The very first time I saw Edwidge Danticat was on the The Oprah Winfrey Show stage in 1998. She is one of the earliest authors handpicked by Ms. Winfrey to have the distinction of a title for the Oprah’s Book Club. That title was Danticat’s first published novel: Breath, Eyes, Memory. I paid undivided attention to the soft-spoken, gentle-mannered, chocolate, dimpled and precisely-worded young author. A Haitian best friend from Brooklyn had mentioned this woman to me–for Krik? Krak! I recall I had not had the time to borrow the book from my friend yet. I must admit: after I met Danticat on Oprah, I went out and bought all of her works the very next day. Funny. I would certainly listen to a friend who always gave me the best books, but not necessarily do anything about it…but I ran out fast to spend my money when Oprah Winfrey said so? What Winfrey accomplished for Black American writers in America was to make her selections of our works with no pretext or pretention of “diversity”–but just a fine taste for damned good books. It was unprecedented.
During her tenure as more than a talk show queen, Oprah Winfrey was lauded for her book club…but why? Sure, she got millions of Americans reading. Her shot-in-the-dark stamp of approval guaranteed that major bookstore managers and publishing publicists would become verrrry busy, particularly after times where people became too hypnotized by Facebook to pick up an actual book. The writers she put at the forefront of American daytime audiences, like rock stars running the late night television circuit, were a collection of everyone from unknowns launched into the pages of Poets & Writers to deceased heavyweights that only English teachers still wag fingers at the public for:
William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Andre Dubus, Billie Letts, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Hamilton, Pearl Buck, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wally Lamb, Barbara Kingsolver, Joyce Carol Oates, Leo Tolstoy, Ken Follett, Anna Quindlen, Sue Monk Kidd, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Alice Sebold, and so on and so forth.
The list of Black American men and women she featured includes the little engine Ernest Gaines and the elegant behomoth Maya Angelou. Out of 65 titles in 14 years, 13 were Black. Women, overall, wrote most of her Book Club selections. In the earliest years of the club, the majority were titles by Blacks. Winfrey practiced quiet diversity.
Beyond the hard books she propelled into American circulation (often at rates higher than when they debuted), Winfrey’s cinematic contributions to American film have done more for Black women’s literature than anything besides her own Book Club. She is second only to the Black academy’s tenacious study, collection, archiving and documenting of our books from the last 150 years of bravery in continual publication (despite continual negation of our voices). More people heard and saw Winfrey’s eartfelt and dramatic “You told Harpo to beat me!” monologue in the 1986 “The Color Purple” film, than actually read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple book (1985); the same goes for the droves of people, of all races, who flocked to Broadway for “The Color Purple” musical that Winfrey spearheaded and funded to international acclaim. Without her, it may have just had a novelty run for a few seasons.
Despite the fact that her Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved (1998) ascended Toni Morrison to her apex of critical acclaim and expected celebrity, it took 15 years for a visionary like Oprah Winfrey to guarantee the story would reach audiences onscreen. Her television roles (as lead actress and producer, respectively), in “The Women of Brewster Place” (1989) and “Their Eyes Were Watching God”(2005), gave the world a visual rendering of Gloria Naylor’s and Zora Neale Hurston’s decades-old work. Previously, those books had only haunted the most astute Black women readers and college classes of stalwart professors who would not let such names remain unspoken.
Winfrey’s dissenters (and there were many) accused her of: pandering too much to “soccer mom” culture, sitting down on African-American women’s specific issues or concerns, slighting her own Black American people with the construction of schools in Africa, and avoiding a Mr. Holland’s Opus-level crusade in Black projects of notoriously dismal rates of academic ambition.
She could have done a little more. Certainly, she could have created a Book Club centering upon names, faces and complexions such as hers–with a taskmaster’s attitude to America to “englighten” themselves on Black writers. She could have upped the ante from 20% Black writers to 50%. But the affirmative action undertones would have knocked the works down a peg or two, possibly made them more pitiful than remarkable. She could have made sure to include a token Black writer in a predictable pattern…one every month, or year. She did not. Some years had several. Some had none. The arbitrary democracy of her selections forced the true categorization of Black women’s works to finally shine brightest and highest: These are not Black writers’ books…these are just the best books on the planet. Here is the complete list of work that educators should design college academic courses around, celebrating Ms. Winfrey, as much as her supreme authors:
Black American Oprah’s Book Club selections (in order of appearance on her show):
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
The Meanest Thing to Say, The Treaure Hunt, The Best Way to Play by Bill Cosby
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Paradise by Toni Morrison
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
River, Cross My Heart by Breena Clarke
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Cane River by Lalita Tademy
Sula by Toni Morrison
The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier
Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan