Tyler Perry's life and career is now the subject of a college class.
The course , “In the Language of Folk and Kin: The Legacy of Folklore, the Griot and Community in the Artistic Praxis of Tyler Perry,” is being offered to 14 freshmen at Oxford College of Emory University,” reports NBC News.
Throughout the study, students examine Perry’s films, TV show, and public speeches along with the literary work of Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Ntozake Shange.
Dr. Tameka Cage Conley, an assistant professor of English and creative writing at the college who curated the course, believes that Perry’s legacy is worthy of study.
“Ultimately, I thought it was vital to recognize that Perry was telling the stories about aspects of our communities that are usually ignored and people who are often ignored,” she explained.
After her grandmother passed away in June of 2021, Cage Conley was inspired by the familial traditions of Black women. According to the professor, a major theme of Perry’s work is honoring the strength of Black women and his most famous character, Madea, embodies this ideal.
Black matriarchs “come from a community and come from a time that knows how to survive,” said Cage Conley. “And because they know how to survive, they can sustain us while they’re telling us to keep going.”
After developing the idea, Cage Conley pitched the course to Dr. Douglas Hicks, the former dean of Oxford College (now the president of Davidson College in North Carolina), who enthusiastically approved the class for the upcoming fall semester.
“I was thrilled because I knew that it was monumental,” explained Cage Conley.
Besides his filmography, students have studied Perry's speeches—Perry gave the commencement address at Emory last year and the eulogy at Whitney Houston’s funeral in 2012—alongside the works of Black poets like Jericho Brown, Danez Smith and Nicole Sealey. The coursework has taught Emory students such as Tolu Olaleye and Arayah Hampton that there is more to Perry than “Madea.”
“His origin story is very touching,” said Olaleye. “The aurora and presence that he gives when he speaks make people sit and listen and be like, ‘Oh, I can do whatever I put my mind to.”
“I came from a single mom,” Hampton added. “She was very young and we got through it. … He inspires me, as far as the fact that you know, no matter where you’re at in your life, that you can always keep going.”
Using Perry’s life and work as a case study, Cage Conley hopes the course will inspire incoming students to be their authentic selves without apology.
“I want these young people to have a safe space to engage every element of who they are without feeling like they have to leave anything at the door,” said the professor. “They can bring their full selves to the classroom, as we sit at the table together. And so I thought that Tyler Perry is the person who enables me to be a conduit for them to feel safe."