Kanye West, Jay-Z, Oprah, and Reality Show Vixens: Do We Need Black Role Models?
A couple of months ago, Oprah's Lifeclass: The Tour made a stop in my hometown. I was completely unaware about the stop until two days prior to the event, when I got a frantic text from a friend. “Girl, did you get your tickets to Oprah’s Lifeclass????”
I responded, “Not planning to go.” She called me the next day and chastised me for not even being remotely interested. Referring to my under-employment and my struggle to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life (that didn’t involve another corporate job), she thought that sitting in a steamy conference hall with hundreds -- if not thousands -- of people might help me to "realize my inner strength" or some bullshit like that.
In the first evening of her two-day stop, local TV stations aired footage of the long lineups of people waiting to get into the Toronto Metro Convention Centre. People in the crowd -- predominantly female with a good gaggle of middle-aged Black women -- were asked why they had gotten to the Centre at 4 a.m. to get good seats. “She is such an inspiration to me,” one woman gushed. “If she can be successful, so can I.”
I was unmoved. I had stopped watching her show at 18, when I moved away from my family home. In more recent years, I have been turned off by her move from passionate talk show host to preachy, self-absorbed spiritual adviser. But I still knew a number of Black women who had joined her book club, purchased items that she promoted on her show, and felt that she modeled how a Black woman could be successful in the 20th and 21st century. But I wondered, how exactly?
While I grew up in a middle-class home, as an adult music and cultural journalist, I’m broke. I grew up in the church, but consider myself an agnostic, and I’m not into "Black-centric" music or spirituality. I’m a ride-or-die, tattooed metalhead who strongly believes in self-determination and trusting no one. In other words, I have nothing in common with Ms. Winfrey except for the fact that we are both Black women. So why should look up to her? Because she is on television?
Even within Black communities, people are always searching for the next Black leaderto straighten us out. It is presumed both within Black communities and within popular culture that we are unable to find inner strength through our own self-determination, as though we cannot depend on our parents or extended family members as role models. There is an assumption that a role model must be defined through eyes that are not ours, and be someone who is legitimized as socially and politically acceptable by those who do not share our skin color.
Powerful influencers such as President Obama, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks, and literary luminaries like Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, are commonly referred to as role models in African-American communities. However, King's speeches on equality and his willingness to call for peace in times of social turmoil are often manipulated in a patronizing manner, usually when a group of Black people "act up" in public, or to deter folks from really getting angry when they have every right to be.
For Obama, it was widely assumed that a brother in the White House meant that the guns would stop poppin’ off in the inner city, Negroes would get off the breadline, and Black women would realize via Michelle Obama’s stately mannerisms that perhaps we need to get rings on our fingers before we start poppin’ out babies. On the other hand, as Paul Street from The Black Agenda notes, some feel that Obama’s presidency gives a false sense of racial progress, even though there is still structural and institutional racism to be combated:
“There is a role model problem in Black America, after all, thanks not to some inherent flaw in black culture but to the various ways in which white-supremacist U.S. capitalism has devastated black families’ economic prospects while selling commodified images of black athletic and entertainment success.”