Front and Center: Why Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globe Address Flew over the Heads of the Majority of Women’s Rights Activists

During the mentoring process, one rarely understands why they are being taught certain things. Oftentimes, one could be convinced that their mentor is insane as they seek to prepare you for a “higher purpose” as the next generation of race men/women.

There is no doubt that experience has taught the elders of our community that this next generation of black leaders must be equipped with the ability to inventively ply our craft in uncomfortable arenas. This process extends beyond readings and exposure to lectures. The most poignant way my work as a “race man” was explained to me came from Michael Eric Dyson who asserted, “Jones, when you get up on that stage, at that panel discussion, you have to let all of the ‘Niggas’ out like an exorcism is occurring.” Of course, this was Dyson’s method of reiterating what I learned long before at the foot of many elders; that being, it is imperative that I represent our people at every moment.

By the time I became a Professor of African-American Studies, I fully understood that I must not temper my words and analysis even when those in attendance would certainly consider my words harsh and inappropriate as they realized they were daggers directed at the throat of white supremacy. A worldview that has incubated whites for so long that they no longer recognize its existence.

It is this understanding of how black leadership must behave in front of white powerbrokers that makes me so appreciative of the genius that Oprah Winfrey displayed at the Golden Globes while accepting the Cecil B DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award.

In front of a mesmerized audience, Oprah Winfrey offered deafening commentary regarding White America’s muting of the horrific sexual assaults that black women have endured since the Jamestown Colony was established in the early 17th Century. In a style that most black professionals recognized as “a courageous way of addressing powerful white folk when they are in the room,” Winfrey positioned black women in their rightful frontline position as the foremost victims of the historic sexual violence perpetrated by the same white men that white women have loved, comforted, protected, married, and produced children with as they built a life that partially rested on the sexual and economic exploitation of Black America for centuries. Winfrey’s comments were based around the riveting story of a poor black woman named Recy Taylor who was a victim of a rape by six white men who the white community, meaning men and women, hid as they considered the brutal crime to be a non-issue. According to Winfrey,

Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.

Had the white women in attendance listened closer to Winfrey’s comments they would have discerned what politically astute segments of Black America heard. They would have heard that the fact that the perpetrators of the attack on Recy Taylor were never captured speaks volumes about a white community, a populace that we must remember is majority female, that has never taken definitive action against the rape and lynching of black women. Let’s be clear on this matter, it was no secret within that community regarding who the perpetrators of this or the millions of other sexual assault crimes were. There was a general acceptance among whites that the black women who worked in their homes, fields, or traveled along roads such as the one that Recy Taylor was traveling as she left church on that eventful day were so inconsequential that neither man’s law nor God’s providence covered them.

One must always be on guard for the voluminous impact that emotional moments have on the mind, particularly when it comes to political analysis. The site of so many well-known white actors and actresses standing in public clapping their hands in support of this latest social movement is particularly riveting for those who have been silenced for far too long, unfortunately for those who cherish this moment in time, such a display has no impact on the matter of sexual violence directed at women in general and black women in particular.

The impact of such public displays are so limited that I would suggest that those in attendance should be challenged not with the #MeToo, rather the internal introspective inducing query of #WhereWereYouAndWhatDidYouDo? when you heard your “paw-paw”, “daddy”, “uncles”, “brothers”, “sons”, “husbands”, “fiancées”, and “boyfriend” laugh and banter about the rape of some nameless, faceless, and defenseless black woman. As Malcolm X posited, the black woman is the most disrespected person on the planet. Historically speaking, the black woman’s lack of worth in the eyes of bigoted whites throughout this nation has been cemented by not only her race, but also her gender. My question to those assembled for Winfrey’s poignant commentary is, “Where was that hiding place that you were able to totally hide your new commitment to protecting black women? Or is it merely another occurrence of currying favor from an emotional audience by co-opting the latest faddish social movement?”

I hope that black women are not unduly moved by these recent expressions of female solidarity by white women. The historical record indicates that their only priority is not protecting womanhood, rather securing equality with the white males that they rival ‘by any means necessary.’ Unfortunately for the liberation of black women, the historical record also predicts that they will forget recent betrayals by white women political initiatives and be swept-up with emotions that lead to them yet again abandoning their political interests in favor of helping white women achieve their selfish individualistic goals. In the end, such political naïveté will guarantee that black women will find themselves in the same troubled position that they have always been, meaning cast aside, disregarded, and devoid of a single advocate beyond themselves.

So I applaud Oprah Winfrey for situating the sexual violence perpetrated against black women front-and-center where it should be. However, I am also a historian who understands that the historical record is the best indicator of future behavior and political priorities, hence, I understand that the white women who are at this present moment clapping wildly at Winfrey’s commentary are the descendants of women whose moral compass made it unconscionable to report their “loved ones” for the ghastly attacks on the black women who worked for them, nursed their children, cleaned their homes, and enriched them by applying their labor for a pittance. I pray that black women will finally realize that no one, not even the majority of black men, has their best interests at heart.

