Stanley Crouch: Oprah Winfrey and American greatness
Part of America’s identity is its good luck, made available and obvious by our rich and famous — people who make it clear that qualities that are limiting or wrong can be made right by the individual, if the dreamer is as big as the dream.
America’s luck is made obvious by Oprah Winfrey receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, and James McBride winning the National Book Award.
Winfrey is a billionaire, but she proves that that is not a limitation on her empathy — which is the strongest and most civilizing force in human relations.
She is the opposite of the dark forces symbolized in the film “There Will Be Blood,” which shows an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Lewis portrays an early 20th-century oilman taken over the brink into madness by rapacity. This master builder is unable to use his fortune or his religious pretensions to save him and redeem his wrong qualities. He fails on every human level but continues his success, unbridled, letting nothing stop his massive greed.
The oilman ends up hating and estranging his secretly adopted son, deafened as a child in a drilling accident that the oilman was powerless to stop; the machinery got away, striking oil, and destroying his son’s hearing.
The wealthy oilman then murders first a man impersonating his own dead brother, and savagely does away with a professional false prophet for not healing his deaf son, and ends as he always was: left alone and eccentric with all his bucks, wallowing in bitterness and self-pity.
That story leads us to Charles and David Koch, the two billionaires reared in the mad, paranoid world of big lies and consistent deceit — the offspring of a founder of the John Birch Society. That means that the two came to their mix of madness and guile quite honestly.
Pretending to care about Americans and protect their freedom, they are the opposite. These bad boys with big bucks have underwritten lunatic theories and movements to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars that we know of, and perhaps more that we do not.
Winfrey has nothing to do with that kind of deceptive greed. Aiming to dirty the waters until people cannot see the truth, even if it is in front of them. A Mississippi woman, she seems as alive and vital as blues itself, whether or not she likes that sound.
She shares the kind of American wisdom demonstrated by Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Eleanor Roosevelt — recognizing and responding to the unlimited force and strength of the human heart.
Winfrey could be a character in a novel written by McBride, whose “The Good Lord Bird” frees the American slaves from the traumatized state of talking work animal that we see in the overly celebrated “Twelve Years a Slave.” Winfrey represents what the actual slaves represented and gave to America: a heroic optimism that flowed through their music, their folklore and their families. Those elements that were recognized by the astounding 18th-century Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, whose teaching free and slave, black and white children for 25 years convinced him that slavery had to go. Men and women like Benezet presented prodding and inspirational examples taken up by country-boy President Abraham Lincoln and all the others who spoke out and stood up against oppression.
What McBride shows us in “The Good Lord Bird” is as strong and unlimited by sentimentality and cliches as the old spiritual of a similar name. It is a true example of American literature, not a favor to black writers.
Winfrey, too, transcends all labels. She is attacked by the devious and deceptive forces of the right as an ingrate who should not talk about poverty and racism because she has too much money and fame to understand them now. They want to shame her success, because they do not understand — or do not respect — America’s identity. But Barack Obama knew whom he put that medal on, because she was almost as central to his becoming president as Michelle Obama, who remains hidden in plain sight.
McBride and Winfrey transcend their ethnicity right from the middle of it, because they both know how to focus on the human heart, which has no color.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.