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John H

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By now the crowd of people slamming Tyler Perry’s movies and television programs as minstrel shows could fill a large theater. One critic of his film version of FOR COLORED GIRLS called him ‘the king of coonery’. These people are, of course, wrong. Historically, minstrel shows flourished from the mid 19th century through the early 20th century. They were, for the most part, the products of white showmen using white performers in black face and were directed, overwhelmingly, at white audiences. Their function was to justify cradle to grave segregation, sanctified in law and enforced by violence, by presenting blacks as shiftless dimwits and vulgar brutes, properly kept on society’s margins because they were incapable of meeting the simplest demands of responsible citizenship. Similarly, Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, and Mantan Moreland’s simple-minded, lazy‘coons’ of Hollywood films of the 1930's and 40's were directed primarily at white audiences.

Perry’s audience is black. His performers are black, and he is black. Given his core audience of working class, church going blacks, his shows, obviously, do not serve as a cover or justification for segregation, nor are people paying good money to see themselves mocked.

No one, black or white, has to like Perry, but enough already! He’s not putting on minstrel shows. As is indicated in my recent book FACES IN THE MIRROR: OSCAR MICHEAUX AND SPIKE LEE, there were black minstrels like Williams and Walker, who performed in black face. But they played before white audiences, thereby tragically compromising with and reinforcing the racism that denied them and other black performers the opportunity to show who they really were. By contrast, some of Perry’s films have provided a number of black artists (Kimberly Elise, Kerry Washington, Loretta Devine) with the opportunity to display the full range of their talents. Perry is not beyond criticism, but the criticism ought to bear some relation to reality. Whatever his faults he is not a modern minstrel show impresario.


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Hello John, it's nice to see you step in the waters of AALBC.

You wrote: "By contrast, some of Perry’s films have provided a number of black artists (Kimberly Elise, Kerry Washington, Loretta Devine) with the opportunity to display the full range of their talents. Perry is not beyond criticism, but the criticism ought to bear some relation to reality. Whatever his faults he is not a modern minstrel show impresario"

I can talk about that, and have debated the issue from several different points of view, particularly the angle that black actors have to have a place to work their craft. Also, we have to start somewhere... (there's always a starting point). Having said that, the NAACP was intrumental in the removal of the first black faces on TV because of what they saw as Coonery.

The following is my response....


amos-n-andy-1.jpgOkay, so my lips are big and my head is long, but who are you calling a coon?

Look at me, I am as helpless as a kitten in a tree. I feel like I am hanging on a cloud. Well, I realize you can't see me but I am hyped today. I am pumped, I am stoked, I can't control my emotions, and I'll tell you why.

If the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, does that mean I am forever linked to the DNA of my biological family? Does it also mean I am a product of my environment? If all that be true, Holy Mackerel..... I'm in trouble. But I am too much in love with my family to sweat the small stuff.

Did I mentioned that I was dripping with anticipation. In laymen terms, that means I might go on another long journey. If you'd like to come along, I am going to visit a family friend.

My family has spread it's wings in an array of social and economical playing fields. Today I am going to stop by the house of my uncle Kingfish. He has past away. Some of you may know him. His real name is Tim. He is the brother of my grandfather. He played the part of George Stevens, aka Kingfish, on the early television series Amos & Andy. Yes, that's my family tree. He was raised in the same small town that I once called home. This is not a story of family barbecues, nor a tale of bedside chats. This is a story of messages from the past.

I have a collection of the old program that I've shared with my children. Many talking heads have vilified the series as coonery at it's worst. They harped to the extent that it was banned from television. Some of those bobbing head negroes that have a propensity to look through the blues eye of other cultures, seem to have forgotten their past. But let me move forward.

How about these lyric, lets see if they ring a bell.... Temporary layoff/ good times/ easy credit ripoff/ good times/ ain't we lucky we got them/ GOOD TIMES!

WTH? What's good about easy credit ripoff! Did I hear a subliminal message? Can I say DYNAMITE!

How about this one: Beans don't burn in the Kitchen {no mo'}/ grits don't burn on the grill {no mo'}/ took a whole lot of crying/ just to get up that hill {what hill?}/ Now we up in the big league {what league?}/ took our our turn at bat/ it's you and me baby/ and ain't nothing wrong with that/..... We MOVIN' ON UP.

Hold up, wait one minute, don't go anywhere. What the hell was "that"? I mean, to start with, George Jefferson was Archie Bunker's special kind of fool. Sure, George was given a bone by being allowed to say "HONKY HONKY HONKY". But what businessman runs around doing the slop and yelling honky? Give me a freakin' break. George Jefferson made Kingfish look like a choir boy. And, what's this "movin' on up" thang? I mean, the brotha had 2 cleaners on the south side of Chicago. Do I hear a few more subliminal Messages? Lets move on down the road.

