Oprah Will Not Save Us—We Have To Save Ourselves
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Despite the post-2016 surge of activism—the protests and the calls to Congress that have been the only silver lining in this cesspool of a presidency—the reaction to Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes suggests liberals have yet to give up on their dream of an avenging angel. It was not a campaign announcement; it was a call to arms.
Unfortunately, in this Trumpian age of lowered expectations, when a sane adult gives a rousing speech at an awards ceremony, most people are not inspired to lace up their shoes and do some organizing, as Oprah’s friend President Obama said in his farewell address. Instead of doing the work ourselves, we are inspired to tell a celebrity to run for office.
Oprah is not running, at least according to her best friend Gayle King, who should know, more so than the news anchors, pundits and perhaps even Oprah’s longtime partner Stedman Graham. She was not declaring her own presidential run, nor even a foray into politics. Oprah was doing exactly what she has been doing for the last 30 years: giving her seal of approval, this time for activism.
With the same determined enthusiasm she has used for lavishing her audience with free cars and her book club recipients with massive sales, she recounted seeing Sidney Poitier win a Best Actor award at the 1964 Oscars: “I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone-tired from cleaning other people’s houses.”
She also praised the press, which she “values more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times,” before highlighting the eight activists actresses brought as their dates, including Tarana Burke, the original founder of the #MeToo movement; Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Rosa Clemente, a former Green Party vice-presidential candidate and community organizer fighting for political prisoners, voter engagement and Puerto Rican independence; and Mónica Ramírez, focusing on sexual violence against farmworkers and empowerment for Latinas.
Oprah said she was “proud and inspired,” by these women, “who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story.” She told the story of Recy Taylor, a critical yet forgotten figure in the civil rights movement who was abducted and raped by white men, before having her case taken to the NAACP where the lead investigator was Rosa Parks. And she expressed deep gratitude for “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.”
Inspired by Oprah’s words, by her admonishment to sexual abusers that “your time is up,” Americans, starved for competency in the White House, decided that instead of joining any number of ongoing causes, including organizations started by the aforementioned activists, someone else should get to work—namely Oprah. It’s especially troubling, given white America’s penchant for relying on black women to solve our political and social problems.
As Ira Madison III wrote in the Daily Beast:
When I hear Meryl Streep speak of Oprah’s speech, as she told the Washington Post’s Steven Zeitchick, “She launched a rocket tonight. I want her to run for president. I don’t think she had any intention [of declaring]. But now she doesn’t have a choice,” it seems to miss Oprah’s message about inspiring young black girls to realize their full potential in America in order to force a political narrative she hasn’t asked for. To paraphrase Jessica Williams: Oprah is a black woman and so many things. But she is not yours.
Also, let’s be honest, if you were Oprah, the billionaire owner of a home that has a tea house specifically for drinking tea and reading the New York Times, owner of a magazine in which you appear on every cover, would you want to ruin that by running for president?
It’s not that she’s unqualified. She’s the self-made billionaire Donald Trump wishes he could be; the winner of countless Emmys and a 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom; an Oscar nominee with a 30-year career in television. She has the first-name-only recognition many other famous people, and certainly other potential 2020 candidates, can only dream of. As Jefferson Morley notes, her early support of Barack Obama was politically shrewd:
“Her endorsement of a rookie senator named Barack Obama in December 2007 was a key moment in his rise to power. At a time when black and feminist politicos were gathering around the supposedly inevitable candidacy of Hillary Clinton, she understood that there was a stronger candidate in the race. And she was right.”
But there is a lot of work to do to shore up our democracy before the 2020 election. And do we really want another politically inexperienced celebrity to save us from the politically inexperienced celebrity currently occupying the White House?
The Democratic agenda is long: The 2018 midterm elections, for one. The fight to protect the Dreamers, the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, the Affordable Care Act. There are already countless organizations dedicated to fighting back against the Trump administration.
Even among the left, there is every conceivable flavor of progressivism, ranging from former congressional staffers who started Indivisible to the Democratic Socialists of America to Our Revolution, which came out of the Bernie Sanders campaign; to organizations specifically dedicated to the midterms like Swing Left; to millennials running for office like Run for Something; and others like Collective PAC and Higher Heights that aim to elect more black candidates (and for Higher Heights, black women specifically). That just scratches the surface of the advocacy landscape for 2018. AlterNet’s activism vertical has a few other suggestions.
2020 speculation is fun, and like indulging in palace intrigue stories of the Trump administration in the New York Times and Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, it’s a way to let off steam. But we can take care of ourselves, and even take a break, without throwing up our hands and waiting for a savior.
Don’t wait for a hero to swoop in and save us. Oprah wasn’t announcing her candidacy; if anything, she was encouraging us to announce ours.
Ilana Novick is an AlterNet contributing writer and production editor.