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Social Studies

The Price of Sass

By Vincent Williams | Posted 7/5/2006

Y’know, sometimes a story just lands right in your lap. Seriously, I had, like, half a column written about my unholy attraction to Condoleezza Rice, based, ironically, on the fact that she doesn’t seem to care about her physical appearance, and suddenly my nice, orderly world was rocked to its core. Oh snap, Star Jones quit The View! Oh, no she di-n’t, she was fired! It’s mayhem!

The first thing I thought was, See, she didn’t get that memo from Oprah about her audience. I’ve always considered Jones the Oprah of Earth 2, because it often seems she doesn’t understand the role her mostly white, mostly female, mostly middle-class audience played in her success like Winfrey does.

Oprah and her audience have been on my mind because of the curious brouhaha between her and, uh, hip-hop. Ludacris started it, stating that, when he was on Winfrey’s show to promote Crash with the rest of the cast, the host blindsided him by questioning his hip-hop material, particularly the images of violence, misogyny, etc. According to Luda, if that wasn’t bad enough, when the episode aired, his response to the challenge was edited. Since then, Ice Cube and my personal favorite paragon of black manhood, 50 Cent, have gone on record against what they feel is Winfrey’s bias against hip-hop and how she never has hip-hop artists as guests.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Winfrey actually responded. She went on Ed Lover’s radio show in New York and talked about how she has Fiddy on her iPod and loves “In Da Club.”

Are you serious? Oprah Winfrey is a 52-year-old black woman. You know how you’re not supposed to speak in absolutes? Well, here’s one: 52-year-old black women don’t listen to hip-hop. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. Y’know, stay in your lane. Aretha? Certainly. Some Motown? Definitely. Jay-Z? Uh, sounds like someone talked to an intern and got some names. And, again, no biggie: I’ve never played The Chronic for my mom, but it would be ridiculous to think that makes her hate the rap music. Just because something ain’t for you doesn’t mean that you hate it. So I found it so bizarre that Winfrey would come down from Mount Oprahlympus and do this weird version of “Some of my best friends are black, uh, rappers.”

Especially since, like Mo’ Better Blues’ Bleek Gilliam, if Oprah had to depend on black folks to eat, she would starve to death. That certainly isn’t an indictment, on either side; hell, if Luda, Fiddy, and Cube had to depend on black folks to eat, well, they wouldn’t be eating quite as well as they do. Still, I find it fascinating that a woman whose primary audience is middle-aged, middle-class white women felt the need to address the concerns of an art form that doesn’t affect either her or her audience.

But it’s because of that audience that I think Oprah had to try and squash this thing. More than anything else, Oprah’s strength is her image. And when you take into account her audience, there’s always been a certain amount of opinion from Winfrey critics that posit the talk show host as a postmodern mammy. She’s warm and full of a sort of down to earth wisdom (“Girlfriend! Girlfriend!”), she’s had ongoing weight problems, and, Jamie Foxx flirting aside, she’s pretty desexualized. I’m not saying I subscribe to this thinking, but hey, the math’s there. Oprah, being a master image manipulator, knows that you can’t really bring that much attention to this unseemly racial dynamic, because the last thing these nice middle-class white women want is to be accused of being comfortable with a black woman because she reminds them of the Gone With the Wind “good ol’ days.”

So Oprah keeps her “black card” in good standing, regardless of how many black folks are watching, in part to subvert that mammy tag. And being in an ongoing pissing match with Young Black Men certainly doesn’t help your street cred. Oprah didn’t get to be Oprah by messing up the ol’ image.

Star Jones, who was also overweight, sassy, and nonpartnered, tapped into that same audience for a while, but she never seemed to get it. She lost all that weight, and, again, history has shown that middle-class, middle-aged America seems to prefer its black women overweight. She got married, and while I don’t know if it made her a sexual being, it certainly thrust her outside of the desexualized box. All the news reports of her leaving The View talk about how her approval ratings went down after the weight loss and the marriage, and, while it’s attributed to her scrounging around for freebies for her wedding, I have my doubts. Still, it’s kind of ironic that the same sassiness that got Jones hired, blew up in the face of her employers. If I was gonna make a movie about it, I’d call it Yes I Did, Girlfriend! The Revenge of Sassy! And I’d try and get Condoleezza Rice to come to the premiere.

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