Rebel is Rebecca Carroll's regular column on race and pop culture. You can hear Rebecca talk about these issues with guests on Wednesday mornings on WNYC, or participate in one of Rebel's monthly conversations in The Greene Space.
When I was growing up, I had virtually zero access to anything that was wholly, institutionally black and culturally affirming. What I did have was Oprah. I was 15 years old when “The Oprah Winfrey Show” debuted in 1986, and Oprah became my first black woman role model. I loved Denise Huxtable from “The Cosby Show” and identified with her inimitably funky style, but Oprah was different. Not different in the way that I was different — adopted by a white family and raised in an all-white town — but in the way that she was an inexplicable force of nature.
Oprah was charismatic and funny and smart, but she also had a kind of confidence and curiosity that I’d never seen before. She listened as much as she talked, and asked ferociously salient questions. Whether the subject of the show was sexual abuse, homophobia, abortion rights or racism, it was huge for a black women to be leading these conversations on national television.
HearRebelon WNYC—Rebecca Carroll’s conversation on Oprah's influence with the New York Times' Jenna Wortham is below.
I will never forget the 1987 episode when she went to Forsyth County, GA, where no black people had lived for 75 years. She gathered an audience of white people from the town, and one man said to her, “You have black people and you have n***ers.”
And Oprah looked him straight in the eye and said, “What’s the difference between a black person and a n***er to you?”
She really wanted to know the answer and I did, too.
I relied on Oprah as my moral compass. I think the whole TV-viewing country did. But few of us asked how she came to be so critically important to the soul of America. Three decades after the debut of her show, a new exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture,” speaks to what we may have missed and makes clear how fragile her legacy might be if we don’t value what she has given us.
The 'Watching Oprah' exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Smithsonian)
Long before the Oprah show debuted, interviewing people had been the way I learned about the world. I was terrible at retaining facts and numbers, which made me an average student in most subjects except English, because I remembered stories and characters from novels, and I was also a pretty good writer. But asking questions, being in conversation with people, leading with my curiosity, is what made me feel the smartest. I saw Oprah doing that with ease and elegance, as well as an indelible sense of purpose, and I felt validated.
But the more famous she became, the more possessive I felt about her. And ultimately, the more judgmental. When she started to build her stable of experts — Dr. Phil, Suze Orman, Rachel Ray — they were all white except Iyanla Vanzant (with whom Oprah later had a well-publicized rift ). It felt to me like she was deracializing both herself and the show. I also started to notice that her studio audience was largely white women, and worried that they were exoticizing her, or worse, that they saw her as a stereotypical mammy figure. At some point, the entire tenor of her voice changed, and she would charge onto the stage, shouting her authority in a booming baritone: “You get a car! And YOU get a car!” By the time she did her “Vogue” cover in 1998 — for which she lost 20 pounds per Anna Wintour’s request and was styled to look more like Wintour’s image of beauty than the image most black women hold — I felt abandoned by the Oprah I had once loved as a teenager.
I continued to admire Oprah from a distance, but I never quite found my way back to her. Until last week, when I went to preview the exhibit. I was fully prepared to feel that same sense of respectful remove. Instead, I was brought to tears. As I looked at video clips and photos and artifacts from Oprah’s life and career — young Oprah with an afro, fan letters from first-graders, in conversation with Nelson Mandela —the contrast between her decades-long commitment to compassion with the abrupt malignancy of our current political climate very nearly bowled me over.
Nelson Mandela and Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Studios)
And then, as I lingered in front of a memorable Oprah outfit encased behind glass, feeling suddenly inspired to know every detail of everything she ever touched, Oprah herself emerged from around the corner and almost bumped right into me. If you’ve never stood next to an inexplicable force, I can tell you, it’s pure joy. She was radiant, beaming and spirited, but she also talked with me as if we’d known each other forever.
And I was reminded that human compassion is regenerative, and it is enough. We can always access it — if not in our leaders, in ourselves. But it is also fragile. We do not have to show compassion toward a racist and misogynistic president, but we should take care of our own humanity, and trust it to guide us past his lack of it so that we can bend the arc back toward human dignity. Oprah taught us that.
“Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” is open at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and runs through June 2019.
Not only can you continue the conversation below in the comments section, but you can also participate by joining Rebecca's event at the The Greene Space on June 18, "Would You Hire A Racist?" Her guests include Kara Brown, Mona Eltahawy, and Ziwe Fumudoh.
Rebecca Carrollis a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also a critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, and a regular columnist at Shondaland in addition to Gothamist. She is the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely.