For years, Oprah has been my Wonder Woman. So it was no surprise to me that she wowed millions of viewers with her inspirationalCecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. It was an electric moment, eliciting an emotional connection for movement building in a way I have not experienced since then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke at the 2004 Democratic Convention. But even as a lifelong Oprah admirer, I was disappointed in whose pain was invisible and what history was absent from that stately speech.
Early in Oprah’s career, she championed the cause of the most vulnerable people in our world: abused children. That was the Oprah that understood the need for someone to speak up for the powerless. That was the Oprah who recognized that submitting to her own vulnerability was worth the pain because she had the power to make others less vulnerable.
But in Oprah’s acceptance speech, there was a disconnect from that sense of vulnerability, a distance from the type of Black femaleness I live, an undertone of bootstrap doctrine that places all the responsibility on the weak to toughen up and overcome the odds stacked against them. I also know that none of these undertones is intentional. It’s what happens in America when, through wealth and fame, you cross over: Oprah has transcended the need to think about what it means to be Black every day of one’s life. As James Baldwin once said, “Being White means never having to think about it.”
Oprah’s story of her personal success and Sidney Poitier’s inspiration missed the key point that a lot more than desire and inspiration are required to achieve success. It’s not true that anybody can make it in America if they work hard or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We keep perpetuating that myth to appease our successful selves when we watch others suffer. No one worked harder than my parents. On top of their regular jobs, they were community activists and civil rights leaders. Yet they both died too young, and never owned their own home.
It is the last section of Oprah’s speech that causes me the most apprehension. Speaking your truth is not just a matter of courage for many women. Loic Wacquant identifies four “peculiar institutions” that continue to define, restrain, and control African Americans: chattel slavery (1619-1865), the Jim Crow system (1865-1965), the northern Ghetto (1915-1968), and the Hyperghetto-Carceral Complex (1968-present). These institutions functioned at the expense of thousands of women who were raped and abused.
For these victims, speaking their truths had consequences that none of the A-list celebrity elite clad in their couture black gowns could even imagine. Although I believe the celebrities at the Golden Globes have suffered a great deal, it’s a sad fact that suffering only gets attention when the sufferers are deemed worthy of relief.
To Oprah’s credit, she mentioned victims of abuse outside the entertainment industry. But a laundry list of less public, less glamorous industries does not suffice, and the Time’s Up fund to assist victims of harassment and assault is woefully inadequate at $3.4 million, a tiny fraction of the wealth of Time’s Up leadership. Oprah reminds us that we will never know the names of the Time’s Up for What? By Rev. Vivian Nixon Executive Director, College and Community Fellowship New York, NY 2 women who suffer daily in restaurants, hotels, and other low-wage professions. But why can’t we know their names? Why is the pain of some people not media- or movement-worthy?
I’m referencing women of color, immigrant women, poor women, queer women and incarcerated women whose bodies are under complete state control. These women don’t survive years of abuse and assault simply because they “have children to raise.” They endure because they know instinctively that the system designed to protect America’s citizens is unequal, unjust and laced with poisonous dogged racism that has extended the “race-making machine” beyond the original bounds of chattel slavery. The odds, even in this land of opportunity, are against them, and by God, they wouldove to pull themselves by their own bootstraps if only someone would give them some boots.
Race, class and sexual orientation must be paramount to the direction of the “Me too” movement. We cannot forget that Recy Taylor’s story, and the stories of many Black women like her, happened during the time when Whites were lynching Black men because they felt it was necessary to protect White women. Recy and Rosa Parks earned their places in Oprah’s speech. But it was her name I needed to hear, and I do not understand why her own truth and courage was not the banner role model for what needs to happen next.
In 1991 we saw a near-heroic act of bravery through Anita Hill’s refusal to back down under insulting and misogynistic questioning by some of our country’s most powerful men, U.S. congressmen. She acted in the best interest of her country by testifying against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, but despite her pedigree, her education, her elegance and eloquence, Anita Hill, a Black woman, was not believed. But Hill fails to inspire the same historical romanticism for the elite than of say, Rosa Parks or Sydney Portier.
So when we say “time’s up,” what do we mean? Is time up for sexual assault and harassment? Or is it also up for misogyny, racism, classism, xenophobia, and gender nonconforming discrimination? Is time up for the corrupt capitalist practices and use of state power that drives social inequity and prejudice?
As is always apropos, Oprah ended her comments on a note of hope. I believe in hope deeply. And if you believe as I do that faith does not function through magic fairy dust, but that faith is hope in action, than we must do something with our hope. We must extend our care and concern and generosity in the most tangible way to those who have no power, and no privilege. We must share our power and privilege with them and hand them the reigns to lead.
Rev. Vivian Nixon is Executive Director for the College and Community Fellowship New York.
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Shantell E. Jamison