Tameka Cage Conley, an assistant professor of English and creative writing, always had a love and an appreciation for Tyler Perry. So it only seemed natural for her to create a class about his impact on entertainment.
Conley, 45, teaches “In the Language of Folk and Kin: The Legacy of Folklore, the Griot and Community in the Artistic Praxis of Tyler Perry” to 14 freshmen at Oxford College of Emory University, about 30 miles east of Atlanta. Students analyze Perry’s notable speeches, movies and television shows alongside the literary work of Black authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Ntozake Shange. Launched in August, the class is the first college course in the country to focus on Perry’s work, influence and contributions to American popular culture while highlighting important issues in the Black community.
“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,” Conley, 45, said.
Conley’s inspiration for the course came after her grandmother died in June 2021. The loss of the family matriarch made Conley think about the importance of strong female figures in Black families, a theme that runs throughout Perry’s work and is perhaps best exhibited through his “Madea” character.
Black matriarchs “come from a community and come from a time that knows how to survive,” she said. “And because they know how to survive, they can sustain us while they’re telling us to keep going.”
After coming up with the idea to create the first college class focused solely on Perry’s work and contributions, Conley pitched the idea to Douglas Hicks, then the dean of Oxford College (now the president of Davidson College in North Carolina, who approved the class for the upcoming fall semester.
“I was thrilled because I knew that it was monumental,” Conley said.
The class is available to first-year students under Oxford’s Discovery Seminars, which are taught by faculty who also serve as academic advisers to students. Since starting the class, Conley said she’s had engaging discussions with students from diverse backgrounds.
A few of those discussions have been sparked by topics in Conley’s curriculum. Her class includes a comparison between Perry’s 2019 BET Ultimate Icon Award acceptance speech and Cornelius Eady’s poem “Gratitude.” It also analyzes Perry’s eulogy at Whitney Houston’s 2012 funeral with elegies by Black poets like Jericho Brown, Danez Smith and Nicole Sealey.
Students also learn about Perry’s humble beginnings and how he survived poverty and sexual abuse to become one of Hollywood’s most successful Black filmmakers. Perry, who gave the college’s commencement address in May, has received prestigious awards throughout his career for his work, including the Primetime Emmy Governors Award in 2020 and the Humanitarian Award at the 2021 Oscars. Additionally, his Tyler Perry Studios helps to employ over 200 staff members, who are predominantly Black.
Perry’s accomplishments resonate with students like Arayah Hampton and Tolu Olaleye, who both said that they are inspired by the filmmaker. Before taking the class, Olaleye, who is 18 and from Philadelphia, said that she only knew Perry from his “Madea” films and has since learned more about his life and the impact his work has made on the Black community. Tolu, who is from Philadelphia, said she admires Perry for talking about issues like gun violence through his platform as a celebrity. She also said that Perry has become a symbol for hope in the Black community.
“His origin story is very touching,” Olaleye said. “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.’”
As for Hampton, 18, she grew up on Perry’s films and said his work represents Black culture in a way that is very relatable. She said Perry’s “Uncle Joe” character, who is often featured in his “Madea” films, reminds her of her grandfather, who lives in Oklahoma City, because of the silly jokes he tells. Hampton also says she relates to Perry’s personal story of being raised in a single-parent household.
“I came from a single mom,” Hampton said. “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.”
While the class is only available for this fall semester, Conley said she wants the class to help inspire students to pursue their dreams and be comfortable sharing their authentic stories.
“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,” Conley said. “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.”