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The Long Goodbye: Oprah Reflects on Race

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As Nadra put so well yesterday, it's likely few Americans actually spent the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday engaging in civil rights activism or even reflection. And like Nadra, I spent part of the day watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and her retrospective on the program's most memorable discussions on race. So much was discussed during the episode that we thought it deserved more coverage, which hopefully compliments her terrific Race Card series post.

The episode (you can find show clips here), was broken out into several segments. The first segment focused on a show from early 1987. Oprah travels to Forsyth County, Georgia (30 miles north of Atlanta) to an area of the country where no black person had lived for 75-years. Oprah facilitated a town hall-type meeting with its all-white residents and walked around with the microphone, asking questions and remaining objective and calm. This could not have been easy for her. The N-word, along with other offensive language, was used several times throughout the segment and it has been a long time since I've heard that word on network television. I found it interesting that she didn't shy away from the word during the re-airing. Doing so did the work of exposing the residents' racism and ignorance, even if it's jarring to read/hear. But I present some redacted quotes for posterity sake  (I could not find the clip anywhere on the Internet)  because I believe the word in its original context makes the racism all the more visible.

Male audience member: "No [N-words] here, so why should they even come? They have the right to live where they want to, but we have a right to choose if we want a white community also."

Oprah: "What are you afraid black people are going to do?"

Male: "You have blacks and [N-word]s. Black people don't want to cause any trouble. That's a black person. A [N-word] wants to cause trouble."

Finally…one woman says: "I'm upset about what's going on. I really hate to think that it will take someone black or white to lose their lives before we can sit and talk this out…and get it like it's supposed to be."

Oprah: "How's it supposed to be?"

Woman: "Black and white living together in Forsyth County. There's no other way."

The way Oprah conducted the interviews in the face of such overt hostility didn't sound like the same Oprah we see today. I wonder how she would approach this situation now? We don't know, at least in this instance, because while she did report that there are now 7,300 black residents in Fosyth Co. and it's one of the richest areas in the country, she didn't return to do another show about how they went from that hostile place to present day. Too bad—a missed opportunity.

Bringing us closer to present day re: the use of the N-word however, Oprah recalls a conversation with Jay-Z from September 2009. Oprah talks with Jay-Z and says she's not a fan of rap music "because of misogynistic lyrics and because of the use of the N-word."

Jay-Z: "words…people give words power. We took the word and took the power out of that word…we turned it into a term of endearment. If we just start removing words from the dictionary...we just make up another word...and we don't address the problem. The problem is racism. That's really the problem."

Oprah: "So, we disagree…that word carries such a sense of hatred and degradation…I think about black men who were lynched and that's the last word they heard. That's from my generation."

Jay-Z: "which is a strong point, understandable."  

Oprah, present day: "A few months ago, I read Decoded. He breaks down rap and on page 162...I have an 'a-ha moment.' It reads: 'rappers are young black men, telling stories that the police, among others don't want to hear.' I was among the others. I get it now."  

I understand both their points on the use of the word and also support any re-appropriation of a word by marginalized groups.

Another missed opportunity? Oprah could have used her platform to talk about where we are today as a country as far as race is concerned. I would have liked to see her take us to that place now. It would have been great to see Oprah highlight current anti-racist work throughout the country as a follow up to this particular show—she could interview people who are fighting the good fight, which also highlights that the problems still exist and haunt us.

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