Let us not forget that the black women Winfrey speaks of are the very women

(W)ho have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.

These are the women who birthed me, loved me, cared for me, and guided me toward an understanding that I must speak on their behalf at every turn. I just wish that these women would make themselves the center of the universe that they obviously are and not rely on white women to aid them at any moment because that aid is not only unreliable but also only offered as a means to further advance a white agenda that has never been kind to our kind.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

5 thoughts on “Front and Center: Why Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globe Address Flew over the Heads of the Majority of Women’s Rights Activists”

  1. This is a powerful piece, I do wonder how do you document the claim that black women have been politically naive when it comes to working with white women as allies at certain points in history? In all of the black feminist literature I have read (e.g. descriptions by Pauli Marshall, Delores Williams, and Barbara Smith just to name a few), Black women have made difficult choices to work with certain populations on particular fronts, but I have not read them as not being clear about the risks and the problem of white women’s allegiances with white men.

    1. Hello Dr. Bostic,

      Let me first say thank you for your comment and that I am truly honored that you took a moment to respond; THANK YOU. I hope that I can answer it satisfactorily. If I fail at this task, please let me know and I will take another shot at it; intellectual discourse exhilarates me.

      The genesis of my claim flows from a long tradition of African-Americans, not just women, making alliances with other groups that eventually lead to their voice, concerns, and political agenda being compromised, if not muted.

      Now to specifically deal with African-American women in regards to this matter I think that it is interesting that the formidable scholars that you named have all made their prodigious contributions to the movement to uplift African-American women during the second-half of the 20th Century. I highlight that to point out that their observations regarding what will and won’t work has been learned through the experiences of their predecessors during the movement for abolitionism — Tubman’s “Arn’t I a Woman” comes to mind — through black women’s experience during the fight for voting rights (19th Amendment) — a struggle that unfortunately saw northern white women capitulate to the discriminatory demands of a “segregated march” in regards to the participation of black women who were instrumental in the momentum for the movement being built — the participation of black women in SNCC that was denigrated by leader Stokely Carmichael’s reverberating quote that “the only position for women in the movement is prone” — through the machismo that undergirded the mindset of so many foot soldiers during the Black Power Era — finally, the most recent attempt at a women’s rights movement that leaves one with the impression that black women joined the movement and therefore inherited an already non-reflective agenda created by white women.

      This situation reminds me of the great Alice Walker quote that “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” The issues of oppression that black women who are already dealing with multiple oppressions and often a linkage that causes them to carry the oppression of the black men that they care deeply for are distinct.

      It is this storied history that informs the works of Walker, Marshall, Walace, and the list goes on and on (like a Badu tune).

      This matter of allegiances/alliances is one that I address in my work as I fervently believe that our people fail to make logical, yet difficult, choices in regards to working with other groups. Huey P. Newton once criticized those who oppossed such coalitions as harboring an innate belief that black groups were bound to be co-opted by white groups. I agree with Newton’s position that alliances/coalitions should be encouraged as long as we have already created our own agenda aimed at uplifting the Race and are willing to leave the arrangement the moment that it no longer serves our interests at an optimal level.

      I hope that this answers where my assertions came from regarding there being a political naivete or unsupported hope that has undergirded so many of our coalitions in the fight for “the liberation and salvation of the black nation.”

      Once again, thanks for your comment.

      1. Thank you, Dr. Jones for your reply. I understand your concerns as a reflection on the long history of the ways in which segments of society have used their racial or gendered privilege to co-opt or engage in hypocritical actions that betray alliances with Black people, in general, and Black women, in particular. But you seem to be conflating the tendency of people with privilege to fall back into that privilege with what you see as Black women’s “political naivete.” What’s missing here is Black women’s agency. The quote you include from Sojourner Truth is not a revelation that she just came to. She is presenting her “both and” experience as a Black woman as a rhetorical strategy. Newton wasn’t the first one to come up with the idea of having one’s one spaces. Black women have been organizing Black and Black women’s spaces since the inception of the Hush Harbors, spaces in which they constructed kinetic language and oral/aural running spiritual verses with multiple meanings.

        Because Black women are both/and people they have mastered organizing strategies that are about creating their own spaces AND forming necessary coalitions. Black women are pragmatic and have understood long before King that our struggles are inter-related. But they have also understood that because Black women are multiply oppressed that they stand a the center of resolving these inter-related struggles. That is why Anna Julia Cooper stated that “Only the Black Woman can say, when and where I enter” that the struggles of other oppressed folks enter with me. Paula Giddings’ book WHEN AND WHERE I ENTER chronicles the ways in which the nineteenth-century Black Women’s Club Movement demonstrated Black women’s understanding of the need to exercise leadership strategies within their own organizations and also work in coalition with Black men and white women.

