Billionaire talk show host, reading guru and cultural force Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Michelle Obama will travel to Copenhagen as part of Chicago’s official delegation in a last-minute effort to sway the International Olympic Committee to grant the 2016 games to the Windy City.
In some ways, what is most remarkable about the two black women’s presence is how unremarkable it is at all.
While there has been conversation about whether Michelle’s husband should leave his efforts to get health care reform passed or what Oprah’s presence will mean to the city’s bid, none of it that I have seen has focused on either woman’s race.
This is not by any means to suggest that racism and sexism have been eradicated in American society, but rather to note that, at least in the case of these two women, some positive change has occurred.
The degree to which Oprah and Michelle Obama can be said in any way to be representative of their millions of fellow black women is of course up for discussion, and Angela Davis‘ wide ranging and informative essay collection, Women, Race & Class, can help inform that conversation.
The essays in this collection begin with slavery and move forward in time, essentially arriving at the period the book was published in the final two entries, which focus on reproductive rights and the obsolescence of housework, respectively. While nearly all the selections focus on black women, Davis does also have a chapter about communist women covers many white women she deems to be political stalwarts.
Davis does not shy away from taking on some of the most hallowed names in American history, with Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells and Margaret Sanger only some of the most famous people on the list.
Women, Race & Class is not a polemic, although Davis’ call in one of the later essays to socialize child care might you to leave believe otherwise. Published in 1983, the work is an attempt both to insert the experience of black women into mainstream historical discourse and to talk about the many hardships black women have endured, including those from their avowed allies.
In addition to having chapters about slavery, the book includes three chapters about the women’s movement, which repeatedly privileged white women’s advancement over the franchise for all women. In a similar vein, anti-lynching efforts did not gain widespread support from white people one would have expected to be supportive, she says, because of their accepting of the myth of black men as savage rapists.
The book is neither a litany of victimization nor an endless series of pot shots. Davis writes at several points in the book with admiration of the actions taken and writing done by the Grimke sisters, and also has much good to say about Wells, Mary Church Terrell and Douglass, among others.
Beyond this lauding of individuals, Women, Race & Class is based in a profound respect for, and sense of solidarity with, black women who have done the proverbial way paving for Davis and others in her generation.
Davis has continued that tradition, and to some degree Winfrey and Obama are beneficiaries of her efforts. Whether you find her political actions reprehensible or not, I still recommend reading this collection before following Oprah and Michelle on their excellent adventure to push Chicago past the Olympic finishing line.