She is strong, she is capable and she is competent
I wasn’t even paying too much attention to the Golden Globes. I watched a few snippets here and there, but my husband was more interested in watching the hockey game, and it didn’t bother me too much because I was mostly busy scrolling through my Twitter feed anyway.
It was actually Twitter that called my attention to what was unquestionably the most spectacular moment of the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, the speech that stole the show. A speech by Oprah, as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille award – the first Black woman to ever receive the honour.
“Oprah just gave an acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award, and I missed it?” I thought.
I cursed the hockey game.
But thanks to social media, I was able to catch up in no time.
Prone to multitasking, I grabbed my phone and headed upstairs into the washroom, where I planned to make effective use of my time by brushing my teeth and washing my face while listening to the speech. I propped my phone up on the counter, and clicked on the video that was now pinned to the Golden Globe Awards Twitter page, where tens of thousands of people flocked to see and share it.
Oprah stood on that stage and I was awestruck. She looked graceful and elegant and in complete control as she spoke. I abandoned my efforts to multitask; it was nine minutes and eight seconds that completely captivated me from start to finish.
It began with the description of her wide-eyed wonder at watching a Black man, Sidney Poitier, win the Oscar for best actor in 1964, making history. She was “a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee (…) a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses.”
She transitioned to the power of the #metoo movement, and made it personal: “I want tonight to express gratitude to 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.”
And so it continued, with her deftly navigating from one revealing anecdote to another, moving from the determination underlying civil rights struggles to the importance of a free press holding the powerful accountable – always weaving together stories of heartbreak and hope.
Finally, with the crowd already electrified, Oprah thunderously brought the speech to its climax:
“I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”
It was riveting. Inspirational. Empowering. Authentic. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I felt something stirring in my soul. There is no other way to describe it. I was so overwhelmed that when it was over, I was in tears. I stared at myself in the mirror then splashed cold water on my face to wash them away.
As I looked at my reflection, I found myself with a heightened awareness of my dark skin and all its implications.
A series of thoughts flashed through my mind. First, I recognized in that moment that I, as a Black woman, was intensely affected by what another Black woman had just done, the message she delivered, and the strength that she showed. I thought of what Black women who came before me were forced to endure. Women like Recy Taylor, whom I’d never heard of, until Oprah told her story:
“In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and a mother. She was just walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker named Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case. And together, they sought justice.”
I thought about what a gifted communicator the Mississippi-born Ms. Winfrey is, what a unifying force she is, what a phenomenal woman she is. How she beat the odds. What she, like Recy Taylor, had overcome. What she has accomplished over the course of her unlikely journey – poor, abused girl from the South to billionaire media mogul and worldwide celebrity – almost defies logic.
I thought of how remarkable it was to watch the way she captivated the crowd. It gave me the chills. I don’t think I have ever seen such a rapt audience; it seemed everyone in the room was hanging on her every word. (In an age where we are so easily distracted and tempted to tap away at our phones to tweet or instagram what we’re experiencing instead of actually absorbing the experience, that’s saying a lot.) All eyes were on Oprah.
And as the cameras cut away from the stage to capture various reactions of the celebrities in the room who all rose to their feet, it was obvious they, too – after all, just ordinary human beings – were profoundly moved by the rousing speech. I saw smiles, I saw tears, I saw enthusiastic nods of appreciation; I saw what seemed to be a collective catharsis. Most of all, I saw pride.
And I understood it on the deepest level. I’ve admired Oprah since I was a child. She was one of my earliest role models. Now, as a Black woman working in television, my admiration for her has only grown.
Years ago when I was a student, I bought a book called “Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk.” The author, Robyn Okrant, wanted to know how her life would change if she followed every single piece of Oprah’s advice – dished out through her show, her magazine and her website – for a full 12 months. It seemed like an extreme and quirky experiment, but I was curious about the result.
The summary on the dust jacket explains the author’s desire to put the famed talk show host’s tips to practical use: “Why Oprah? Hers in the quintessential rags-to-riches American story, and her ‘Live Your Best Life’ theme inspires millions to strive for happier, more productive lives. Okrant believes that of all the cultural influences on American women, Oprah is the single most prevalent.”
It’s hard to argue with that. Which is why it comes as no surprise that immediately after Oprah’s speech there was social media speculation that she might be preparing a bid to run for president in 2020 – and if she wasn’t planning to, people wanted her to. The next day, Oprah’s name was everywhere.
As much as I adore Oprah, I honestly don’t know that I’d like to see her become a presidential candidate. Setting aside the valid question of whether a celebrity with no political experience should bypass those who’ve been toiling away in the trenches and be parachuted into the highest office in the land, politics is a dirty game, and I’m not sure I have the stomach to see her subjected to the slings and arrows of an election campaign – particularly at a time when the United States is so polarized and prone to hyper-partisan, vitriolic attacks. She’s had such an incredible career; I would hate to see her tarnished by opponents trying to drag her down into the mud.
But that is not my choice to make; it is hers.
And if she does decide to run, it will speak volumes about what a Black woman has the ability to accomplish. She is strong, she is capable, and she is competent. She is a winner.
Yes she can.
Maya Johnson is the Quebec City Bureau Chief at CTV Montreal. You can follow her on Twitter @MJohnsonCTV