o week: day one
a couple of weeks ago, a commenter named "jay" had this to say about a very brief and incoherent post i'd written lamenting oprah's "humanitarian" efforts in south africa:
It's so sad that you all can't see that Oprah is a true humanitarian. Do you really think Oprah Winfrey would wear conflict diamonds on national television? Steadman [sic] is rich many times over, without Oprah's money, and can afford to buy the best, NONconflict diamonds on the market. Rich people don't have to take the shorts that poor people do. Too bad your energy is not focussed on, I don't know, ending the war in Iraq? Just a thought.though you may read the post for yourself here, i'd like to take a minute to rearticulate my point. the post was inspired by my "discovery" that one of the many branches of the oprah empire is a "south african version" of o magazine. i found this a bit troubling since 8 months after lauching an international version of the magazine, winfrey announced that along with the ministry of education in south africa, she would be opening the oprah winfrey leadership academy for girls set to begin educating in 2007. (you can read the news for yourself under the philanthropy section of oprah's biography posted on her website.)
hyperbolic as always, i concluded in said post that this was yet another example of how oprah was the devil. a few months later, i retold the story of my "discovery" at an ill-fated dinner with a couple of profs, saf, and two other graduate students that this was a type of colonization. one of the graduate students took my use of the term "colonize" to task, saying that perhaps that was too loaded a term and that maybe i had no idea what the fuck i was talking about. hmmm... according to the merriam-webster online dictionary, there are three definitions for the word colonize. this is the third:
to infiltrate with usually subversive militants for propaganda and strategy reasons.now saf my recall this event better, but i don't remember this graduate student convincing me that i'd used the term incorrectly. but just in case you're not convinced, i'll explain here (and eventually directly address "jay"). i argue that oprah winfrey has very successfully established her demographic, and capitalized on african americans' tendency of collective thinking. let me unpack those things. 1) from her magazine to her show to her book club, winfrey has the white, heterosexual, middle-class soccer mom in her back pocket. if oprah says, "it is good," then it will fly off shelves. 2) i've said before that african americans have a tendency to resist being critical of their own. thus, when clarence thomas was nominated for the supreme court, there was a controversy in the black community. there were those, obviously, who did not support thomas' nomination, while there were others--like winfrey's dear friend, maya angelou-- who supported thomas partly due to the idea that, "black people should support black people, because if we don't..." this, of course, has an historical root. my point is, winfrey's savvy makes her appealing to a very large segment of the american population. as such, she is very rarely, if ever, strongly critiqued. and if someone desires to check her hall pass, one receives comments that are similar to the above.
soon after that comment appeared in my inbox, anne mailed me some articles from the august 2005 issue of o. though the purpose of her mailing me the package (along with a note on REAL STATIONERY!!!!) was for me to see the coverage of winfrey's legends lunch (which i'll get to in a few days), anne was great enough to also include a portion of the letters to the editor. an o subscriber wrote to the magazine about her recent trip to new guinea (that's an island north of australia, y'all). she wrote that during her trip she visited several villages, many of which "are polygamous; the men value land, pigs, children, and women--in that order. but the women seemed to be content, despite how hard they worked, and the children were beautiful, inquisitive and self-amusing."** she went on to discuss how difficult it was to receive a formal education in the area, and how the village hadn't had a teacher in three years. "[but] the leader did have several books and magazines that tourists had given them. imagine my surprise when i saw that one was an o from august 2004!...i wanted a picture of them holding the magazine, they decided to change into traditional ceremonial clothes. girls will be girls! seems like we all like dressing up and putting on makeup."
now i combine this letter to the editor with "jay's" comments for a couple reasons. first, i think the letter buttresses my idea that there are some serious stakes in this kind of humanitarianism. granted, this is a letter from a reader. yet the contents of this letter were significant enough to grant it publication in the magazine. further, the tagline of the above photo was this: o is more than a leisure read to these new guineans; last august's issue now serves as a school book. so, i don't think it too far of a stretch to think that the editors of the magazine (one of which is oprah's
if you attend this skool for girls, for example, you will not only be taught how to read, but i'm sure the greatness of ms. winfrey will periodically be addressed. she is, to continue with this rhetoric, a sort of founding mother. this education probably assists in your ascendance from poverty (not entirely bad) to the middle and upper classes (not entirely good). if you are being taught, let's say, to read, you can read o, and if you can read o, well, you get to see all of oprah's favorite things. and, well, need i go on? this ideology, in my estimation, is no different than what we've seen before. except, of course, this one has a black female face. though veiled in this idea of "being your best self," there is really no effort to interrogate the position winfrey needs us to occupy for us to uncritically accept what's she's giving. consequently, while "jay" can call winfrey a "true humanitarian" i say it's the same shit, different day.
you will often hear the argument that the reason why black communities, black people, etc. are in the predicament they're in is partly rooted in our reluctance to do things like support black business. this has always perplexed me, because it seemed to me that whatever exploitation or disadvantages that were rooted in supporting non-black business, was simply being shifted to someone with similar skin tone. this didn't change the exploitation, simply the person who exploited you. my point is there is this idea that if the person looks like you, then the person will be good to you. and somehow, the reality that this person needs the same institutions to be in tact in order to become successful becomes obfuscated.
oprah, being a black, poor girl in mississippi does not change things for most of us. things do/did change, however, for her. thus, when oprah's enraged for not being allowed to shop, in a sense, it is about race--for oprah. it's my guess that at that moment, oprah felt like any other nigga--something she hadn't encountered for quite some time. therefore, for oprah to remain oprah, she must continuously be deemed unique, because if there's one or two or three or four more oprahs, then the possibility of hermes incidents increase. next thing you know, i'm best friends with john travolta. i'm sorry, but my idea of humanitarianism and life change isn't about me gaining extra disposable income to buy products you endorse, thereby supporting your god complex.
my understanding of a humanitarian is one whose philanthropic endeavors not only help people, but help bring about some social change. and in my reading, well, homegirl's humanitarian efforts bring more people to the party while she and a select few kick it in v.i.p. so, to continue with this very corny analogy, the dj is spinning the same records, and the dance floor is getting a lot more crowded.
tomorrow: more on "jay"
later: take me to the promised land...or, the 'o' in g.o.d. stands for oprah.
**if you'd like to see the entire letter, check out the august issue of o magazine, or email me, and i'll send you the entire text.
**also, i didn't reread this really, so there may be some changes to it later.
language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison