Monday, February 04, 2008

Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison on the Creative Imagination

I'm not a bit Oprah groupie, but this was an amazing speech.

"For the first time, we can vote as we believe, and we can do that because that is what the struggle was for.... I have been a woman my whole life, and every part of me believes in the empowerment of women, but the truth is I'm a FREE woman ... and being free means you get to think for yourself and you get to decide for yourself what to do. I am not a traitor [to my gender], I'm just following my own truth, and that truth has led me to Barack Obama."

To those who accuse her of voting on race, she says, "I say that, too , was insulting to me. Don't play me small. I'm not that small... I would never vote for anyone based on gender OR race. I'm not voting for Barack Obama because he's black . I'm voting for Barack Obama because he's BRILLIANT."

Her quotation of Toni Morrison's letter (and I'm a big Toni Morrison fan) sent me to google to read the letter, which I am copying here. I copied the letter from where it was posted on the New York Observer:

Dear Senator Obama,

This letter represents a first for me--a public endorsement of a Presidential candidate. I feel driven to let you know why I am writing it. One reason is it may help gather other supporters; another is that this is one of those singular moments that nations ignore at their peril. I will not rehearse the multiple crises facing us, but of one thing I am certain: this opportunity for a national evolution (even revolution) will not come again soon, and I am convinced you are the person to capture it.

May I describe to you my thoughts?

I have admired Senator Clinton for years. Her knowledge always seemed to me exhaustive; her negotiation of politics expert. However I am more compelled by the quality of mind (as far as I can measure it) of a candidate. I cared little for her gender as a source of my admiration, and the little I did care was based on the fact that no liberal woman has ever ruled in America. Only conservative or "new-centrist" ones are allowed into that realm. Nor do I care very much for your race[s]. I would not support you if that was all you had to offer or because it might make me "proud."

In thinking carefully about the strengths of the candidates, I stunned myself when I came to the following conclusion: that in addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don't see in other candidates. That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom. It is too bad if we associate it only with gray hair and old age. Or if we call searing vision naivete. Or if we believe cunning is insight. Or if we settle for finessing cures tailored for each ravaged tree in the forest while ignoring the poisonous landscape that feeds and surrounds it. Wisdom is a gift; you can't train for it, inherit it, learn it in a class, or earn it in the workplace--that access can foster the acquisition of knowledge, but not wisdom.

When, I wondered, was the last time this country was guided by such a leader? Someone whose moral center was un-embargoed? Someone with courage instead of mere ambition? Someone who truly thinks of his country's citizens as "we," not "they"? Someone who understands what it will take to help America realize the virtues it fancies about itself, what it desperately needs to become in the world?

Our future is ripe, outrageously rich in its possibilities. Yet unleashing the glory of that future will require a difficult labor, and some may be so frightened of its birth they will refuse to abandon their nostalgia for the womb.

There have been a few prescient leaders in our past, but you are the man for this time.

Good luck to you and to us.

Toni Morrison


Wordsbody said...

Oprah is not voting for Obama because he's black. She's voting for him because he's brilliant.

But she'd say that, wouldn't she?

You didn't honestly expect her to say otherwise, did you?

jinni said...

Toni Morrison has always captured popular imagination in her prose and other works and I am pleased that she is endorsing Obama.Equally thrilling is Oprah´s endorsement(although I am not an Oprah fan).

Talatu-Carmen said...


No... I doubt Oprah would have said "I AM voting for Barack Obama because he is black," just as Barack Obama would not use as a slogan "No, We can't," instead of "Yes, We can;" or "I'm for the status quo" rather than "I'm for change." However, there is something to be said for a certain amount of rhetorical skill. The WAY Oprah said it, the way it was intoned was very skillful. She could have said "I'm not voting for Obama because he's black. I don't do things like that," and it would not have been as powerful as parallel structure of "I'm not voting for him because he's black. I'm voting for him because he is brilliant." So,as a student of literature, rhetoric, all that stuff, I am admiring the speech 1)Not necessarily because she is expressing anything particularly original but because of the way in which it was said. It's the same reason I am blown away by Obama's speeches. The man is an orator.

And, yes, it would be silly to vote for such superficials alone. I have done my research. I have read his policy decisions. I love the challenge he has given to politics as usual--his desire to make the political process more transparent, to reduce the influence of lobbyiests in Washington. I like that he has community organizing and grassroots experience and hasn't been in Washington for 20 years. I like the way his campaign has capitalized on that grassroots community experience to build a nation-wide social movement. I like his reasonable stance on immigration, his practical stance on health care. I actually do think he is the best candidate. And, yes, the charisma and the oratory helps too--but why not? Much of the job of a president IS show, IS public relations, IS to represent the nation (and lift it out of the gutter of global opinion where GWB has sent it)--and I think Obama will do a pretty damn good job at that.

Finally, the reason I like Oprah's speech is that it expresses exactly the frustration many of us feel at the media, at the polls, at all of these so-called experts telling us that most of us are shallow, most of us won't do our research, most of us are voting for race or gender. And I think the whole appeal of the Obama campaign is that he gives people credit for some intelligence and some nuance and some reasonableness. And he gives youth, who have spent their whole life seeing the same old same old in politics, being told that we have to play the game, hope for change. If his presidency is successful (and it might not be... and, certainly, he will make his share of mistakes) it will be because the social movement he has started with this campaign continues into a more involved body of citizens--who take seriously our duties to public service.

Hillary Clinton would, I am sure, be a fine president. Barack Obama, however, offers an opportunity that does not often come along--to help transform American society, thought and politics (and I'm sure you agree with me that it is in sore need of some transformation). Am I and those who support him being idealistic? Of course. Transformation is not as easy as voting a goodlooking and charismatic man into office--we have to work alongside him. Are we naive? Perhaps. That remains to be seen.

So, whether Oprah said what she did out of PC-ness or cynical rhetoric, I AGREE with her. I AM voting for Obama because I think he's brilliant. Can brilliance can actually make a difference in the historically determined structures of inequality we see in the world? Only if the social movement continues. It's just an opportunity I can't dismiss. It might not work, but we'll never know unless we try.