        In my earlier reply, I referred twentieth-century women because we are now in the twenty-first century, yet you seem to think that there are lessons Black women still have not learned. I would argue that Black women now continue to carry with them the same knowledge and experience that 20th, 19th and 18th century Black women have carried with them. According to narratives of those were enslaved, Black women have been observing white women use their privilege for a long time (See Deborah Gray White’s AIN’T I A WOMAN and HARRIET JACOBS: INCIDENTS OF A SLAVE GIRL) and are still confronting Black men who continue to cling to male privilege. What I want to make clear here is that Black women have never been, by and large, running after white women or Black men and falling under their spell. The #MeToo movement was started by Tarana Burke a Black woman; the 2017 Women’s March was organized by women of color, including Black women; Black women (Queer and Straight) such as, Pauli Murray, Rosa Parks, Joanna Grant, and Ella Baker were instrumental to the founding of Black and Women’s rights groups and actions such as NOW, SNCC, Supreme Court rulings, and public actions such as the Montgomery bus boycott. These groups and actions used the organizing and legal strategies as well as the apparatus that these Black women developed. These efforts are at times co-opted because white women and Black men choose to use their power within the structure of white supremacist, patriarchal systems to do so. When they do so, they should be critiqued and Black women have been confronting these abuses of power and choosing spaces of separation, at times for health, over the centuries.

        I do wonder as I have conjectured with regards to other responses to Oprah’s speech, if we as Black people aren’t responding to our discomfort, anger even trauma over these uses of power by trying to suppress or control Black women’s alliances or the telling of these stories in public spaces, or in our anger over the use of power by the privileged that end up “blaming the victim” or the assumed “victim” for telling a truth for which we become exposed to these age-old risks. In any case, we should not assume Black women’s agency is at work here. As a Black woman activist-academic, all of the women I work with understand and are wary of the risks and continue to develop organizing, rhetorical, political, and self-care strategies to continue to fight the good fight against privilege, hypocrisy, and the abuse of power without and within our organizing spaces.

        1. Dr. Bostic, as always, I thank you for your insightful commentary that is most certainly taking me back to THE Ohio State University and the African-American Studies Courses that provided me with an opportunity to engage the scholars and historical figures that you mentioned above. I actually can not stop smiling as your words remind me of contentious debates that I had with the likes of Dr. Paulette Pierce, Dr. Stephanie Shaw, and Dr. Leslie Alexander regarding “When and Where” the black woman enters and “What a Woman Ought to be and to do.”

          There is much that you wrote that needs to be responded to, however, I will just hit on a few of your points. I disagree that I am “conflating the tendency of people with privilege to fall back into that privilege with what you see as Black women’s “political naivete”, my commentary regarding “political naivete” is tied not to the tendency of those in power to fall back into that power, rather, it is the maddening tendency of black women to not stridently step forward with an agenda that is solely focused on their issues with a “to hell with everyone else” posture. Now, it could be that this is occurring it simply has not been publicized very well; a factor that I realize occurs to many of the male initiatives that I have been involved in.

          I am also very familiar with Giddings’ work, however, I still question if those efforts that she writes about were eventually compromised out of a sense of needing to form coalitions with outside groups and therefore “compromise” those efforts. Malcolm X’s brilliant analogy regarding integrating a cup of coffee is best representative of my thoughts regarding this matter.

          You wrote, “What I want to make clear here is that Black women have never been, by and large, running after white women or Black men and falling under their spell.” I am unsure if I agree with this assertion as there has been a repeated tendency of a segment, most certainly not all, who have muted their genius and compromised their rightful place to appease the expectations of black men whose socialization has been exclusively grounded in patriarchy.

          Consider for a moment the experiences and position of the vast majority of church going Christian women (the majority of the Black Church) during the Civil Rights Movement. It was the male-centric Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, etc.) that “led” that movement while women, most notably Ella Baker, played what I would consider a more critical organizing role. Quite possibly, the two organizations that highlight this idea of a segment of black women “dumbing down” themselves is found in both the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (S.N.C.C.) and the original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. As you well know, things grew so bad within SNCC during Stokely Carmichael’s reign that the women present had to balk at the assertion that they were their to serve in a supportive/secretarial role. Of course, that in-fighting went a good measure toward this organizations fall, a situation that was expedited with the arrival of Black Power politics.

          There is no doubt that among the leadership cadre of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense that there was what can be comfortably termed a shocking effort toward gender equality. Unfortunately for black women within the Panther ranks, such progressivism did not “trickle down” to the rank-and-file members. Several Panther memoirs relate the oppressiveness of male Panther members toward female members. Elaine Brown’s “A Taste of Power” is one of the more vivid portrayals of the machismo inherent among not only the Panthers, but also the Black Power Era. Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Seize The Time) expounds on this demand made by rank-and-file sisters to “stay in their place” and the tendency of many of these sisters to follow such demands. Huey P. Newton (Revolutionary Suicide) is also an example of the uncertainty that engulfed so many Panther leaders when it came to the theory behind the treatment of our “sisters” and their actual actions.

          You speak about the issue of “agency” and the development of “organizing, rhetorical, political, and self-care strategies to continue to fight the good fight against privilege, hypocrisy, and the abuse of power without and within our organizing spaces” among black women activist-academics such as yourself; of course, I am in such consensus with that many of my male colleagues assert that I am a Womanist. However, the remaining query revolves around a supremely important issue of can black men and black women “come together” in efforts to address a common enemy without black men seeking to mute the genius of their “sisters”? Are black women, considering on-going marginalization efforts in both public and private spaces, capable of or comfortable forging such an alliance? I fear that it may be extremely problematic for such an alliance to occur as it may appear that they are “running after black men and falling under their spell.” Are we too far gone for such an alliance?

          As I mentioned earlier, your response is full of intriguing and tantalizing commentary, however, one of the most interesting to me flows from this idea of black male privilege. You wrote in your response that “Black men choose to use their power within the structure of white supremacist, patriarchal systems.” Now, I am most certainly in agreement with you, and even admitted as much above, in regards to black men being vested in a patriarchal system that far too often reveals the darkness that is hidden in the hearts of men. Nonetheless, I am uncertain if I am reading your statement incorrectly, however, I am having difficulty understanding the assertion that black men have power within a white supremacist system. I routinely tell those seeking to quantify the damages that black men and black women receive at the hands of white world supremacy as a coroner examining one body with 41 gunshot wounds and another body that has been stabbed 231 times. Am I reading your assertion incorrectly?

          In conclusion, I feel led to ask you. What do you think is the future of activism within our community? Do we not only win, but also emerge with all of our mental faculties working?

          James

          1. Dr. Jones,
            Thank you for your reply. The fact that you have had contentious debates with three Black female scholars over what Black women should and ought to do is quite telling. This will be my last reply so please take up my questions and concerns as something to chew on.

            In my first post, I asked you what evidence you have that Black women have a history of being politically naïve. Rather than evidence of Black women’s motives, rationale and experience-based agency, you keep providing documentation regarding Black men’s sexism and white women’s racism. Your observations and historical understanding of these historical facts are accurate but to paint Black women as having a tendency to respond “emotionally” and to be “naïve” is condescending and is a kind of trading in gender stereotypes. You seem to be dismissive of what Black women have accomplished within the own organizations such as the NACW, the NCNW, and movements such as the womanist movement. Black women’s issues are multi-faceted and, therefore, Black women deal with them in multi-faceted ways. Just as all organizing groups do. And, just what are Black women’s issues? What groups are there who have only ever and always only dealt with their own “agenda” and gotten everything that they wanted without having to compromise or having their efforts coopted in some way?

            Black women may choose to be in the church or any religious institution for a number of reasons, the fundamental one being community. Yes, there are those (as there are in any demographic) who internalize and help perpetuate oppression. But many within these contexts also find ways to gain and use power to effect change. Do not make me exceptional in this regard. I was more “woke” than most because I learned to think critically and struggle as an activist from my grandmother who was a sharecropper and only had an 8th grade education. She built her own business and ran her whole household. When a woman at church needed to leave her abusive husband who was a minister, she organized us to move her out of the house (I was in grade school at the time) while she kept an eye on him at church. She helped to quietly “run” him out by using her influence. She was neither naïve nor emotional when it came to gender and race issues.

            As for Black men, patriarchy and white supremacy, I actually did not say specifically that Black men benefit from white supremacy but that they and white women use their power vis-à-vis black women within white supremacist patriarchal structures or what Patricia Hill Collins calls the matrix of domination. Within white supremacist patriarchy Black men can use masculinist power vis-à-vis Black women because this perpetuates these hierarchical systems. We can see this with religious leaders who perpetuate heterosexism and gender oppression in ways that support white masculinist agendas.
            My central issue with your critique is this: that you presume to speak for Black women regarding their motives and experiences and in so doing you have painted Black women and their choices with too broad of a brush.

            As for how we go forward in our activism, I find it counterproductive to try to tell people that there is only one way to do, or narrow rules around what counts as effective activism or organizing. I think people are working that out on the ground every day. And I think we need any and all forms of activism that can affect multiple levels of change. What I do believe is that first and foremost we need to practice the art of listening to one another without presuming that we know what’s best based on our educational background, gender, age, etc.

            I wish you well with your work. And, now, I must separate myself for reasons of health…

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