Black Women’s Histories and the Power of Truth-Telling

Oprah Winfrey’s 2018 Golden Globe speech (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal/Getty Images).

Not long after Oprah Winfrey, the iconic media mogul and pioneer for African American women in film, television, and journalism, delivered her ground-shifting, three-standing-ovation-inducing acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globes—becoming the first African American woman recipient of its prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award—the hashtag #Oprah2020 began trending on Twitter. Such impressionable reactions might be just another reminder that our presidency, in the wake of Donald J. Trump (perhaps reaching as far back to former actor and President Ronald Reagan), has become yet another space for celebrity.

Or maybe her speech was a reminder of the power of a rousing speech, which we’ve seen before with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose iconic “I Have a Dream” speech thrust him in a leadership position for the Civil Rights Movement, or the way that a then-unknown Senator Barack Obama experienced a meteoric rise after his momentous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Winfrey’s speech in particular was a master class in interweaving race and gender amid a plethora of social issues and a variety of women and men from all walks of life.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Annual Golden Globes, which highlights the year’s best works in film and television, took on the mantle of the #MeToo Movement that transitioned early this year into Time’s Up—an initiative spearheaded by women in the entertainment industry and their grassroots feminist allies in the fight against sexual harassment and abuse. Certain stars appeared on the red carpet alongside activists, including Me Too founder Tarana Burke as well as Billie Jean King, Rosa Clemente, and Saru Jayaraman. They encouraged all the women to wear black in solidarity of the movement.

The effect was a stunning display of women united beyond the vain chatter of “who is she wearing?” in a deliberate attempt to shift the focus away from their bodies and toward the issues at hand, which came to a head last year with allegations of sexual assault and harassment against studio mogul Harvey Weinstein. Women dominated the awards, and their acceptance speeches paid tribute to the theme of “Time’s Up.” But it was Winfrey who provided the climax to a movement that has been a long time coming. I had recently compiled a timeline on the evolution of celebrity feminism, and if pop stars like Beyoncé had a hand in raising mass consciousness in feminism, Oprah is the one to take it to the next level.

Not only did she personalize the political—starting her speech with an anecdote of watching Sidney Poitier while seated on a linoleum floor as her mother comes home “bone-tired” from washing other people’s clothes—but she also made the personal a global experience, expertly linking the struggles for a free press to pursue truth with women telling their own truths and being believed. She connected the women of Hollywood—with all their glamour, wealth, and fame—to the regular women in domestic work, farms, restaurant work, factories, academia, medicine, science, tech industries, and the military, all women facing the same formidable foe of “brutally powerful men.”

Most spectacularly, Oprah infused the contemporaneous moment with history by invoking the name of Recy Taylor, who recently died just shy of her ninety-eighth birthday, having survived a brutal gang-rape in Jim Crow Alabama and receiving no justice, which she pursued with the help of civil rights icon Rosa Parks before the latter made that pivotal decision to refuse her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Recy Taylor’s story is explored in a recent documentary film by Nancy Buirski, and her story was first told by historian Danielle McGuire in her acclaimed book, At the Dark End of the Street, which successfully argues how Parks and other black women during the Jim Crow era used their experience with sexual harassment and assault to build the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. For Oprah to place this specific history squarely within mainstream media at the Golden Globes and to implore that Recy Taylor is “a name we should know,” is intersectional feminism on a large scale and a clear reminder that #MeToo has a specific history rooted in the pain of Black women’s histories.

It is no wonder people have taken to social media to proclaim Oprah Winfrey’s run for the presidency (some have even reminded us that Aaron McGruder’s “Boondocks” already predicted this!). It has been quite some time since we’ve heard a rousing speech that preached hope while embroiled in a dark past with promises of “time’s up” for those who wield brutal power and a future vision for the “young girls” watching at home who were promised that they won’t have to say “Me Too” again. Whether this current movement culminates in the election of a woman president, which eluded us in 2016, or simply ushers in the next wave of feminist movement, we are all reminded of the power of truth-telling and the importance of historical consciousness.

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Janell Hobson

Janell Hobson is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2005, 2nd ed. 2018) and Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (SUNY Press, 2012). She also writes and blogs for Ms. Magazine. Follow her on Twitter@JProfessor.