Monday, March 14, 2011

The Week Begins Well: Oprah Winfrey the Mammy, Oprah Winfrey the Religious Icon

Here is a twofer for you: Salon writes about Oprah Winfrey as a religious figure; the Mayor of calls out Oprah Winfrey as a mammy figure.

Let slip the dogs of war...whenever you write about the most high priestess of daytime TV Oprah Winfrey, there is always upsetness. This rage is equivalent to that hypothetically expressed by devout Catholics if one spat on the divine robe of the Pope and then fed said person some mystery meat filled tacos before sending him to an unclean squatter toilet filled with snakes in the rural environs of India...without baby wipes.

It would seem that fate works through serendipitous timing. My disdain for Oprah Winfrey, she who builds schools abroad (and not here in the States) because Africans appreciate learning and education--as we black Americans do not--is well known. I have always said that Oprah is the emotional surrogate for white suburban womanhood. She, like the mammy figure of yore, is asexual and lives to serve (white, female) others. One would hope that Oprah learned a lesson when she endorsed Barack Obama, and subsequently her suburban sisters damned her for "choosing" race over class, as she supported a black man over a white woman (in Hillary Clinton). But, I will not hold my breath.

When the Mayor of Blacktown shares a thought in common with me, what is an act of living collective consciousness that proves the idea that the spirit of a given age does indeed exist, and is not a fiction, I have no choice but to smile. And to share said moment with you all. These are indeed interesting times my friends. The week has begun well...oh yes, it has.

Courtesy of

"Oprah: Gospel of an Icon": Worshipping at the church of Oprah Winfrey

In the past quarter-century Oprah has become shorthand for self-help: a spiritual guide, a confessor and a warm shoulder for her adoring American public. Now in the final season of her revolutionary daytime talk show, Oprah's pronouncements have become the Word to live by for a staggeringly diverse audience. In fact, you could argue she is a religious leader for an America increasingly skeptical about organized religion.

It's an idea that Kathryn Lofton explores in "Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon." Assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale, Lofton sees religious preaching methods in the way Oprah hosts her show, as well as a formulaic, sermon-like approach to every topic -- whether it's healing the wounds of sexual abuse or what new exfoliating cream you should buy. Oh Oprah, who art on television, tell us how to live a good life.

Salon spoke to Lofton over the phone about Oprah's message, the daytime guru's own skeptical views of religion, and what our love of Oprah tells us about the American hunger for help and guidance.

What was it about Oprah that made you think of her in the context of American religious history?

Within these very corporate formats of daytime television, extraordinary forms of suffering were being confessed to and described. There's a great book about Oprah by Eva Illouz, "Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery," and Illouz points out something that I dig into, and that is the strange way in which the extremity of human despair -- not merely estranged spouses, we're talking stories of people coming home and seeing that their spouse has murdered all their kids and then themselves -- are being dealt with in the same way as these topics that are seemingly shallow. Good glasses for a spring party, best new strategies for boyfriend wear. This exposure of human need at 4 p.m. on a weekday afternoon made me think, "What is this thing?" We're so accustomed now to reality programming and a whole spate of shows spun off from Oprah, but, as a scholar of a religion, I think it's one of our jobs to be cued into how people manage pain, and the idea of evil, or whether or not we live in a just world.

What is Oprah's religious background?

Oprah talks about a Baptist church that her grandmother took her to in Mississippi. She tells an anecdote about how she was a successful young churchgoer and was asked to preach in front of that audience and was a very good girl who memorized scriptural passages. Then in her adulthood, she has some criticism of male figures in the church and the dominance of male authorities and it seems that by the time we get to the '90s, it's circulating that she's no longer a member of the church but she continues to use Christian idioms in her conversational speech. She says, "Jesus lives." She'll say, "Amen." She'll occasionally sing lines from obviously Protestant hymns, but she claims now that she's no longer interested in organizational religion, and she's more interested in a personal relationship with God. Indeed, she has around her a large collection of spiritual purveyors of a wide variety: Buddhist, Hindu, Unity Church. Every flavor of the contemporary, spiritual rainbow is welcomed into her studio.

What does our reverence for Oprah say about our culture and religion in America today?

I think it says that most Americans see very little that is contradictory about connecting consumption and spirituality. I think it also shows that no matter how anti-establishment, or anti-authoritarian, or freedom-hungry Americans claim to be, they are also, always, hungry for help. Hungry for recognition. Hungry for guidance in the mad excesses of the American material world. Hungry for someone to limit their choices a little, and offer some discriminating preferences on your behalf.

If Oprah is a preacher, what is she telling us? What is her gospel?

