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.
April 16, 2012 - Toronto, ON - Oprah along with Iyania Vanzant, Deepak Chopra, Bishop T.D. Jakes and Tony Robbins, at red carpet event re Oprah's first Toronto broadcast. Credit Image: © The Toronto Star/ZUMAPRESS.com
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.”
This past week, I came across an article on Gawker, written by Cord Jefferson, on the presumably "new wave" of Black role models: Jay-Z and Kanye West. Their latest video, for the track "No Church in the Wild," depicts an uprising of an ethnically diverse set of men against riot police (and an elephant?) on the streets of Prague. We do not know why they are rioting -- which doesn’t really matter. But Jefferson observes both the video (in which neither artist appears) and West’s appearance at last summer’s Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York City, and notes: “It's one of the strangest celebrity phenomena of the past couple years: Jay-Z and Kanye West styled, by themselves and others, as voices of revolution.”
Their collaborative album, Watch the Throne (on which “No Church in the Wild” is the first track), is unmistakably political, but also obsessed with material goods. As Jefferson notes, West has always made his political views public, most notably from his appearance at a televised Hurricane Katrina Relief fundraiser in 2005 where he declared that then-American President George W. Bush "didn’t care about Black people." But we have also witnessed West hanging out in Paris with the elite and even starting his own women’s clothing line.
In a 2005 Slate article on West, Hua Hsu wrote:
“In 1957, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier published the seminal Black Bourgeoisie, a harsh but enduring profile of this emerging community. His conclusion? The black middle class inhabited a world of "make-believe," where "glitter and gaiety" obscured the ennui of their lives. In their pursuit of material comfort, they had cut their ties with the more authentic working-class experience of most African-Americans. West doesn't exactly fit the profile of a black bourgeoisie -- his mother is an English professor; his dad a former Black Panther -- but he, unlike some of the rappers he's made beats for, appeals to the values of that world.”
Both West and Jay-Z have frequently critiqued the capitalism that separates the rich from the poor and the Black from the white in their lyrics; but both have boasted of the material riches from the sales of their albums. Are these two men the Black role models for the 18-45 (or even younger) crowd? I remember when Rap music (pre-Hip-Hop) didn’t involve materialism, but I would argue that the thought that consumerism (or, as Hua says, the “glitter and gaiety”) serves as a mask to the emotional, social, and economic disparity that exists in some Black communities. However, if we can entertain the masses, all will be all right -- and like West and Jay-Z, a small portion of our number can become just as powerful as those we feel look down at us.
On one hand, why shouldn’t they be role models? Jay-Z, who came from the Marcy projects in New York City, has risen above his circumstances and is now a millionaire -- in part, by glamorizing the violence and misogyny he witness on the streets of Harlem. In addition, the June/July cover of VIBE magazine featured 4 women reality TV stars from The Real Housewives of Atlanta; Basketball Wives; Love & Hip-Hop, and Braxton Family Values with the tongue-in-cheek caption, “Meet Your New Role Models.”
But should we value success in material terms? Should impressionable young people admire West and Jay-Z as social revolutionaries... even though they still reap (and boast about) the benefits of capitalism? Should Black folks look up to women who throw wine bottles and try and tear each other's weaves out in front of millions of viewers, or wax poetic about the days when a seat in Winfrey’s audience (on the right day) might win us a new car?
The best role model we should aim to be like is simply a more confident version of our present selves.
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