The World currently finds itself at the precipice of a new dispensation. Covid-19 has made more urgent the feminist prompting, that the “Personal has always been Political”. And there, in your arsenal of leaders are two women, none more respected, none more celebrated and none more polarized than bell hooks and Oprah Winfrey – The Two Mothers of African America.
Although without any natural children of their own, these two women have dedicated their entire lives to teaching the ‘Negro nation within a Nation’ – in their own respective ways. One of the Mothers has spent her time being read by existential young people on college campuses; by conflicted inmates within the loneliness of prison cells; and by conscious brothers in the community of radical reading groups. The other has made her mark Mothering America and the rest of the world, taking us by hand, step by step, through crucial life moments, right in the comfort of our homes and from the biggest stage of them all – network television.
In my analysis of your situation over there, I have found these two Mothers of the African American tribe in a similar place to where Dr King and Malcolm X found themselves in the ’60s. Which is the same place where W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T Washington were in the ’20s. And it certainly is the same spot where Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass separated from earlier in the 1860s when they disagreed on the question of how to uplift their race ‘Up from Slavery’.
The root of all of this, of course, can be found in the same place where enslaved African-Americans in the ‘big house’, and enslaved African Americans in the ‘field’ found themselves. Although they were in the same plantation, their individual usefulness made them choose different ways to survive America. And these two women, in their polar opposite corners, are inheritors of this emotive point of contention that has been passed over, down to posterity.
There are other mothers as well who have come before to unite the tribe – such as Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and many others. And there are still some today, whose mothering vacillates between their radical-bell-hooks youthful days and the empowering black-girl-magic of Oprah Winfrey. African Americans now more than ever, need to survive together rather than each running after their own freedom in pursuit of an elusive American dream.
I was surprised though by Ms Winfrey’s position on the Michael Jackson child abuse allegations. I reckon her own experience of being violated made her sympathise more with the victims rather than with the untouchable legendary superstar. This is what I’ve always liked about Ms Winfrey. 66 years on and she is still the same Orpah – a curious young girl from Kosciusko, Mississippi – who is forever learning and growing and Becoming.
bell hooks, on the other hand, must be forgiven for being afflicted with the same condition that haunted W.E.B Du Bois before her. These two towering academics both struggled with growing up as sensitive nerds in ‘black America’. It must be hard, even in old age, to shed off that highly attuned African American instinct where one must be always ready with a sharp or witty comeback in order to survive the streets.
So when bell hooks said that Beyonce is a ‘terrorist’, I understood what she meant, even though her critique was crude. Her friend Cornel West suffers from the same malady. However, bell hooks was raising an important point about how Beyoncé’s body-perfect celebrity image, assaults the self-esteem of young girls who do not look anything like her size, her skin tone nor have the money to change their hair. Oprah Winfrey, on the other hand, is loved precisely because she looks like any other aunty from around the block and who has finally risen, by her wits alone – no college degree, no perfect body – just her.
And since the global lockdown started Ms Winfrey has had a number of virtual panel discussions after the gratuitous killing of George Floyd – another unarmed African American man. Her first panel was with leading African American celebrities, creatives, community leaders and social justice activists, who were all grappling with the question: ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’. Afterwards, Ms Winfrey had a heart-wrenching conversation with 100 African American fathers who were discussing ‘the talk’ that every man ultimately has to have with his son coming of age. Each father spoke about the cognitive dissonance they experience when they have to tell their sons how, when they walk out of the door, they will be seen as ‘black’ in a ‘white’ world.
A particular question that intrigued Ms Winfrey on her panel with the hundred men involved an African American father who had previously shared his conflicting double consciousness 18 years ago on the Oprah Show. On one hand, the African American man wanted to establish a stable home life environment for himself and his own. On the other, he had a desire to dedicate his life to the advancement of the African American community that brought him up. He was looking for a way to marry these two, seemingly, diametrically opposed internal positions into one consciousness. I’ve heard bell hooks talk extensively about this exact existential angst facing African Americans in a number of her public discussions at The New School – a liberal arts college in New York.
Ms Winfrey should extend her sisterly positive energy towards Ms. hooks who has been cast out to the outskirts of the African American tribe. For the longest time, bell hooks has preached ardently about the type of ‘Will to Change’ that is required of African Americans to survive as a community on the margins of America. And there on the rolling hills of Kentucky – a commonwealth of the old country – bell hooks can be found seated by herself and contemplating her own legacy to the new generation since her contemporaries have rejected her message.
She is probably also trying to break her vexing habit of reading a-book-a-day.
These Two Mothers of African America, need to meet up, reconcile their ideological differences and provide wisdom and guidance on the pressing issues that are facing their tribe and their country – the United States. Ms Winfrey has all the accurate questions – a skill she has sharpened from her many years of actively listening to her guests whilst anticipating what her audience would like to know next. Ms hooks, on the other hand, has written more than 30 (mostly out of print) books that are all aimed at pointing at the image-making business as the new arena of struggle in a culture of domination.
I’d like to see an edifying conversation between these two Titans. Maybe it might illuminate to us some strategies on how to fight off the Imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy this side of the so-called third world.
Nkateko Mabasa is a Johannesburg based writer with an upcoming book to be published in the first quarter of 2021 by Jacana Media. Follow him on Twitter: @NkatekoMabasa_