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Was Oprah speaking to us?


One of the talking points on the American and international media this week was about Oprah Winfrey’s speech when accepting the Cecil B DeMille’s 2017 Lifetime Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press. It was a truly amazing speech, ideal for the time, a time of the “Me Too” movement, when women have been speaking out about sexual abuse that they had to endure over the years. These accusations, levelled initially against film producer Harvey Weinstein, inspired others to tell their stories and gave momentum to the struggle against inequalities and sexual misdemeanours. The occasion of the Golden Globes Award ceremony provided the setting and occasion for Oprah to celebrate the dawn of a new time when women have decided to speak truth to power.

It was as if those in attendance were waiting for this to happen. You could have seen it in their eyes and in the standing ovation they gave to her. She cleverly brought together race and gender, as she celebrated the new day she saw on the horizon in the struggle against inequality. As she indicated, not only were they applauding the women who had spoken out, but women themselves became the story. And certainly, Oprah became the story of the night. She spoke about the impact on her as a poor, young, black girl, when Sidney Poitier received the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. It was not lost on her that there might be some young black girl or boy moved by her being the first black woman to receive the award she was getting.

She also celebrated the Hollywood Foreign Press and the media generally, which is now under attack, for its efforts to uncover “the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and injustice.” The reaction to her speech impacted even further, since it seemed that was what was needed in this bizarre period of Trump’s presidency. Immediately, on social and main stream media, there was speculation about and calls for her to make a presidential run in 2020.  But caution must prevail, and they have to carefully examine the misadventures of Trump, a celebrity without any governmental experience. True enough, she is the perfect anti-Trump; a billionaire too, but one who made her own money and whose heart seems to be in the right place. Fortunately, unlike Trump she is no “stable genius”. She has a powerful track record, and appears to be one willing to learn, not one like Trump who knows everything better than anyone else. Would America be willing to try another experiment?

Her speech went beyond the limits of the US. She suggests that “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have . . .”  It “transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics or workplace.” Does it have any relevance to us? As I reflect on how we relate to power, I have, like Bassy, to applaud Sergeant Brenton Smith for putting his job on the line for his fellow police officers and for standing his ground in his exchanges with the PM “widout being rude or disrespectful.”  The original matter was, in a sense, “a storm in a teacup”, since undue attention was paid to the word “storm” and looked at outside of the context in which it was used. With the big uproar that followed Smith’s chat with his executive, the seriousness of the issues they wanted addressed had been concealed. The establishment’s immediate reaction to have him transferred to the Grenadines harks back to a past we thought had long disappeared. Leadership must stand for what it believes and for the interests of its members and not simply cower to power.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.