Black is many things, including Oprah

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

The rappers are mad at Oprah again.

Just one rapper, actually: the gentleman who calls himself 50 Cent, but whose 1994 mug shot identifies him as prisoner No. 94R6378: Jackson, Curtis. Mr. Cent — “Fiddy” to the cognoscenti — was one of a trio of rappers (Ice Cube and Ludacris were the others) who lambasted the Queen of All Media last summer for being insufficiently willing to promote hip-hop. Now, Mr. Cent renews the attack.

In an interview in Elle magazine(!) he charges Winfrey with being not black enough. Winfrey, he says, “started out with black women’s views but has been catering to middle-aged white American women for so long that she’s become one herself.” He also calls her an “Oreo,” which — for those not fluent in black-on-black insult — means black on the outside, white on the inside.

Mr. Cent, should it not be painfully obvious from the foregoing, is an idiot. Worse, he’s an idiot with a painfully transparent need for approval from the woman he has spent so much energy denigrating. I’ll leave it to the mental health community to explain what that means. I’m here only to make one point:

It’s not easy being O.
Yeah, I know: Cry me a river. And $1.5 billion (the reported size of Winfrey’s fortune) buys a lot of Kleenex.

I’m not trying to engage your sympathy for the most powerful woman (sorry, Hillary; beg pardon, Condi) in America. I’m only trying to say it’s a hard trick to manage, being both famous and black. Or, at least, famous to the degree that Oprah Winfrey is — i.e., to the degree that you are recognized as readily in white homes as in black.

To reach that level of renown is to find yourself pulled between competing expectations. On the one side, they praise you for “transcending race” — whatever that means — and they get resentful if you remind them of the ways you are not like them. On the other side, they are alert to any sign that you have Forgotten Where You Came From and they will call you out if they think you’re suffering racial amnesia.

I’ve always thought Oprah Winfrey handled those competing pulls with a rare grace. She produces programming (“The Legends Ball”) that celebrates the passages of great black women, she promotes black authors (full disclosure: I was once one of them), she speaks out on racial issues, she makes a movie (“Beloved”) on the horror of slavery, she builds a school in South Africa — and yet, somehow, white women don’t fear her, still love her. Even when she rebukes them for racial insensitivity.

I remember when one of those women, intending a compliment, told Winfrey she didn’t think of her as black. And Oprah said, Whoa. Black, she explained, gently, but emphatically, is exactly what she is. And her predominantly white audience, as I recall, cheered. That’s a minor miracle.

Granted, I watch daytime television infrequently. So maybe in those dozens of “Oprah” shows I haven’t seen, Winfrey proves herself the black man hater and white woman worshipper black critics often depict. But you’ll forgive me if I doubt. You’ll forgive me if I suspect the “Oprahs” I haven’t seen track pretty closely to the ones I have: celebrity interviews, pop psychology and self-actualization strategies for women of a certain age and station in life.

It’s hard for me to understand what’s wrong with that, or inherently “not black” about it. 50 Cent makes the mistake a lot of white people do: assuming there is but one monolithic black experience and that it is street, poor and hardcore.

Which doesn’t just insult Oprah Winfrey. It insults all of us because it denies a simple fact: Black is many things.

That’s something Mr. Cent should consider next time he’s holed up in his mansion in Farmington, Conn. (median income, $67,000, black population 1.5 percent) writing rhymes about how hard life is for poor black folks on mean streets.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com