Oprah Winfrey—a Convenient Distraction
by L. Arthalia Cravin
I am writing this column with the absolute certitude that the title alone will provoke the wrath of many. However, before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I am attacking Oprah kindly hear me out.
Back in 1998 I happen to be in Amarillo during the cattlemen’s trial against Oprah. I distinctly remember all the buzz attendant to her arrival in Amarillo for the six weeks trial. I remember seeing all the “I love you Oprah” banners that the good white folks of Amarillo strung along the city streets. I remember seeing bus loads of (mostly white) children being driven by the courthouse to wave at Oprah. I remember that Oprah rented a house near Quail Creek and hearing about the amount that she reportedly paid for her stay there. I remember a lot about Oprah’s trial because I was in the courtroom audience, and outside among the crowd during much of the trial. What is particularly fresh in my mind to this day was the day a group of local black Amarillo preachers decided to go downtown and “pray for Oprah” on the courthouse steps. It was this event, along with all the “I love you Oprah” banners that bothered me the most. I will tell you what bothered me so much about both events.
About 15 or so years ago, a local Amarillo magazine published an article entitled, “Apartheid in Amarillo.” I remember reading how the article discussed the wide disparities between the black and the white communities of Amarillo. It was frank in its assessment that the social climate in Amarillo was not too much different than that of South Africa. I have friends and relatives in Amarillo, and over the years since the magazine article was written, and the Oprah trial, I have visited Amarillo at least once a year. Each time I visit I continue to be dismayed and saddened by the North Amarillo community. One need only drive down North Hughes Street, going easterly and look north and south at the widespread decay and blight. One need only take a detour down any numbered street, starting at Amarillo Blvd going north, to quickly arrive at the conclusion that there is a gross and blatant disparity between the north side of Amarillo and all the other quadrants. Why would this be the case? Would it have anything to do with the mostly African Americans who live in North Amarillo? So what does this have to do with Oprah and Amarillo preachers praying on the courthouse steps? A lot.
Over the past couple of weeks at least two very disturbing reports have been released about the state of black America. One preliminary report was a 40-year reassessment of the Kerner Commission Report of 1968. The actual name of the Kerner Commission was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, Jr. The 11-member commission was created in July, 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 “race riots” in the United States. In signing the order establishing the commission, Johnson asked for answers to three basic questions about the riots: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it happening again and again?”
The second report just released was that about the high school dropout rate. That report revealed that seventeen of the nation’s 50 largest cities had high school graduation rates, for mostly inner city African Americans, and Hispanics, of lower than 50 percent, with the lowest graduation rates reported in Detroit (24 percent), Indianapolis and Cleveland.
Still what does this have to do with Oprah Winfrey and preachers praying on the courthouse steps? A lot.
When the Amarillo preachers gathered in 1998 to “pray for Oprah” I was outraged, so much so that I wrote a column asking why it was that the preachers used such a spotlight occasion to pray for a woman who could pay any possible judgment that might be rendered against her with the loose change in one of her shoes. I asked why these same preachers were not praying at the same courthouse steps for all the poor black defendants who had been given long and wrong criminal sentences in the same courthouse. Why not pray for justice where justice was really needed? As for all the “I love you Oprah” banners that were strung across town, I had similar concerns. I call it the “everybody’s daughter but nobody’s child syndrome.” Oprah started out as a hair plaited, po’ black child in Mississippi. Her fate, in the eyes of the “southern system of things,” was probably relegated to cleaning hospital floors, changing bed pans and scrubbing floors—the same fate still assigned to most black girls. That Oprah escaped her “southern fate” was the result of a lot of luck and/or pluck. Yet some of the same folks in Mississippi, and Amarillo, who embraced Oprah’s childhood “assigned fate” now celebrate her success with fawning “I love you Oprahs.” But these same people continue to condemn children who look just like Oprah, and grew up in conditions similar to Oprah, to a lifetime of “nowhereness.” These same people are so distracted by Oprah’s media success that they fail to see that there are little Oprah’s all around them right now. And this mindset plays itself out all across America everyday, and it has been playing itself out since the 1968 Kerner Commission report. One person read the Kerner Commission update and said that African Americans have gone from a crisis (in 1968) to a catastrophe in 2001. Still, both black and white Americans worship Oprah—while millions of others who are who Oprah was 40 years ago are dying before their very eyes.
But this is America, where we find convenient distractions to avoid dealing with the realities of the lives of so many in our very midst—much closer to us than Oprah will ever be. Instead of addressing deep and wide economic, health, employment, and educational disparities, we watch American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, Dancing with the Stars, transsexual men who are actually women, having a baby, and other such distractions. And of course, preachers who gather on courthouse steps to pray for those least in need of prayer.
© Copyright 2008 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.