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POST-MODERN MAMMY?
 
By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

Monday, November 30, 2009.
 
Talk show host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, announced that she will end her long running daytime talk show in September of 2011 at the end of its 25th season. As host of the talk show Oprah, Winfrey helped transform the daytime television format, inspiring a generation knock-offs and in the process becoming one of the most recognizable icons in the world. For all of her accomplishments though, some Black viewers were ambivalent about her success.

For much of her career, it was believed that Winfrey’s success was rooted in her ability to deftly cater to middle-class white women—a significant segment of her viewing audience. Given the popularity of her show—it’s been the highest rated program of its type for two decades—there was an expectation that Winfrey would weigh in more forcefully on issues that directly affected African-Americans.

Though Winfrey played an important role in championing African-American fiction (with varying degrees of success), producing cinematic and television adaptations of works by Dorothy West (The Wedding), Toni Morrison (Beloved), Zora Neale Hurston (There Eyes Are watching God) and most recently Sapphire (Push/Precious), she eschewed taking public stances on issues that affected Black Americans, unless they intersected with those of her, arguably, more important white viewers.

While it’s easy to think of those “more important” viewers as privileged white women in the most simplistic terms, it was Winfrey’s ability to turn those viewers—and many others—into consumers of the high end products, high brow art and lifestyle choices that she hawked during the show’s run. While Winfrey never herself shilled for D-Con Roach Spray, Hertz Rent-a-Car, or Rayovac like some of her equally famous black male peers, she was arguably the most effective pitch-person of the last generation, ultimately becoming one of most respected arbiters of style and culture in the country.

Part of Winfrey’s winning strategy was in her ability to connect with her audiences, often using her own personal struggles—with her weight for instance—to build a more personal relationship with her fans and viewers. Like virtually all of the black icons who defined black crossover in the 1980s—Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy—it’s easy reduce Winfrey’s rise and popularity to simple dynamics, like charges that she made herself palatable to white audiences.

It was in this context that Winfrey was thought to function as little more than a post-modern mammy. The term “mammy” resonates as a pejorative to many, in large part because of the girth and dark skin attributed to historical depictions of the figure. Often missing in references to mammy, was her legitimate function within the plantation household.

While the exploitation of black women domestic workers in the South was critical plantation economies, a point that historian Thavolia Glymph makes throughout in her recent book Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household, there was an element to the relationship that often gets glossed over. Given the role that black women played in these households—cooking meals, suckling children and other fairly intimate tasks—the white women they served had to possess significant levels of trust in those women.

In the eyes of many White Americans Oprah Winfrey represents one of the most trust-worthy Black Americans ever, a level of trust that may have been unprecedented. Unpacking what exactly Winfrey could be trusted with though, gives a real inkling into the nature of her relationship with White America.

Winfrey could be trusted with their bodies, their hair, their faces, their homes, their reading material, their dinner tables, their disposable income—often through the deployment of Oprah approved proxies such as Dr. Phil.

Audiences finally drew a line, though, when it came to trusting Winfrey with their votes, as was the case when she broke with the status quo and publically embraced the candidacy of Barack Obama in early 2008.

Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama and subsequent proxy for him during the South Carolina primary (a state in which black women were in the majority of registered Democratic voters) began a tumultuous year in Winfrey’s show. As the campaign wore one, Winfrey’s program lost viewership and her O Magazine, experienced a dip in circulation.

While there were myriad reasons for these losses, including the economic downturn and the aging of the Oprah franchise, there’s also little doubt that some audiences were turned off by Winfrey’s decision to jump into national politics. Towards the end of Obama's successful run for the presidency, there was wide-spread speculation that Winfrey would accept some kind of cabinet appointment.

As such, Winfrey’s decision to say farewell to daytime audiences doesn’t seem much a surprise, indeed she likely went out on a limb with regards to Obama’s campaign, because she had already decided to wind down at the end of 25 years. Like Aresnio Hall, who booked controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on his nighttime show when it was clear that the show was going to be canceled months later, Winfrey's knowledge the that she might end the show, likely freed her in some ways.

That freedom has been expressed throughout the current season, where she broke from the previous practice of not booking rap artists, and opened up her studio chair to Shawn Carter (Jay Z). Winfrey also received widespread applause for her interview with former Heavyweight boxing champion and convicted rapist Mike Tyson—despite an on-air gaffe that seemed to make light of Tyson’s violence against ex-wife Robin Givens—and her recent chat with former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

With her time on-camera seemingly coming to the end, Winfrey seems poised, through her planned cable network, to create the context for the next generation of women and Black Americans to bring something unique to the airwaves. Ultimately this will stand in as Winfrey’s most important legacy.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. A frequent commentator for America’s National Public Radio’s News and Notes with Farai Chideya, Neal also contributes to several on-line media outlets, including NewsOne.com.

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