The last time I checked, I didn't see any of the following "themes" in the Amos & Andy series, and I've seen all of them.I didn't see homosexuality, drug use or gun play. In an episode called "Kingfish finds his fortune", Amos and Kingfish had a argument. They squared off to fight. They waltzed around a table for about 30 second until both got so tired - they sat down. Oh the horror of it all. I shake with fear when I even think about that kind of violence.

I never saw wife swapping or domestic violence in that series. I am yet to see one black person call another black person N**ga. I know I didn't see grown men salivating over the buttock of underage girls. Lord knows I didn't see any images of a grown man dressed in drag. WAIT! Did you hear that? Shhhhhush, listen, be quiet, I believe Tyler Perry has walked into the room ?

Opps, can we go there? Can we walk down his street? Why not, lets go. But, maybe we should first ask those that said Amos & Andy sent out destructive messages, to see if it's alright. Maybe we should ask them to define racism. Maybe we should see if they have pictures of their uncle Toms cabin. Come to think of it, I am not going to waste my time dissecting the blatant sewer bowl of the wonderful world of Tyler Perry films. Well, not until those same aforementioned bobbin' head Uncle Toms & Tomettes compare them to the Amos & Andy series.

Although Kingfish could be considered a huckster, and a con man, he didn't sell dope and he didn't steal from his fellow man. Nor did he cheat on his wife. Usually he paid for his misdeeds, and there were messages of redemption. Speaking of his wife, she wasn't Hattie McDaniels or Butterfly McQueen, and we all have images of their mammy ways. They are indelibly carved in our brain. Can anyone say mammy rags and ultra passivity? Mrs. Stevens role was unlike many roles given to our present queens of beauty. Who can forget the role given to Halle Barry in Monsters Ball? Can anyone say "flip flop whore". Kingfish's wife and mother-in-law were decent hard working black women. Without Sapphire, Kingfish may have been a lost man.

Today I am thinking about my family and our first black president and the road that got us here. A part of me was a pioneer of black consciousness - one of the first black faces on television. A part of me is the first black face to lead the USA into a new world. Being first can be a thankless position.

Depending on who's writing history, "first" can be erased from history, and replaced by the banter of it's supposed ill effects. Slavery seeps into my mind. A silent and lazy mind can be convinced that new is better than old, or "old" is not worth talking about. Without a first, there can never be a second.

When I go down memory lane with my children, I suggest they seek the good and leave the bad behind. I believe it's important for all people to champion those that have gone before them. At least seek first to understand. Knowledge is king, without such, a person is left to the whims and opinions of another person, who may not have their best interest at heart.

My uncle's house is no longer there. A Martin Luther King Center sits in it's place. The home is gone and so is my uncle, but his memory is alive. It's in me.Take a peek behind me. Is it dark back there? You'll have to tell me because I am not looking for the bad stuff.

What's in your tree? I've heard it said that if a person doesn't stand for something, they will fall for anything. Holy Mackerel!

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John H, I find your clarification about indiscriminately branding black entertainers and street thugs as "coons" gratifying because I have been protesting this myself, perhaps because I am older and familiar with how the term was originally used as a way to distinguish certain folks from the "sportin daddy" and "trickster" types. Playing "fast and loose" with the term "coon" is kinda like referring to sullen bi-racial chicks as "tragic mulattos". I would concede, however, that this is not a point to belabor. Words evolve. IMO.

I can't decide whether Tyler Perry and rap artists and vulgar stand-up comedians strike me as examples of minstrelry. As a young girl I actually saw a minstrel show routine put on by - of all people - a group of black Masons who performed this as an act at a benefit talent show, doing so without any reservations. It seemed to me that these guys, dressed in tuxedos and top hats sans black face, were more about sly humor, than self-degradation. Apparently, pundits like Stanley Crouch disagree. It is hard for me, however, to regard Tyler's "Madea" character as anything other than a buffoon. I know you are aware that some black historians have forgiven Step N Fetchit, "sanitizing" his portrayal as an example of good acting. This is a compelling subject to explore.

As for Amos "N Andy, they were like like a pair of comfortable slippers, as opposed to the tight high-heel pumps of the Cosby show. In response to the black critics of Amos N Andy, white viewers frequently responded by saying that if they were not offended by the popularity of wacky shows like "I Love Lucy" and goofy ones like "The Beverly Hillbillies", then black folks would do well to likewise keep things in perspective. The TV show "Julia" starring black actress Diahnn Carrol as a perfect single mother and efficient nurse, was put on to placate black people, but this series also drew black critics who found her character unrealistic. Whatever.

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