Her gospel -- her good news -- is you. The good news is that if you take hold of your life; if you discover (as she says) your best life, anything is possible. Of course, this good news is translated not only through her exhibition of you -- you through her audience members, guests, columnists, message board commentators -- but also through the unending rehearsal of her. The good news is her revelations about her best life -- lived, she says, in service to you.

Why do you think so many people who shun religion are comfortable looking to Oprah for "spiritual guidance"?

Precisely because she says she doesn't seem typical in her authority. Because she represents -- in her race and gender and origins -- being utterly outside established power. Also, she isn't preaching to sell you something singular. She says, over and over: I am here to let you be you. My answers are mine, and they made my struggling life something fantastic to share. You're not joining a group, you're just finding your inner fabulous. This is appealing to people who associate religion with controlling authority, rigid dogma or social adherence. This is a religion for those who don't want to be religious, but want to feel revelation.

You connect Oprah to early traditions in American evangelical preaching. Not just her charisma and eloquent speaking ability, but less obvious connections. Can you explain that?

I connect her to two figures -- George Whitefield, a prominent 18th century minister, and Charles Finney, a 19th century minister -- who weren't merely interested in spreading the gospel but also eliciting conversion. There's an idea that a gospel is true if the purveyor is willing to talk about how it's made. Oprah does that every time she does a show about "Oprah without makeup" or a confession about her weight gain -- this is her showing the strings of her own construction.

The other tradition I connect her to is the emergence of women as evangelical preachers, who always had to be conscious that they were being somewhat insurrectionist to the Word by even being out in the public. Oprah tries to appeal to an audience that wants to see a successful and capable woman without being too perfect. She can't be too obnoxious in the face of the conservative domestic idea that we still have for women. So Oprah isn't married nor does she have children because if she had those things and was also trying to be Oprah, her audience would be uncomfortable. That she is free to minister only to them and is not responsible to a domestic life actually puts her in a long line of preachers with similarly ambiguous lives.

What do you think of Oprah after spending so much time scrutinizing her?

I think that I'd be doing a great disservice to her work if I don't emphasize that her viewers take from her inordinate comfort and a life that they describe as asking too much of them. The second thing that I think about is the extraordinary American fact of her. She talks about this a lot too, and this is where she becomes a great subject for me. She is an indication of the American dream. I'm interested in how that dream is unbelievable, extraordinarily powerful, and possibly corrupt.


CNu said...

The mayor of blacktown is among the top ten greatest living digital folk artists in the world. I have deeply admired and appreciated his unique repurposing of technology to drive memes for years and years now, and have of course been roundly criticized for tolerating (nay embracing) his "medieval" pov for just as long.

z.bediako said...

That video by the mayor of blacktown is completely ridiculous. I am deeply saddened by people who regard his words and work as truth. He clearly doesn't know what black feminism is. He has an issue with black women which makes him clump all of us in to this depiction of Mammy.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cnu. The mayor is a great performance artists, one of the best of our times.

Z. Is he wrong about Oprah...your other points acknowledged?

CNu said...

CD, back in 2005, this is part of what I wrote at VisionCircle, (Cobb's group blog that included myself, Lester Spence and Ed Brown) - that touched on the full-blown Oprah Effect and a little something more that you will undoubtedly recognize in our boy Cobbski's current oeuvre;

Having temporarily abandoned my afrostocratic haunts in favor of a little good old red-state neocon slumming and brawling - I'll admit I've left a few Fallujah's scattered across the digital countryside. I thought I was embarked on yet another one until yesterday, when a pitched battle finally resulted in pacification of a sizeable enforcer clique and a tentative detente with its champion. Make no mistake, it wasn't "hail and well met" it was straight up ugly and savage until the bell rang and my adversary said "no mas".

After vetting my old school conservative credentials, this individual shared the following gem with me - A Guide to the WhiteTrash Planet for Urban Liberals. It is an eye-opening view into the next big job for Americans of good faith.

Not only must we Work hard on increasing and enriching the level of interpersonal engagement within our own communities, the next evolutionary push will have to involve education, outreach, and socialization - interpersonal communion - with and among the masses of the poor, white, and pissed. This will not be easy. But it is most definitely necessary.

Not only will this enrich both our respective communities, it will comprise a bulwark against the genuinely evil predations that the backers of the present administration have in store for America.

The Full Blown Oprah Effect, Reflections on Color, Class, and New Age Racism really drove home to me the necessity of enlarged, renewed, and full engagement on multiple fronts for any genuinely interested in seeing America politically work its way back out of the regressive nosedive that the neocons have engineered. We have all GOT to Work toward being on the same side, or, we will all surely lose.

"Covert racism may actually be deepened by these civil rights victories and by related partial black upward mobility into the middle and upper classes insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community – the idea that, in Derrick Bell’s phrase, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.”

Plane Ideas said...


Got it..Brillant