by Professor Vikki Jenkins
Many black women who supported the early career of writer, director and producer Tyler Perry, were excited that his success led him from the strictly “playhouse” circuit to the “big screen”. Even when some members of the community criticized the “Madea” character as a mockery of Black women, many of us defended him because of the pleasure we felt in viewing films that initially respected Black women, the Black family and our cultural traditions.
Perry’s films, situated in the genre of African American comedic tradition, allowed us to enjoy movies that did not call Black women out of their name, and even seemed to understand some of our points of view in relationship disputes. Certainly, this was the case in Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), even Why Did I get Married (2007). Our amazing ancestral actress Cicely Tyson reminded us of the importance of our culture and the important role of Black men in “Madea’s Family Reunion”. Perry extended us a level of respect reserved by the entertainment industry for non-Black women, and we returned the respect by supporting his films.
The entertainment industry ultimately tries to appropriate the autonomy of African American film producers, and as such, Perry transitioned from mostly positive images of Black women to the “non-Black” stream where our hair and overall presence became the butt of racial jokes, as the “b” word became our new name. This was presented to us on a slippery slope by non-other than the writer, producer and director we’ve entrusted with our laughter and tears.
Tyler Perry’s nighttime soap opera, If Loving You is Wrong (2014-2020) broadcast on the Oprah Winfrey Network featured an unforgetting episode where a primary Black female character is referred to as a “b….h”, and her white female counterpart is referred to as a “lady” within the same incident. In season 5 of the popular show, it is revealed that white married housewife Alex Montgomery (Amanda Clayton) is having an affair with her married Black psychiatrist neighbor Dr. Randall Holmes (Eltony Williams). As the drama unravels, Marcie Holmes (Heather Hemmens) wife of Randall describes the woman having an affair with her husband as “the b…h” next door. Although, she is not their immediate neighbor, it is assumed the culprit is the African American character Kelly Issacs (Edwina Findley). She is continuously referred to by the derogatory term and eventually defends herself from being called a b…h in a conversation with friends who had quickly turned on her. When it is revealed that it is Alex who is having the affair with Randall the language quickly changes and she is described as “the lady” next door spoken by neighbor and officer Lushion Morgan (Charles Malik Whitfield). Perhaps subtle, but nonetheless an insult that targeted Black womanhood.
The very popular Tyler Perry TV drama, The Have and Have Nots (2013), also on the Oprah Winfrey Network, continues the pattern of calling the primary Black female lead characters a “b…h”, but also attacks their natural hair and situates the beautiful black women actresses in unbecoming wigs. Most of the hair attacks have been waged against a powerful attorney Veronica Harrington (Angela Robinson), and the former maid of a wealthy white family, Hanna Young (Crystal R. Fox). In one very memorable episode of season 8, the hair of Hanna is attacked by Veronica described as “natural” and suitable for her work as a maid. She also called her hair “nappy”. The type of derogatory attacks on the physical features of Black women would be deemed racist except they are coming from a black man, featured on a black woman’s network.
The commonly used racial strategy is nothing more than white supremacy 101 that urges us to belittle one another as a sort of litmus test for the empowerment and enjoyment of non-Black benefactors. It is a travesty that cannot be excused or respected on any human level. Men who denigrate the women of their own community, while simultaneously highlighting the supposed beauty of women of other groups have not learned from non-Black men who understand their first responsibility is to honor and respect the women of their own nationality. To do otherwise, is to participate in one’s own genocide and cultural demise. If a Black man is unwilling or afraid to disrespect non-Black women yet finds no contradiction in insulting those who breath life within his own Black community then there is no reason to ask why he is the “racial joke” among men.