Oprah's Radical Speech: The Herstory of the Reparations of #MeToo

This Sunday, Oprah gave what has been acclaimed an electrifying speech, in accepting the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement.

This speech is a speech that should be taught in history classes of social movements and contemporary history because it deftly performed quite a radical move: The casting of Rosa Parks’ (and others’) investigation of un-prosecuted, state-sanctioned sexual crimes as the real origins of the #MeToo movement.

Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC, via Associated Press

Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC, via Associated Press


There were two parts of the speech that gently show the systematic nature of the insults against women (though not exclusively against women) and how a general, societal accounting is necessary to begin righting these many wrongs.

The Black Art Ceiling

Issa Rae memorably quipped last year: "I'm rooting for everyone Black."

It is not odd to root for a work to win based on the identity of its creator?  From a strictly logical point of view, perhaps. But the history of how the United States, in almost every category of symbolic and material achievement, denies affirmation to non-white men, helps make this statement make sense. 

One formulation of the American Compact/Dream is that: "the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you'll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children."

Despite all almost people's embracing this view of virtue, merit, and inter-generational uplift, America has never systematically honored this basic promise with respect to black peoples, especially black women. 

This sense of rules being rigged to prevent meritorious success from black folks come into sharp view when Lemonade was widely decribed as being "snubbed" in favor of Adele's album.  

The numbers back up this heartbroken fan's sentiments: "Eighteen of Beyoncé’s 22 wins have come in overtly racialized categories, such as R&B and rap. She has only one win in the “big three” categories – best album, best song, best record – despite 11 nominations in them. This year marks the third time Beyoncé has been nominated for album of the year. She has lost to Taylor Swift, Beck, and Adele."

If even Beyoncé can’t win for “Lemonade,” after turning in an incredible performance (while pregnant with twins, no less), what exactly does that say about the black experience in America? It suggests that black musical art forms like jazz and hip-hop were looked on as nothing but fads until they were validated by white audiences and artists, but with little credit or uplift flowing back to the originators of those art forms. 

Sufjan Stevens, one my fave artists, at the time of Adele's win wrote post entitled "Just a Reminder -- Don't Be Racist" on his website in which he asked "WTF is 'Urban Contemporary?'" The answer, he wrote, is "it's where the white man puts the incomparable pregnant black woman because he is so threatened by her talent, power, persuasion and potential." 

So it in in this context that the opening of Oprah's speech, concerning past history that's not quite past, is located:

Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. 

I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that.

So many people can't dream what they can't see, and it was electrifying for young Oprah -- and the nation-- at long last to recognize amazing talent, despite the color of the actors skin.  Because America was, and often is, a place, where working hard and virtuous adherence to rules, is not enough to guarantee either success, affirmation, or a legacy.  

Why is that? Because of the hidden-but-not-quite-disappeared survivors of state-sanctioned terrorism. 

Reparations for #MeToo

Here Oprah pivots to  her section issuing a call to arms and reparations in the name of the #MeToo. In Ta Nehisi Coates' clarifying essay on reparations, he argued that reparations fundamentally weren't able victims long dead who suffered crimes long ago, but living breathing people alive today. Oprah adds to this by pointing out that these crimes often took on gendered dimensions in the name of survival: "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. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know."

The formulation for so many American women has been: if you work hard, keep your victimization quiet, and disappear from public life, you'll have a small chance for a better chance for your children.

This pivot is an important one in grounding #MeToo into a history. This tribute acknowledges all the invisible women —domestics, factory workers, etc— whose voicelessness translated into a much less lauded struggle for restoration and dignity; struggles that often extended past their lifetimes. 

Recy Taylor -- a wife, mother, and one of the people whom Rosa Parks aided during Jim Crow-- was once such voice:

 In 1944, Recy Taylor.. was just walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Ala., when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road, coming home from church.

The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. 

The most important part of this "herstory" of justice interrupted is how man of the victims of that state terrorism are either still alive or very recently deceased.

This fact of living or recently deceased victims is a very powerful call for reparations before it's too late. One of the main arguments against reparations is that we cannot identify specific victims, or, that the crimes happened to people long dead. Oprah's speech explodes this fictitious reasoning used to deny accountability and responsibility for systematic crimes. 

The apology, McGuire says, is all Taylor really wanted. “I know for her that that meant a whole lot. It wasn’t justice — it wasn’t her assailants being convicted of a horrible crime and going to jail. But it meant something,” McGuire told All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro. “For the first time the governor of Alabama had to say her name and had to be honest about the way in which the state tried to bury her story, refused to investigate it, refused to listen to her. So it was a kind of reckoning — it was powerful.”
— NPR, January 8, 2018

This herstory of #MeToo is bigger than any one person, as Oprah herself signals toward the end of her speech. In fact, so many of our heros and heroines experienced sexual violence: "In 1931, when she was 18 years old, Parks was the victim of an attempted rape. “Mr. Charlie,” as she referred to him, was a white neighbor who employed young Rosa in his home snd tried to force himself on her, and she described her feelings in detail in a letter that was discovered in 2011."

Their stories are now ready to be told -- though these hidden figures have never been silent -- but are we ready to listen, act, and show responsibility, via reparations, for these mothers of the #metoo movement?