Written By Myles E. Johnson
Oprah was my first taste of possibility. I could not have been older than nine years of age; witnessing her with a microphone and holding the attention of a large audience inspired something in me. The arrogance of youth overcame me, and I thought to myself, that should be me. I had things to say. I deserve eyeballs and ears of the public for forty-five minutes a day with advertisement for toothpaste and cleaning supplies running in between. As my youthful entitlement matured into a more socially accepted adult anxiety, I still look positively at that moment of possibility. I also think critically about what made that moment of possibility possible.
When you are a public person your body is not just a vehicle for your existence; it is a symbol. The image of Oprah has done as much work as Oprah herself. In media, symbolism is powerful. Before saying or doing anything, the pure image of a certain body taking up space offers the imagination its most powerful and intoxicating drugs: hope, ambition, and audacity.
It was 1985. A then unknown Oprah Winfrey was Sofia Johnson. She was strong and loud. Winfrey delivered one of the most recognizable and earth-shaking monologues in film history when she barged from the field and said with conviction, “All my life I had to fight.” Oprah’s fat, black woman body reminds the public of Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind”. It reminds us of the mammy trope that has been constantly put on black women, especially black women with bodies like Oprah’s. However, Sofia Johnson with her confidence, independence, and ability to articulate her boundaries deconstructed the image of The Mammy in the film, “The Color Purple”. This is a radical way to use your body when you are a public person.
This is true of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, as well. Often the fat, the black, the woman/femme person is the topic. They are the thing being examined and discussed. They are the spectacle. Oprah was the facilitator. She took her lens of experience and examined the world with it, not the reverse. She was the conductor of the conversation, not the passive topic to be debated. And she looked like my mother. She looked like my Grandmother. Even as I touch my thighs, my belly and examine the skin on my arm I’d be regretful to not confess that Oprah looks like me, too.
Oprah and I have different gender experiences and are informed by different times, but she looked more like me than any black man on my television. Her desire for wisdom, conversation, empowerment, and connection, too, looked more like my feminine, chubby, black, gay self than any other representation in film. This truth is what birthed my audacity as the age of nine. I knew if someone who looked like her could carve power and materialize wild dreams for herself (and others), then social domination wouldn’t be something for me to kneel to, but tirelessly dismantle. Oprah’s body gave me hope as a little child hungry to tell stories and be heard, but not sure if I was light enough, pretty enough, or think enough to deserve to be heard and seen.
As I write, I must admit there is also an arrogance that comes with adulthood. The arrogance is that you believe you have dreamed all the things you can dream. The products of media and symbolism of art has no way of affirming or influencing you because the self you are now is concrete for better or for worse.
Ava Duvernay gave the public the trailer to her new film, “A Wrinkle in Time”. It’s a more modern take on the epic fantasy for children and young adults by the same name. In the trailer, there is Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which. One of the more arresting images is Winfrey dressed in futuristic garb with triangular gray afro hair as she opens her arms as to summon her magic and power from the universe. She is the dream of both Sun Ra and Octavia E. Butler, and the the deconstruction that bodies like Oprah’s must be confined to reality, to the now, to the real.
This was an image that my adult self needed. I had not thought about who has access to futurism, to fantasy, and the surreal. I had not thought clearly about how imperative it is to imagine magic and the transcendence of time for bodies that are locked in place because history created tropes that are too difficult to escape from now.
This is poetic to see when you think about Oprah continuing to reimagine and dismantle what is possible for people with a body size, full lips, negro nose, and skin color like hers. She began by reimagining the past, deconstructing the harmful mammy trope with boldness. Now, Oprah is conjuring worlds and a future where everyone can imagine themselves as a wielder of magic.
Myles E. Johnson is a black, queer writer and editor existing at the nexus of race, sexual identity, gender, feminism, and justice through content creation and cultural critique.