by Valerie Morales
Two years ago, Oprah Winfrey took the stage and sermonized about women taking their power back. She was elegantly poignant in her demand that women speak up when predatory men have abused them. She was so dynamic that night that many thought she should run for president, and as a proposition, the whole president thing dogged her for the next half a year. But times change when times change.
Twenty four months later this Oprah Winfrey isn’t that Oprah Winfrey. Like many before her, she has forgotten what she knew, leaned into her own hypocrisy, slid black women under the sexual assault bus, and contextualized the controversy as something altogether different. It is abundantly clear that her Golden Globes speech does not stand up to the test of history, courage or insight, nor was it a referendum on behavior, or a call to and for feminist equity. Really, it was just a speech on a Sunday night in January when many of us were bored. Searing in the moment but quietly disappearing over time.
Oprah is one of the most admired women in the world because of her insistence on the truth setting everything free. But that truth, when it interrupts the lives of the privileged, is worthy of silence and backtracking. How else can you interpret her quiet statement about black women survivors after she pulled out of the documentary “On the Record”, and at the last minute. The decision to end her association with the film which gives black women a voice contradicts everything she said that Sunday night in 2018. Then, decked out in a stunning black dress, Winfrey told the rapt crowd “Justice wasn’t an option in the Jim Crow era.” Speaking of Recy Taylor, a rape victim in the 1940’s, Winfrey reminded us that “she lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared speak their truth to the power but their time is up.”
The past being prologue, when Oprah said their time is up she wasn’t talking about those she had a personal relationship with like Russell Simmons who pressured her to bow out of the film that identifies him as a harasser and rapist. In her powerful speech, Oprah was talking about the men she didn’t know. That makes the sore linger into a wound that festers and bleeds. Because familiar men are just as toxic as strange men.
It makes you question Oprah’s intentions in the first place. She’s on the record via the NY Times that the Russell Simmons documentary was problematic because the filmmakers weren’t interested in editorializing the rap community as voyeuristic, predatory and cruel, in essence there wasn’t appropriate vilification of rap culture as seeping in its own bloody filth. All true but it feels like a cop out, like she had to grab on to something in order to justify her appeasement of Simmons.
By pulling out of a documentary in which Drew Dixon accuses rap mogul Simmons of sexual assault, and Sil Lai Abrams accuses Russell Simmons of assault, and Alexia Norton Jones accuses Russell Simmons of assault, Oprah calcifies the perceptions that black women are liars. The consequence is typical: in matters of sexual assault justice black women get the crumbs. Even Oprah Winfrey is a skeptic.
One of the more ridiculous ways Russell Simmons pressured Oprah was when he asked her to “look what you’re doing to my daughters” as if she created the accusations. Simmons confuses the messenger with the message which, for the most part, is expected of a man who is trying to save his reputation. He will go the low hanging fruit strategy to hold on to the side of the boat. I guess he thought childless Oprah would care about his daughters. That’s really not what is important here though. Did Russell Simmons care about other men’s daughters is the real question.
After Simmons full court press, a lot of voices warned Oprah about the danger of going forward with a black woman accuser that many found specious. Winfrey caved. It points to her ambivalence about black women’s voices in a white women #MeToo world. That black women have to prove something that white women ignore is one more piece of systemic racism.
When it was white women being raped we didn’t need an exploration of the culture at NBC News or PBS or Miramax. We accepted rape is rape without a backstory. Was there consent? No. That’s rape. The End.
But black culture always has to be a third wheel on the date. Black culture is a code word for black men. Their permission has to be granted before black women have the authority to tell their story, speak their truth, show their scars. By appeasing Russell Simmons, Oprah boldly chose a side. Black women who hover in silence and secrecy after being harassed, raped, and abused are insignificant. Throw black women under the bus because of expediency. It’s all good.
“I hope that black women and girls become more visible as a result of this documentary” said Drew Dixon on CBS. Dixon is a former Def Jam executive who says Simmons raped her. “I literally worked for him. He was ordering me a car and he told me to come upstairs and pick up a demo. I thought I would be in his apartment for five total minutes. That’s it. And he showed up naked, wearing a condom, and tackled me to his bed while I screamed and fought and said ‘No” and cried. That’s rape.”
Black women have long been denied survivorship rights. Being identified as a white man’s property, and then as a black man’s property, women of color have had to endure assault while saying nothing and binding wounds. Sexual violence has always been a trauma you whisper about to your sisters and then you take it to the grave. The #MeToo movement opened a closed door and legitimized the survivor. It was emancipating.
One year ago, Oprah Winfrey embraced the white male accusers of Michael Jackson whose parents were complicit by looking the other way. Oprah excused their context and backstory. All that mattered was the abuse. But when it is black women who have accusations, nightmares, anxiety and scars, the culture has to anchor the story, not the rape. How far will black women go to protect black men?