisms with Perry's oeuvre better than I can. Rev. Al could have taken these criticisms seriously--No doubt he anticipated some flack from his choice of honoree, which is why he addressed the issue in his comments. Or, he could have ignored the controversy entirely. But instead of acknowledging the diversity of opinion in the black community, the good reverend (and Perry) used one of the shittiest silencing tactics ever employed to shut down intra-racial discussion: The old "See, ya'll uppity Negroes ain't real...trying to be like the white man...don't know who you are."

The volley of "not black enough" is cheap, silly and contrary to everything most people who care about racial equality want the mainstream to understand. A white person lumping all black folks into one experience would surely gain my side-eye. So, I'm sure you like rap music, right? Right? A middle-aged, African American civil rights activist using similar logic, when he sure as hell should know better, is damned offensive. Sharpton and his organization can honor whomever they want. (I won't even discuss the rest of the awardees, which included Judge Greg Mathis and Chris Rock...Mmmm hmmmm. I heard L. Joy Williams on Blacking It Up say Rock  served up some witty commentary on how black women need to quit saying they don't need a man. So...yeah...) But have enough respect to not respond to legitimate and serious criticism with veiled inferences that detractors are failing at blackness.


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