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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 11, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 2
Book Talk: A Sociologist's Take on Black Sisterhood

How black women embrace Oprah Winfrey is emblematic of the value they place on sisterhood, says sociologist Katrina Bell McDonald.

By Amy Lunday

While writing her first book, Krieger School sociologist Katrina Bell McDonald had in mind a very specific title — a title that name-dropped the book's inspiration — only to have her publisher's legal department nix the famous moniker at the last minute. If all had gone according to plan, Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity and Contemporary Black Women (Rowan & Littlefield, August 2006) would have given a titular hug to a very specific icon: Oprah Winfrey.

The book's premise is that the way that nearly all black women — regardless of their income, education or social status — embrace Winfrey is emblematic of the value they place on sisterhood. Winfrey's humble beginnings also speak to black women's collective sense of pride for their determination to overcome adversity, McDonald says.

"What do you think of Oprah?" became a springboard question McDonald posed during her fieldwork in locations across Baltimore. She talked to her subjects in their homes and businesses, seeking to determine the level of unity and class discord among today's African-American women.

It doesn't matter that none of the 88 African-American women McDonald surveyed will ever be able to relate to Winfrey's fortune or fame, she says, because that's not really why they admire her: All of the interviewees, from high-powered executives to inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center, told McDonald that they admire Winfrey because she triumphed over adversity to become a household name.

The Gazette sat down with McDonald in her Mergenthaler office to talk about her research, which 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.

Q: Does everyone embrace Oprah?

A: Virtually everyone — black, white, Hispanic or Asian — holds her in great esteem. They may not like certain things she does or says here or there, but they can't deny she's an amazing force. And it's my impression that if any one of them had a chance to meet her face to face, they'd be running to her. ... Either they see her as an amazing businesswoman, they see her as an amazing success story, they relate to her because of some of her specific challenges, particularly in childhood, but they can't deny that she has made some amazing choices as a career woman, and just as a person, that are just phenomenal.

Q: Do you think black women look at Oprah with a particularly critical eye?

A: Black women have a different approach to who she is because she represents something different to us than she does to other women. 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.

Q: You conducted your interviews here in Baltimore, where Winfrey got her start in television. Do you think that made a difference in the responses you got from your subjects?

A: Being in Baltimore was particularly intriguing because there were a few women who recalled seeing her when they were little. She would come to their high schools, or they would see her out and about, or their mothers knew her maybe from the hair salon or church. People who have lived here a long time remember her presence very much and have very detailed sentiments.

Q: While reading your book, I found myself thinking that to be a good sociologist, you have to be a good reporter. How did you perfect your interviewing skills?

A: People tend to trust me pretty quickly. Some of that I'm sure comes from my communications background, because my first two degrees are in communications. And I also grew up in a singing family, so I've been singing since I was 3 on big stages all over the country. As a very young girl, I learned stage presence, and I learned how to draw people in through music, and I think it just translates somehow into this other endeavor, this interviewing stuff I do. I'm also a violinist, [and] there is something about stage performance and learning how to deliver to people to draw them in. ... For the most part people are so giving and want to tell me their stories. I find that I can usually get what I need if I just, you know, have a conversation as if we've always known each other.

Q: How did you hone in on hair salons and the city detention center as the places to conduct your fieldwork?

A: I chose the prisons because I knew that there was a high correlation between imprisonment and low social status. For the working and middle class group, in part I tried to go through the hair salons, and I went to several of them and one in particular allowed me to be an appointment taker. When women would come in for their appointments or to ask me about openings, I would say, "I know this is really strange, but I'm actually Dr. McDonald from Johns Hopkins University [and] I'm working on a project," and sometimes they'd let me come back another day and interview them while they were there for their appointment. Most times, however, they allowed me to come to their homes or workplaces.

Q: You mentioned that you've had a longtime interest in the ways class shapes relationships among African-Americans. What did your research reveal to you?

A: 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. 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.


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