Monday, September 12, 2005

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 lover best friend, gayle king, i believe) espouse the reader's very western judgment of these women and their society. if o is a skool book, what kind of education is this? o magazine is not only gaining more subscribers, but also "enlightening" those villagers on what kind of women they should be rather than merely seeming "content" with their simple (read: backwards) way of life. my argument is: winfrey is creating her own consumer by educating them in a, shall we say subversive? way. this very white, suburban, middle class ideology, perhaps being shielded by things such as "philanthropy," "leadership," and "being your best self" is a similar sort of thing we've seen rich, white, males do for eons. she has, through her various media endeavors, conquered the new world. there is nothing left for her to do except move on to other spaces. if the people who inhabit such spaces are not yet consumers, then she must mold them into the consumers she wants them to be.

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.

thanx, oprah.

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


Blogger Jdid said...

well I guess the oprah is the devil analogy is too simplistic for some without the explainations.

I think this is what disturbs me most about oprah "if oprah says, "it is good," then it will fly off shelves"

As for the humanitarian gestures like most rich folk what bugs me is how they all have to be treated as photo ops to make everyone see how giving you are. Cant someone do something without a camera or naming it after themselves or just getting mad publicity about it.

Anyway I like with your arguments. I need t fully digest this stuff cause I might have more to say on this.

12/9/05 15:05  
Blogger Ready For It said...

Hey Summer,
I'm finally so frustrated and pissed off that I got my own blog:
So that I don't just walk around shaking people by the shoulders and asking them what the hell is wrong with them, don't they see that things are bad now.

12/9/05 16:23  
Blogger Miss Jessi said...

Oprah is the devil... and it's becoming more and more clear to me everyday....

O is a school book? Lord have mercy...

And the bad part about this is... my mother has a subscription to O Magazine... and I find myself reading it from time to time... forgive me.

12/9/05 18:12  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Can I just say, too, that as a die-hard fan of the humor columns, the reports from What It Feels Like To Be Summer, and all the other stuff on this blog, I am also so psyched that we are hearing more and more often, too, from Summer the Cultural Critic. You rip this shit up, and really get me noggin turning.... I would not want to be that other graduate student trying to convince you you were wrong.

And I say this having looked in three NYC delis this weekend looking for some Arizona Sweet Tea so that I could view the insanity first-hand. Jesus.

12/9/05 21:14  
Blogger summer m. said...

@jdid: yeah, i think i said a lot. prolly shoulda broke into something smaller and coherent, but all i can say now is my bad.

@shannon: i'm so glad you're gonna start blogging. the blogosphere needs you, i swear.

@miss jessi: i forgot to mention this in the post, but there is published evidence that i thought oprah winfrey was a decent role model. i was 17, and it was sort of a joke, but that's no excuse.

@nick: thanx sooo much. not only was i a bit worried about not posting a rumor today, but i also feared that this entry was crazier than i thought. i appreciate your support.

btw, if i could remember the new york deli where i got my can that one time, i'd tell you. but for the life of me, all i can tell you is that it was maybe two blocks east of bryant park.

just keep your eye out. you'll find one sooner or later. some of them even have a sepia-toned image.

12/9/05 21:30  
Anonymous studpoet said...

i think most of us "edumacated" black folks are thinking critically about oprah (at least i hope so).
we have a love/hate relationship with "the devil". we love her because she is the 20th century symbol of black power. No longer do we see black fists we see oprah as a black woman who is successful in a traditionally white male arena (think: donahue). she is also the first black woman billionare so that adds to our belief that the civil rights movement "worked". she may cater to white middle class soccer moms but she is still black and what oprah says they believe. she could probably run for office and get elected (lets not give her any ideas).
then there is the hate. oprah's extensive philanthropy moves outside of the poverty that surrounds her studio. she completely overlooked the chicago area and opted to open a school in south africa. are you telling me that there aren't black girls in chicago that couldn't benefit from leadership?
oprah often seems to care more about colored people from outside of the united states than her own.
and then here comes the love again, so many talk show hosts highlight colored peoples negatives but oprah switches it up. she only (for the most part) shows white people and their b.s. and since her audience are those same white people they get a mirror to their faces every day.

the problem is that oprah is more like the devil as she is tempting and deceitful. her success is something we triumph yet we despise some of the things that she does to acheive and celebrate that success.

anyway...with that long winded and probably incoherent rant i say thanks for writing!

13/9/05 11:14  
Anonymous thisonechik said...

"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."

i was intellectually reaffirmed and satisfied when i read this. as a black person, what i am about to say is going to come across so wrong.. the last muthaf#%@ i want to work for is another nig. in so many cases, they are worse than their white counter parts. and oprah.. oprah is no different. i’ll admit, she has it hard, living in that dual self, du bois defined, we must adopt to be successful in america. it can be at times difficult to see who we are, who we have become and how we affect the space around us.

on reading this i wondered often if she was aware that she is colonizing people. this may even be news to her.

“o” magazine as a learning tool. you gotta be f&@#ing kidding me.

oprah who perms, weaves and wears her hair just like a fluffier version of martha stewart’s will be perceived as, even if it is never specifically stated, the epitome of negroid womanhood. (negroid because black is attributed to americans, even though we like to say black people every where). i know her impact in this society of women is negative because outside of oprah’s dark skin, she continuously speaks and thinks like a house nig. outside of her dark skin, she is perpetually an upper-class white woman. what’s worse, because of her contributions, her influence will be unparalleled and she will be seen as a heroine. that’s devastating. the long term effects on this particular group of young women is, is, is, another form of genocide. you don’t have to physically kill a people, if you obliterate their identity. and why would you kill them, if you can teach them to worship you? look at black americans.

“creating consumers..” now that was a conclusion for that ass. i wouldn’t have drawn that conclusion in this decade, even though it can be reasonably derived. so you are on some other sh%t as always summer..

anyway.. I said all this to say what? regardless of whether anyone recognizes, acknowledges, admits or is even open to examining the situation outlined here, the truth still remains, oprah- is the devil.

13/9/05 11:24  
Anonymous thisonechik said...

Summer why don't all the comments show with the post, like it does on some other posts of yours?

13/9/05 11:26  
Blogger summer m. said...

@stud: i have a hate/hate relationship with oprah. i wanna "problematize" some of the stuff you said in your comment, but it would be a whole other post.

@thisonechik: oprah hasn't lived a duboisian, dual-self life since fuzzy was a pup.

as for the comment issues, if i follow you correctly, the comments show up w/ the post if you click on the url for that one post. if you just do the, then the comments show up in a pop-up window. was that clear?

13/9/05 11:38  
Blogger Morcy said...

Why did you have to call "Jay" a "moreon"?

13/9/05 14:38  
Blogger summer m. said...

i didn't call "jay" a moron, er "moreon" (?), i was simply saying that i'd more directly address his comment tomorrow--meaning today.

13/9/05 17:28  
Anonymous Thisonechick said...

who's fuzzy?

14/9/05 09:24  
Blogger summer m. said...

@this one chick: just an expression my mama used to use. it just means a long time ago.

14/9/05 13:05  
Blogger deshi said...

you broke that shit down really good, summer.

and i love that you think a certain way enough to feel the need to conclude with the obvious:

"my understanding of a humanitarian is one whose philanthropic endeavors not only help people, but help bring about some social change."

15/9/05 19:14  

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