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Petitioners Want Tyler Perry Off the Oprah Winfrey Network, Really?

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by Dr. Boyce Watkins

For some viewers, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are like ketchup and peanut butter:  Very good on their own, but not always enticing when you try them together.  The dynamic duo have decided to come together for a grand experiment on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) with two new shows called “The Haves and Have-Nots,” and “Love Thy Neighbor.”

The shows have received mixed reviews, with some people loving them others hating them.   But one thing that cannot be disputed are the powerful ratings: The first Perry show brought in 1.77 viewers and the second yanked in 1.8 million, the highest ever for OWN.  That’s big money.  But not everyone is happy with the partnership, with a petitioner stating that the shows should be taken off the air immediately.

“Where it is clear that neither Oprah [n]or Tyler Perry are not [sic] experts on race and racism, they have also refused to utilize feedback from the conscious black community and scholars on racism regarding the damage that Tyler Perry and his brand of entertainment perpetuate against the black community,” states the petition.

Less than 100 people have signed the petition, so I doubt that Oprah is losing any sleep over it.  The show is also referred to as “malt liquor for the community,” reminding me of a similar comment made by Toure during a CNN segment that he and I were on together a couple of years ago (which I didn’t agree with).  Tyler and Oprah are grown-ups, so I’m sure they are strong enough to withstand any criticism that might come as a result of their collaboration.

One can easily see how both Winfrey and Perry tend to support art that is reflective of their worldview:  For a very long time, I was concerned that Oprah hated nearly every black man who didn’t behave in the way that she deemed appropriate, and Tyler’s portrayals of black men can also be less than flattering.  At the same time, I find Perry’s focus on love, family, spirituality and healing to be just what the black community needs as we seek out ways to overcome the trauma of our unrecognized holocausts of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration.  When I spoke with Tyler, I recall him saying that he considers Madea to be the counselor that most black people can’t afford to visit on their own:  Comedy disarms the viewer and prepares them to receive the deeper message that might make the difference between life and death.

I argue that Winfrey’s past as a victim of abuse has led to a lifetime of healing that no amount of money can accelerate. Their experiences are sad reflections of how the cycles of abuse, addiction and other ills of a racist society affect so many of us to this day.  We are a psychologically damaged people, and even worse, most of us don’t even know it.

But here’s the thing:  Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey are good people seeking to do good things for the world.  They don’t selfishly hoard their wealth while children starve in the street.  They don’t deliberately produce messages that are hurtful or directly harmful to others.  They don’t make their money in a way that seeks to destroy or exploit the black community.

The worst you can say about Tyler Perry is that his films aren’t exactly masterpieces.   He never went to film school and he won’t win many (if any) Academy Awards.  But he knows his audience, knows his product and produces content for those who seek to enjoy it.   He also creates more jobs than any black filmmaker in history (sorry Spike, but you know it’s true).  Those who don’t want to watch his films can go do something else.

To make this point more clearly, let’s compare Perry to another influential media figure, the rapper Lil Wayne.  Lil Wayne constantly reiterates messages that teach black men to shoot each other in the face, sleep with as many women as they can, drink as much alcohol as they can possibly consume, and sip codeine “sizzurp” for breakfast.  These messages affect all of us, because you can go into any high school and find a thousand Lil Wayne lookalikes who have embraced these messages and have allowed commercialized hip-hop to make them think that it’s cool to be an a**hole.

These messages destroy the next generation of husbands and fathers, and put all of our lives in jeopardy.  That’s why I helped to undermine Wayne’s sponsorship deal with Mountain Dew:  One of black America’s greatest challenges is that we have corporations that are sponsoring weaponized psychological genocide that destroys black boys before they are even old enough to think for themselves – that’s where thugs come from.

Tyler Perry is NOT Lil Wayne.   If you don’t like his movies or TV shows, don’t watch them.  No black person is ever going to kill someone or overdose on drugs because Tyler Perry taught them how to do it.   But there are a whole bunch of kids popping mollies at the club because they heard a rapper telling them that this is the cool thing to do.  A bunch of these kids will end up dead or in rehab in just a few years, leaving even more of our kids without adequate parents to take care of them because their daddy is living in his mama’s basement smoking weed and playing Xbox all day.  Yes, this happens a lot, and it’s not just because of structural racism.   Your outcomes are also affected by the way you are taught to think.

As it pertains to Oprah Winfrey, when I weigh the good and the bad, I consider this woman is nothing less than an angel.  She gives like there is no tomorrow, provides as much thoughtful and healthy programming as she can, and empowers nearly everyone in her sphere of influence.   Some may ridicule her struggles as the owner of her own network, but this is exactly the kind of struggle that all of us go through when we seek to start our own businesses.  My great great great grandmother endured a similar hardship when she left the plantation, bought her husband’s freedom and started her own business as well.  This is what our people are SUPPOSED TO DO, not just spend our lives in the comfort of a corporate plantation that is owned by somebody else.

So, the point here is that perhaps we should cut Tyler and Oprah some slack.   No, neither of them are perfect, and we all have a right to speak about their reputations in their entirety (no hero worship here).  But we can’t pretend that Oprah’s decision to bring Tyler Perry onto her network is some kind of cultural atom bomb.  It’s just the creation of another sitcom that some of us will love and some of us will hate.  No harm, no foul.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the author of the lecture series, “The 8 Principles of Black Male Empowerment.”  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.