By Thomas Sellers Jr.
The names are Alma Springfield and Minnie Lou Johnson.
But to all those they loved and influenced, the women were simply known as Madea. The term Madea once stood for the strongest matriarchal figure in a Black family.
Once an honorable title for a sage, seasoned mother figure in the African-American community, Madea is now a bully, loudmouth, sassy character. With the release of Tyler Perry’s Madea Boo 2 this Friday, Americans will get yet another installment of his interruption of a Madea.
For more than a decade Perry has delivered memorable performances in the name of comedy with his Mabel “Madea” Simmons character. Simmons has gone to jail, shot at many with her pistol and smacked plenty of fools.
Now most Americans have a vision of Madea as a violent old black woman. She’s now seen as a loud and unreasoning female who doesn’t act her age but her shoe size.
My experiences of a Madea growing up were vastly different from the character I’ve seen on stage and in movies. So I always worried how a non-black person or even worse, how a young African-American would define a Madea.
Too often my non-black friends and colleague hear the term Madea and start laughing. And when I reference one of my two Madeas, the first question often is, ‘Did she take no nonsense like Madea?’
The Tyler Perry Madea is the standard in their minds. And that saddens me and breaks my heart because I was blessed to have two wonder women who earned the reverent title of Madea.
On my father’s side my Grandma Minnie was Madea. Her credentials included wife, raising generations, faithful in church, ace cook, fruitful gardener, problem solver, counselor, sewer just to name a few.
She remembered all our names when we would visit her home. Her house was the destination for holidays and her biscuits, fried chicken and pound cake were vital to the celebration. We would often argue and fight over the last piece of either item.
During the week she could be found near her phone, waiting for the next family crisis to solve. Between chats Grandma Minnie was crocheting a quilt for one of the babies in the family.
It was one day while she was creating a masterpiece of quilted art she called me down to the den. I was about 5 years old and wondering why is Madea calling me away from my cousins and sister.
My day of fun came to an abrupt end when she made me sit on the floor and place her blanket over my shoulder. As she continued to add to the blanket I started to notice a trend.
Madea would say a word and then the television would repeat her. This continued for a few words. I looked up at the TV and there was a guy behind a podium reading answers to three contestants.
This show would become my favorite gaming program of all time – Jeopardy. It hit me that Grandma Minnie was answering all the questions. She would get like 10 to 15 in a row right.
“Grandma, you are smart.” I finally told her. She just smiled.
This continued for several days. Then one day it happened. Alex Trebek read the answer and I shouted out the question. Madea was about to say it too but she stopped and grinned. The TV repeated me for the first time.
“You are smart too Baby.”
A Madea has a Heavenly gift of being able to see potential in her loved ones even before they know it.
Confirmation on my intelligence came two years later from Grandma Alma. My Mother’s namesake requested my sister Sha and me come for a two week visit my summer before Kindergarten.
In those 14 days I witnessed Madea farm, prepare dinner as fresh as it comes straight out of the chicken coop and solve three family fights at one time. She was a master in the kitchen and seemed to have eyes in the back of her head keeping us in line. And if you were in Alma’s house Sunday morning, you were going to church three times that day.
She did allow me to take a nap at the evening service. But I did wake up in time to hear my sister sing a solo requested by Madea.
A couple of years later Madea was diagnosed with cancer and the disease was breaking down her body. But her spirit, mind and will was as strong as ever.
It was a tradition instituted by Madea that the family comes out on Sundays during the summer for potluck dinners. As she was dying those days became cherished events. Grandma Alma managed to make time for all of us.
My moment came when I was about 8 years old. I was in the living room looking at a bunch of pictures of people with caps and gowns. “Grandma who are they?”
She explained to me it was our family’s high school graduates. She told me how she puts them on display to celebrate their achievement and encourage those who are coming behind them.
Now Grandma’s nursing certificate wasn’t on display. She didn’t brag on herself. She let her 14 children and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren do that.
But there was another section in her living room devoted to two pictures featuring my relatives in a cap and gown. The difference was these pics were on the wall.
“Why are these hanging up Grandma?”
“These are our college graduates. And Baby one day you’re going to be on this wall.”
The women that rarely smiled gave me an expression that glowed. I knew then I was going to prove Grandma right. Madea passed in September 1990. And it was September 2003 my Mom made the trip to my Aunt Rean’s house to give her my college graduation picture. Aunt Rean kept many of Madea’s traditions alive. And it was her honor to hang me on The Wall.
By now I hope you understand why the term Madea is sacred to me. Why the title is an honor and not to be insulted. To give you a better understanding, both my Madeas have been gone for decades and neither side of my family has replaced them.
So to those who think a Madea is the woman portrayed on the big screen in theaters across America, let me help you identity a real one.
A Madea is so respected that her female family peers call her Madea. Madea is a wife who rarely cusses and has a gentle touch. But she rules as a firm disciplinarian. Her stare can get a child under control and make a grown man weep.
She is the person you seek out before marrying someone or even picking out a career. Her recipes are like a treasure map to a pot, pan or bowl of gold.
Madea is a cheerleader for good. She roots on her family in athletics, academics and arts.
Madea doesn’t go to jail. Actually she does… to visit her babies who are locked up to keep their spirits up and to encourage them.
From the locked up family members to the ones in school, Madea is a bank. She seems to come up with just enough each time.
Madea goes to church and you’re going with her. She spends a lot of her time in prayer because all those phone calls and crucial visits.
Madea is meek but when she walks in a room she commands attention and respect. She doesn’t mind being behind the scenes making magic happen for her family. Her reward is the fellowship, the love on display and the spotlight on her children.
Simply, Madea is selfless and the dearest mother.
I respect terms like Madre, Nana, Mema and Big Mom. And those terms of endearment have been mostly protected. It’s time for the most sacred title in my eyes to return to that list.
By Thomas Sellers Jr.