“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” – Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey gave an eloquent, impassioned and inspiring speech upon receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award – which honors outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment – at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony.
She spoke of being a little girl sitting on a linoleum floor and watching Sidney Poitier become the first black man to win an Oscar in 1964, and how it felt to see him publicly celebrated. Poitier went on to win the DeMille Award in 1982, and over thirty-five years later, Oprah became the first black woman to win it. She was very aware that there were other little girls – little girls just like she was back in 1964 – watching and listening.
She expressed gratitude for those who supported her, and believed in her, and inspired her. She went on to honor the women – so many women – who have endured years of abuse and assault. She spoke of a woman named Recy Taylor, a young wife and mother who was abducted and raped by six armed white men on her way home from church in Alabama in 1944. Taylor’s story was reported to the local NAACP, where a young worker named Rosa Parks became the lead investigator.
“And together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. 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. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men, but their time is up.” – Oprah Winfrey
She spoke of the #metoo movement, a movement in which women from all walks of life are choosing to speak out and be counted among the (far too) many who have been sexually harassed, abused, assaulted and raped. She celebrated the men who have chosen to listen. She encouraged people to continue to speak truth to power, and ended with a message of hope for a brighter future, a future in which no one ever has to say “me too” again.
Everyone applauded. I applauded, watching the video at home on my laptop. The video made the rounds that night and the next morning. It moved me. It gave me hope.
Evidently it gave a lot of other people hope, too, because soon enough social media feeds were being inundated with “Oprah 2020!” and “Oprah for President!” Part of me completely understood why so many of my fellow citizens reflexively latched on to an individual responsible for the most lucid and powerful oratory we’ve heard in far, far too long.
Her long-time partner weighed in. News outlets weighed in. Twitter weighed in. Friends on Facebook started discussing her validity as a candidate.
You know who didn’t weigh in?
Oprah never said a single word about running for President. She said zero words about running for ANY political office. She won an award and gave an incredible speech, one that should have sparked countless conversations and actions.
Running for ANY office in America is daunting, much less running for the office of President. One hopes candidates have innovative ideas, a strong work ethic, an ability to multitask, and an unwavering commitment to representing their constituents. But in addition to their qualifications, candidates must be willing to have their entire past picked apart and examined under a microscope. Each statement they’ve ever uttered, each word they’ve ever written, every business decision, any social media posts, blurry photos from high school – each and every aspect of their life will be discovered and dissected and discussed and judged.
Which explains everything we need to know about the reluctance of good people considering a run for public office.
And yet there we were, less than a day later, raking through a woman’s life and accomplishments based solely on an incredible speech in an effort to determine her qualifications to run for a public office in which she’d expressed no interest.
Overwhelmingly burned by a far different television personality, many people in my social feeds reacted in thinly masked horror – Hello, people, have we learned nothing? You must be JOKING. New memes spawned. Friends I respect began grimly digging up videos from ten years ago, anxious to prove how unfit she is to even consider a run for the Presidency.
All of it essentially came down to, “Congratulations for winning the DeMille award, Oprah! Your speech was incredible. Oh, and we all discussed it and you’d suck as President. Love, America”
She shouldn’t run, people said. She’s not qualified, they said. She doesn’t have enough experience in politics, they said. Really she’d be no better than Trump, they said. There are tons of other women – including women of color! – who have more experience, who are far more qualified, and we should support THEM instead, they said.
They they they they said said said said.
Oprah Winfrey does not need me to stand up for her, a concept so absurdly obvious I can’t believe I’m typing it. And yet in the two days immediately following her speech I found myself mired in bizarre quasi-debates, repeatedly trying and failing to convey how deeply flawed it is for anyone to say 1) she shouldn’t run for President because 2) reasons when 3) SHE NEVER MENTIONED RUNNING.
How about IF she decides to run – and why she’d put herself in the midst of that hot mess after the first 24 hours after her speech alone, I have no idea – THEN we discuss her skills and experiences and merits and THEN we each individually vote for the candidate we feel is the best?
How about other, more qualified women and women of color can ALSO run – for this office and any office – if they meet the legal standard to run? It’s not a zero sum game. If Oprah runs other women can still run, which is the beauty of democracy.
How about if we’re truly serious about wanting more women to run for office – especially women of color – maybe we shouldn’t be so fast to shut down the very idea before the woman in question even expresses the most remote interest.
As I said, I listened to Oprah’s speech three times in a row, and each time it moved me to tears. The message – that we can work together to make sure no one ever has another “me too” story – is stunning in its simplicity and optimism.
And yet much of that message was lost in the unwarranted discussions over her fit for an office in which she – at the time of this writing – has expressed zero interest.
I keep thinking about the little girls – little girls like she was, once upon a time, sitting on a linoleum floor. In my mind, I see their faces light up as they listen. I see their faces fall as the aftermath unfolds. Will this inspire them to run for office? Will this scare them away? Will they be more or less likely to even want to speak truth to power so eloquently now knowing that there is a new risk – that of having your life scrutinized based on the merest whisper of a rumor of political aspirations?
Will that be the outcome of this magnificent speech urging girls and women and men to speak up and speak out to overcome injustice? Silencing them, instead?
Here’s what we can do: we can give Oprah this moment. We can celebrate her accomplishments. We can honor the wisdom of her words.
We can give our country this moment, a moment to do something right. A moment to do something that needs to be done, and that’s needed to be done for a long, long time.
Go back to the beginning of this piece. For the first time in a long time, forget the politics. Listen to Oprah’s speech. Read the transcript. Share it. Be inspired. Speak up. Speak out. Work together. Hope.
And don’t stop until nobody ever has to say “me too” again.