Oprah Winfrey: “A new dawn is on the horizon”

Published 11th January 2018

Award shows can be incredibly dull but this years’ Golden Globe Awards showcased the power of “celebrity” and the impact famous voices can have when they are utilised to raise awareness. One of the most memorable and significant celebrity speeches of our time was delivered by Oprah Winfrey as she accepted the Cecile B. Demille Award for her remarkable contribution to the entertainment world. In her acceptance speech Winfrey took the opportunity to shed light on societal ills, denouncing racism, and saluting the brave victims of sexual assault.

The event began with a vast majority of the nominees and invited guests wearing black to raise awareness about the anti-sexual harassment campaign “Time’s Up” and engaging in what is popularly referred to as “red carpet activism.” Several celebrities chose to bring gender and equality activists as their “plus ones” in solidarity with the Time’s Up movement.
Time’s Up is a movement helping victims of sexual harassment in the workplace including establishing a legal defense fund which subsidises legal fees for such individuals. This movement was inspired by the 2017 #MeToo movement that mobilised thousands to stand against sexual assault and harassment.

The #MeToo movement was created by civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006 and was popularised by actress Alyssa Milano in October 2017, when she encouraged women who have been victims of sexual harassment to tweet those simple two words. Those two words have been tweeted by millions particularly in the wake of shocking sexual harassment allegations levelled against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Over 80 women accused Weinstein of sexual harassment/ assault/ molestation.

2017’s Time Person of Year was a group of women representing millions of other “Silence Breakers” who moved past the shame, self-blame and pain of the sexual harassment and abuse and shared their heart breaking yet inspiring stories with the world.

What better cause to champion on a platform such as the Golden Globe Awards. Many presenters and award recipients took a moment to reflect on the importance of putting an end to sexual harassment but the night reached its crescendo when Winfrey took the floor. Winfrey acknowledged the plight of victims of sexual harassment and recognised the bravery of the women who have spoken up and refused to suffer in silence. Sexual harassment and sexual violence is widespread and all too common. According to a 2015 survey reported by Time’s Up, 1 in 3 women between ages 18 to 34 have been sexually harassed at work. 71% of those women indicated that did not report it.
South Africa is sadly no stranger to sexual harassment and violence and has some of the highest rape statistics in the world. In 2016/17, a total of 49,660 sexual offences were recorded by the police, what more for those offences that go unreported?

As the first African-American woman to be bestowed with this award the obvious challenges of racial inequality in Hollywood and indeed in many parts of the world, could not be overlooked. The Cecile B DeMille award has been awarded 64 times on an annual basis (except in 1976 and 2008) since 1952. Only four African-Americans have ever received it.

Sidney Poitier was the first African American to receive honour in 1982, a point Winfrey was sure to mention in her speech.

The mere fact that in 2017 the world is still counting African-American or black “firsts” in various fields, professions and positions, is a sign of how far the world is from some semblance of true equality.

The indomitable Oprah Winfrey has other “firsts” under her belt. She was the first woman to own and produce her own talk show and Forbes first African-American female billionaire.

The relevance of Winfrey’s remarks, against the backdrop of 2017 which saw its fair share of vitriolic hate speech and persecution on the basis of race, was more than just appropriate-it was necessary. Winfrey’s took the audience all the way back to Rosa Parks, an African-American civil rights activist who resisted bus segregation in 1955 in Alabama, USA by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.

Winfrey also told the lesser known story of Recy Taylor, an African-American mother and wife who was gang raped by 6 white men 1944 in Alabama. Her assailants were never brought to justice and Taylor died just ten days before Winfrey’s speech. Those powerful recollections received a standing ovation as long-lasting applause filled the glitzy Beverly Hilton ballroom.
Winfrey aptly and eloquently captured the systemic inequality that plagues society today and professed that a “new day is on the horizon”. After her inspiring speech, social media and news platforms were abuzz with the thought of Winfrey being the first female African American President of the US in 2020. Another long awaited “first” the world is yet to see.

** This article appeared in the Star Newspaper on 11 January 2018

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