From the moment The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted in 1986 — and throughout the 24 consecutive seasons it held the No. 1 spot on air — Oprah has always made it a point to share her truths while uncovering the realities that others face. It's for that very reason that on Jan. 7, she became the first African-American woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for extraordinary achievement in entertainment, a prestigious designation which has previously been bestowed upon icons like Audrey Hepburn, Denzel Washington, and Meryl Streep. But on the particular night in question — a night when stars dressed up in their black designer gowns and suits to support the #TimesUp initiative — I was, frankly, underwhelmed.
As I watched the nominees take to the red carpet, I realized that the movement bore a striking resemblance to the Women's March and the #MeToo movement. To be clear, as a woman that has carried the shame of sexual harassment, I was happy to see actresses I admire like Tracee Ellis Ross, America Ferrera, Viola Davis, and Jessica Chastain use their platform to call attention to the ongoing issues women are facing across the world. And I appreciated seeing activists of color such as #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, Ai-Jen Poo, Marai Larasi, and Monica Ramirez walking the red carpet. But for me, the gesture didn't feel like enough. It still felt and looked like white feminism.
I found myself wondering how the group of entertainers before me could truly draw attention the problems facing marginalized women every day.
Over 300 women in film, television, and theater contributed to bringing the #TimesUp initiative to life, but as a woman of color looking at the nominees, winners, and the red carpet . . . I felt underrepresented. Hollywood still has a major diversity issue, and I found myself wondering how the group of entertainers before me could truly draw attention the problems facing marginalized women every day.
But then Oprah walked in, with her always-poised stature, ultrasoothing voice, and famously eloquent way with words. As the first black woman to take home the coveted award she received that night, her moment on a stage set a precedent — and she took note. "In 1982, Sidney [Poitier] received the Cecil B. DeMille Award right here at the Golden Globes, and it is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award," she said.
I am not a little girl, but my eyes welled with tears: she was talking to me. Oprah was talking to all of the young black women out there who aspire to success, opening yet another door for black women to walk through. At that very moment, our glass ceiling became slightly less difficult to shatter. As Oprah owned the stage in all her glory, she shined a light on a woman that most of the world had never heard of, a woman by the name of Recy Taylor. Taylor was abducted and raped by six white men on Sept. 3, 1944, on her way home from church in Abbeville, AL. Even with a confession from one of the assailants, her brutal attack never received a trial.
In the Jim Crow South, that was the norm. When Oprah mentioned Ms. Taylor's name, she was giving a voice to generations of black women that endured sexual abuse at the hands of white men. I thought of my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mom. I thought of the stories my mother told me as a child, about my great-grandmother forbidding her from walking on the country roads in her hometown of Monroeville, AL. It was all because of stories like Recy Taylor's.
As Oprah spoke on that Hollywood stage, I realized that the idea of feminism never had black women in mind, and sadly, that narrative hasn't changed. The voices of women of color are drowned out by white women who are often unwilling to see the world beyond their experience, to listen to those that are mistreated not only because of their genetic makeup, but because of their religion or color of their skin.
The idea of intersectional feminism, once a distant aspiration, suddenly felt like an obtainable goal.
At the end of the speech, the audience gave Oprah multiple standing ovations. But at the same time, there was something else happening, something that made me realize that Oprah's speech had opened a new door. Social media had lit up with emotion; women from different cultures, various political parties, and diverse ethnic backgrounds were flooding my timeline and sharing their feelings about Oprah's thought-provoking speech. Not only did Oprah shine a light on the oppression and perseverance of the black woman in sharing the stories of Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks, but she spoke on behalf of women globally, reminding us all that the fight goes well beyond our own backyard. The idea of intersectional feminism, once a distant aspiration, suddenly felt like an obtainable goal.
To be clear, one speech is by no means going to bridge the gap in society. But as I look toward the future as a woman and person of color, I now realize how valuable intersectional feminism can be; not just for me, but for the well-being of women and girls around the world. The inspiration I felt that night gave me the boost I needed to continue the fight for women's equality — because, as Oprah said, there is a new day on the horizon. A door has opened to a new future, and it's one that's full of hope.