The way that nearly all black women – regardless of their income, education, or social status – embrace Oprah Winfrey is emblematic of the value they place on sisterhood and their collective sense of pride for their determination to overcome adversity, according to Johns Hopkins University sociologist Katrina Bell McDonald, author of Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity, and Contemporary Black Women (Rowan & Littlefield, late summer 2006).
“Virtually everyone, black, white, Hispanic or Asian, holds her in great esteem,” McDonald said. “They may not like certain things she does or says here or there, but they can’t deny she’s an amazing force.”
It doesn’t matter that none of the 88 African-American women McDonald surveyed for her book will ever be able to relate to Winfrey’s fortune or fame, McDonald says, because that’s not really why they admire her, McDonald says. All of the Baltimore-area interviewees, from the high-powered executives to inmates at the city detention center, told McDonald that they admire Winfrey because she triumphed over adversity to become a household name.
“Black women have a different approach to who she is because she represents something different to us than she does to other women,” McDonald says. “She’s a sister. She’s someone who is in the family, and just like families wrestle with what we expect of each other, we wrestle with her over what we want her to represent.”
The Winfrey metaphor became a springboard question during McDonald’s fieldwork, which included a five-page survey and in-person interviews whose results are published in Embracing Sisterhood. McDonald talked to her subjects in their homes and businesses throughout Baltimore, seeking to determine the level of unity and class discord among today’s African-American women. At times, she embedded herself in the lives of the women, offering educational counseling at the detention center and booking appointments from the front desk of local hair salons to put the women at ease. Through her research, McDonald found that African-American women are really much more alike in their sentiments about black womanhood than many of the images portrayed in movies and television shows would have us believe.
“I fully expected class to be a sharp divider on all sorts of issues, including the Oprah question. And then the data didn’t hold up,” McDonald said. “Yes, there are elements of class operating throughout here, but it’s not so powerful that it swamps what is clearly a universal sentiment about black womanhood. It’s not uncommon for black women to have huge self esteem. Even if in their personal lives they may suffer blows to their self esteem, they still can somehow come back to, ‘But I’m a black woman!’ At the same time, there’s this amazing consistency in the use of the word ‘struggle’ to talk about what it means to be a black woman. So it’s the self esteem that comes from survival from the struggle, and it was very consistent across different groups.”
McDonald hopes that Winfrey will continue to use her influence and speak directly to black women so that they, too, can rally to address some major issues facing the nation, such as America’s failing public schools.
“Black women have been amazing activists throughout American history and African history for that matter,” McDonald says. “There’s a long history of being excellent organizers and protectors of children and family…With any group that is successful through their self esteem and their genuine concern for one another, there is a snowball effect for everyone else.”
To speak with McDonald or to request a review copy of Embracing Sisterhood, contact Amy Lunday at 443-287-9960 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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