Yesterday, I taught Franz Kafka’s short story, “A Hunger Artist” to my Beginning Creative Writing class. It was deep, to say the least. So deep that it sent me into some kind of weird tailspin of contemplating my place in the world as a poet, writer and human being and I think that’s why I’m sick today.
You wouldn’t think some strange story written by a White guy ninety-some years ago would rock my world. (You can read the short story here.) In the story, there’s a guy who publicly starves himself for public amusement; he’s the “hunger artist.”
But what the story is really about is how artists twist and turn ourselves to please a fickle public. They love our work, they hate our work, and our artists’ emotions rest on that love or hate. And these days, the reception of our work extends to Twitter accounts or Facebook pages. How many “followers” do we have? How many “friends”?
Like you can have seven hundred ninety friends.
We artists tell ourselves, we are above catering to the public. We would write in small, airless rooms if we had to, locked away from the world, even if there were no public at all. Or we would paint. Or we would take photographs. (Fill in whatever art form you wish.) We don’t need public affirmation, we say, and we definitely don’t need money.
Unh-huh. Yeah, okay.
Here’s the deal for artists, including us oft-mentioned low-paid poets: we want to get paid for our art. More than that: we want to get paid in full. And how many of us writers have worked a cocktail party to network or sashayed up to famous writers after a reading, slobbering all over them in hopes we can get blurbs on the back of our books, or letters of recommendations for jobs or the Guggenheim—all of which will lead to the respect of our peers but most of all, more money?
Guilty. Here I am, raising my hand. And I’m waving it, too, from left to right like I’m at a Sugar Hill Gang concert.
There are moments where I’ve caught myself after I’ve gone too far with the slobbery/shameless flattery. In the words of Aretha, let’s call this song exactly what it is: booty-kissing. That’s one of the reasons I started my blog: to keep myself honest. I figure, the more people who “watch” me publicly, the more accountability I will have, and the less I will booty-kiss.
Of course, one of the other reasons I started the blog is to increase my visibility as a writer. I had to get my hustle on.
As a poet who is a fiction writer but not known as such, I wanted to increase my potential reader base from a handful of poets. And I wanted to connect with folks who didn’t write books. Regular people, because those are the folks I started writing for. And equally important, I wanted to connect with Black folks of all backgrounds, especially Sisters. So I started this blog.
So what does all this have to do with Tyler Perry?
Perry started off as an artist—and however you feel about the quality of that art, it’s still art, sort of—appealing to working- to middle-class, Christian, churchgoing Black women, first as a playwright and then making movies. A majority of his audience members probably have never attended one of August Wilson’s plays, and they probably don’t read criticism on theater or film making, either. But they love some Tyler Perry. He speaks to them.
Those of us Black folks who aren’t his target audience find his movies bad at best and an Embarrassment To The Race at worst. But at least Perry’s being real. Many times, we Black artists—the vast number of us holding graduate degrees from universities—depict Black people from the working class in our art, but when we do, we aren’t trying to impress those working class folks, no matter what lies we tell ourselves. We aren’t talking to our Big Mamas or those Brothers standing on the corners, smoking blunts in those neighborhoods we left as soon as we could, because they weren’t safe places for us to live.
We are talking to other educated, Siddity Negroes. Or White folks who sit on awards committees giving grant money for whatever art form we work in. And those White folks depend on us Siddity Negroes to translate Blackness for them.
Sidebar: Have you ever read a book where a Negro was writing about some “authentic” aspect of Black culture and just got it dead wrong? But you knew you couldn’t get mad at the editor because the reason the editor didn’t catch it is because that editor wasn’t Black?
Yes, I said it. Look, the Republicans just took over the House. It’s time for all of us to tell the truth, because things are going to get bad soon in this country. Don’t you want to clear your conscience before The Last Days are upon us?
Anyway, to my knowledge, Perry never went to film school, so he never got reprogrammed about his “true target audience,” which is supposed to be White critics and Siddity Educated Negroes. He started off as someone making films for regular, working-class Black women/people, in the same way that Zora Neale Hurston pissed off the Harlem Renaissance establishment—including W.E.B DuBois–by writing about working class, verb-splitting Black folks when she was supposed to be writing about Black folks who spoke French like Jessie Fauset and them.
“No, no, unh-unh!” I hear you shouting, recoiling in horror and disgust from me. “Zora Neale Hurston wrote art.”
Sure she did. And you know who decided that she wrote art? College professors who wrote literary criticism. Siddity Educated Negroes and White folks who teach English classes—twenty years after Sister Zora died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave. Alice Walker was the main one who resurrected interest in her work, and yes, she is a former college professor. And siddity. First she went to Spelman and then Sarah Lawrence. Enough said.
But Perry’s target audience has not changed; he has. And he wants to bring his audience along with him, keep them right by his side, when he moves to a new artistic place, because he has decided that, in addition to making money, he now wants the acknowledgment and adoration of White critics and Siddity Educated Negroes.
First, he signed on as an executive producer of Precious, which won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Mo’Nique. But it should be stressed that Precious was based on a piece of cherished Black feminist art, the novel Push by Sapphire. This is important because while artsy film making remains a realm dominated by White folks, Black female writing has (sometimes) made the crossover into mainstream critical appreciation.
Think of books by Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and every single book Toni Morrison ever wrote. And so, if Tyler wants to get in on the (critical) good foot, what better way than to choose The Black Feminist Holy Grail, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange?
I am not a fan of Tyler Perry. Those Madea movies just make me want to stab myself through the throat. But how many times have we criticized a Spike Lee joint? I know I have. Spike can’t act. Yet, he puts himself in all his movies and we are forced to hear his flat, tonally challenged voice for two hours. And that’s another thing: he doesn’t know when to stop the movie. Spike is color struck in his female casting, too—just like Tyler Perry—and his female characters have no depth.
And if I have to see one more Spike Lee movie with the rolling people coming forward—it’s going to get really, really bad for my mental health.
Surely, Spike’s a genius; for me, Samuel L. Jackson’s Gator in Jungle Fever remains one of the top five movie performances I’ve ever seen. Yet here’s the deal: Spike Lee went to film school. He’s been trained and extensively critiqued, first at Morehouse College (where he took his communications courses at Clark Atlanta University) and later, at New York University.
Tyler Perry has not had training as a film maker; he’s self-trained, and so, I don’t know whether he’s a genius who just needs a nail file taken to his stubborn rough edges or simply a hack who is going to mess up one of my best girlhood memories by making a horrible adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s masterpiece, one of best books (in my opinion) of all time. I’ll find out tomorrow when I see For Colored Girls and decide whether it’s a “movie” or a “film.”
What I do know is that Perry wants to be taken seriously as a Black artist. At the same time, he wants to make loads of dollars. And he wants to “keep it real” for his core audience. That’s a lot of “stuff to walk off with.” (Y’all true Shange fans will recognize that allusion.)
But Perry’s is a familiar crossroads for us Black artists, so knock the quality of Tyler Perry’s movies or films or whatever want to call them, and there is much to be knocked—but if you’re a Black artist and an honest one, can you really knock his hustle? Tell the truth now. Remember, we’re in The Last Days.