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Oprah Winfrey — and black women — aren’t America’s cleanup crew

Demanding that Oprah run for president plays into an old, tired stereotype.

Oprah Winfrey at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards Press Room
Oprah Winfrey, after accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award at the 75th annual Golden Globes ceremony.
Steve Granitz/WireImage

Last week, Oprah Winfrey made some undeniably rousing remarks at the Golden Globe awards that called on leaders across all industries — but most pointedly Hollywood — to eradicate the culture of sexual harassment and assault. After her speech, in which she accepted the first Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding achievement in the entertainment industry ever presented to a black woman, the moment took an unexpected turn: The call rang out for Oprah to run against Trump in the next presidential election. With perfect timing, the hashtag #Oprah2020 sprang within moments of her speech.

But here’s the thing: Oprah’s speech wasn’t a platform for a presidential run. Defeating Trump isn’t her job. And the imposition on Winfrey plays into tropes of the “Magical Negro,” a saintlike figure narrowly viewed as having transcendent, superhuman power to be harnessed for coming to the rescue of white people.

Oprah shared the spotlight that night with those already advocating for social change through Time’s Up, a movement of women wearing black at the awards show in protest, and activists like #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke. As close friend and CBS This Morning host Gayle King told People, Winfrey’s speech was intended to continue the conversation about sexual harassment and gender inequality in Hollywood.

Nonetheless, #Oprah2020 became the Next Big Thing, which reinforced a troubling pattern: Black women are expected to do the work of cleaning up political messes, despite living in a country that often fails to reward, respect, and protect them. As Oprah highlighted in her speech, it’s work that women like civil rights hero Recy Taylor did — a woman whose own rape case was an early moment in the civil rights era. Taylor recently died at the age of 97, having never seen justice for the racial and sexual terror she suffered at the hands of six white men in 1944.

Yet instead of accepting Winfrey’s poignant speech for what it was, the oratory was spun as a beacon from a beloved, magic savior here to “save” the country from Donald Trump. But why is that her — or any black woman’s — job?

The persistence of the “Magical Negro”

The term Magical Negro, as NBC’s Adam Howard writes, is typically attributed to director Spike Lee, who came up with it in the early 2000s. In his words, the term “refers to films that usually feature a lone, saintly black character in a predominately white universe who, either through supernatural or just plain saccharine means, only serve to enrich the lives of white characters.” Think of John Coffey from the 1999 movie Green Mile.

Played by Academy Award nominee Michael Clarke Duncan, Coffey, wrongly sentenced to death row for murdering two white girls that he tried to save, has “magical” hands that somehow cure the urinary tract infection of his prison guard, portrayed by Tom Hanks. (Spoiler alert: Coffey still gets executed anyhow — he can’t save himself. The white prison guards tearfully witness his painful death, despite believing in his innocence.)

The Magical Negro trope has also been deployed in politics. For example, during his radio shows in 2007, Rush Limbaugh played the song “Barack the Magic Negro,” a parody of “Puff the Magic Dragon” performed by an Al Sharpton vocal impersonator. The song’s lyrics insinuate that Obama isn’t “black enough” because he’s “not from the hood” and goes as far as saying, “When you vote for president, watch out and don’t be fooled.” Limbaugh’s crude parody played to the idea that Obama’s only purpose was to act as a savior for liberals, and he was otherwise unqualified and untrustworthy.

In many ways, the #Oprah2020 dialogue fixated more on Winfrey’s impressive oratory skills, potential qualifications, and political bona fides over her actual desire to be president. Commentator Sally Kohn provided an excellent example of this line of thinking (emphasis added):

“Of course, part of the appeal of an Oprah candidacy is the prospect of our increasingly reality TV-like political atmosphere. But beyond that, there’s just something magical about Oprah herself, a somewhat singular figure in a somewhat singular moment in a somewhat singular nation. I don’t really believe in the smug nationalism of American exceptionalism, but I believe in Oprah exceptionalism. And I think Oprah would make an exceptional president.”

On Twitter, Kohn acknowledged the unfortunate weight of stereotypes associated with the “magical” framing, and apologized. But her thinking is both surprisingly common and toxic.

Oprah isn’t the exception. She’s part of the rule.

Even Winfrey isn’t safe from being called on to carry America’s burdens. Black women are seen as long-suffering laborers who can counted on to bear heavy political baggage, despite often having the fruits of their labor stolen.

Take the throngs of black women voters who showed up to the polls in December to help carry Democrat Doug Jones to victory in a tight US Senate race over controversial Republican candidate Roy Moore. In the days following Jones’s win, politicians, celebrities and everyday voters reveled in the idea of black women saving Alabama — and America — from Moore and Trumpism. But as P.R. Lockhart wrote for Vox, this group was not coming out to the polls to save America. They were coming out to represent their own best interests as voters.

As Marisa Kabas notes at NBC Think:

[T]hese fervent (often white) calls for a President Winfrey fit into a classic liberal pattern of championing black women in one breath, then voting against their interests in the next. April Reign, founder of the successful #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which points out the overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood awards’ shows, put it like this: ‘Stop begging strong Black women to be president: Michelle [Obama], Oprah, whatever. It’s weird. And Lord knows when Black women try to lead, y’all attempt to silence and erase us. So how would that work, exactly?’

As Kabas writes, to many, championing black women as hypothetical leaders butts up against the ideas of what leaders “look like” while also understanding it would mean taking the needs of black women more seriously. Over at Refinery29, Natalie Gontcharova highlighted Trump’s attacks on black women such as Reps. Frederica Wilson and Maxine Waters, ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, and American Urban Radio Networks reporter April D. Ryan. A 2020 run for Winfrey would almost certainly add her to the list.

Still, even if she doesn’t run for the highest office in the country, perhaps Winfrey will return to the campaign trail in 2018, as she did for Obama in 2008, to speak as a reliable surrogate who can help make the case for a winning candidate. Or maybe she’ll opt to stay out of the fray altogether. Either way, it’s her call, not ours.

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