When I Stopped Drinking The Kool-Aid
Oprah Winfrey, The Most Influential Woman in America, Her Fondest Wish as a Little Girl Coming True was an event that promised to be to be just as liberating, as spiritual an experience, for the women of the world, nay, human civilization, as it was for her. I had no idea of what this could be, except that if she said it was important, it probably was. After all, I’d tuned in almost every afternoon for the last few years, read (and collected) the magazines, read the website, cooked the food, and read the Book Club books. So I tuned in that day and found out what she'd been hinting at for the last few weeks.
This was to be no ordinary party, or even weekend party. The guest list would comprise a very select group: all the female African American entertainers that had been an inspiration to Oprah over the years. They would meet at Promised Land, her estate in California, and they would be greeted by a reception and a lavish dinner. Further events would occur on Saturday, including a Garden Luncheon, and climaxing with the Legends Ball. On Sunday, the day would be taken over by gospel singing and a Prayer Brunch before everyone went their separate ways.
It all made me feel faintly queasy, watching everyone arrive, the lavish decorations, all the gorgeous gowns, but couldn't pinpoint my unease. Oprah posed with Maya Angelou in front of a painting of a slave auction for a sound bite, who politely gave her benediction to the enterprise. Oprah chatted rapturously on about the irony of two descendants of slaves getting this far, as if they'd shared a coffle together, and were reminiscing about how Oprah was always holding up the line by twisting her ankle. There was some poetry (read by a bevy of little girls) which was a rough paraphrase of Isaac Newton's quote "we stand on the shoulders of giants" with a lot less eloquence, but Oprah cried on cue anyway. Waiters served each one of them with an alligator skin, or at least alligator-embossed cardboard-covered box, which turned out to contain diamond earrings: one, in a dazzling design for the Elders (roughly anyone Oprah's own age or older), and another, not so dazzling for the Young'uns (for those artists distinctly younger than she). Saturday, they had a Garden Party Luncheon (with huge hats), and the Legends Ball, where she invited about three hundred other celebrities, and everyone danced Contemporary Urban dances wearing white tie and Antebellum dresses. (At one or another point I was wondering just how much of this was staged -- surely all of them aren't so solvent that they can buy several outfits in the $10K range for one occasion.)
I suppose I could have heard the Gospel Brunch, but I'd since switched off. It didn't inspire me. It just made me feel sick.
From watching a woman of taste, intelligence, and no little discernment, I found myself watching the vulgar spectacle of Dinner with Trimalchio, except that Trimalchio didn't invite people to watch. Trimalchio didn't put his dinner table on the Rostrum in the Forum and ask everyone to take a lesson from his example. Trimalchio didn't pretend that he (and his friends) were the only freed slaves in history, or that he'd done anything more remarkable than make a lot of money to spend on himself. He didn't act as if his friends were legendary or immortal or anything more special than just being his friends. (And I wonder, if he actually ever lived, if he ever thought that scholars would be scrutinizing his menu two thousand years hence.)
In short, there didn't seem to be any real way I could relate to this event other than to say "How nice for you." Sorry Teleny, you aren't invited, Shirley only invited kids in Mrs. Brenner's class...sorry, you can't have any cake…But here's a nice chair so you can watch through the window…Maybe you can have a party of your own, later…Oh, it wouldn't be so nice? I'm so sorry...Aren't we wonderful to let you sit here? Meanwhile, the other girls are all getting pony rides, personalized GameBoy cartridges to take home, and their very own Princess makeover, while I'm sitting there feeling...cheated.
If Oprah had chosen a dozen or so people she admired, who were of singular accomplishment without regard to race, sex or profession, I would have been keenly interested. If she'd picked only women, I'd understand. If she picked only black people, and picked some of the less obvious choices, like Neil deGrasse Tyson or a Nobel Laureate in Medicine, or even a top air traffic controller, I'd still be happy. But giving an award to black female entertainers?
It's in the business of an entertainer to be known, and these are women who've succeeded in their business. It's hardly in the nature of the Black community not to recognize their own with all kinds of awards and publicity. (Frankly, I'm looking forward to BET's having an awards show that gives an Award for Best Performance by a Black Entertainer on an Awards Show.) Now, I'm not going to say that I believe that their lives have been one long unremitting stream of days spent being pampered and nights partying in the spotlight, but it's difficult to put a woman whose biography reads "…discovered at a talent search at sixteen, at seventeen had her first hit record…" on the same plane as Sojurner Truth, especially if she were born after, say, the mid-to-late fifties. Yeah, maybe they were born in a poor part of town and it sucks to have had your life dictated by a talent agency, but it's hardly as if any but the oldest of these ladies ever had to ride in a colored car in a train, or have to go from singing in the Grand Hotel's Regency Room to sleeping in squalid accommodations in DarkyTown, just because their skin color compared badly with a paper bag. In short, I just don’t get it.
Indeed, I can't imagine what life lessons, what inspiration, I'm supposed to take away from someone like that. OK, it's not as easy as it looks, being a singer means that you have to spend a lot of time practicing, and touring and mostly, living a really boring life in between gigs, getting voice coached and looking for jobs. But if Oprah were really set on anyone being inspired by these women, she would have gotten them to sit around in practice clothes, without all this glitz and glamor, and have them discuss just what in the hell their lives are really like.
Look, there's no shortage of young black girls who are convinced they have what it takes to become top models, athletes, actresses and singers. (They can also do hair.) They have no problem with the fact that their ideas are unrealistic, that every other kid in every other poor neighborhood, black, white and Latino, has the same idea, and that there's only so much room at the top of the tree. They know all this, and they're still convinced that they're going to make it, because the only thing they ever heard was it boils down to self-esteem and luck, and they know they have both, if only the way they know that their aunt’s Daily Numbers is going to win, because she read it in a dream book.
We also have an oversupply of Black girls who have middle-class parents who feel “inauthentic” simply because being “of color” has gone from going Where No (Insert Grievance Group) Has Gone Before to Upholding Your Proud Traditions by perpetuating stereotypical behavior. Nina Simone wasn’t less Black by being a classical pianist. Madame C. J. Walker wasn’t less Black by becoming a millionaire. Butterfly McQueen wasn’t less Black for being an atheist (and the only one in the cast of Gone with the Wind with a college degree.) Bessie Coleman wasn’t less Black for going up in a plane when most white men wouldn’t dare going anywhere near one of those contraptions. And the people of Oak Bluffs aren’t any less Black for having nice New England cottages, walking around the dunes and hanging with the likes of Carly Simon (who lives, at least part time, on the same small island). OK, I get it, so Mama’s cooking tastes better than anything Ferran Adria can come up with, and the Great Indoors is where the entertainment center is. But it doesn’t mean you can’t go to a sushi bar, or go on a walk and listen to birdsong, or the wind in the pines, or smell flowers rather than perfume.
What we do need are girls of every color who can appreciate Nature not as a fading abstraction, nor as something on cable, but in their everyday lives.. Who find having something going wrong with their household appliances an excuse to take out a tool kit, not to hand it to someone and say "Honey, buy me a new one." Who create beautiful clothes, for whatever their shape, not just wear them. And who look to the stars, not to sing or dance or act, but to travel out side Earth, some day...