After being retweeted by blog Racialicious on Wednesday i realized i had a lot more to say about Erica Jong's article. Racialicious blogger Latoya Peterson actually cites my tweet in her response on Racialicious up today.
Anyhow, here goes:
Erica Jong Is awhite-American writer who famously supports a sexually liberated brand of feminism; she is most recognized for Fear Of Flying, a novel that trails the life and time of a 29-year old (white) woman unsatisfied in her life and marriage. I bring this up only to prove a point---that in jong's Huffington post piece today (sort of) about a biography of Oprah---the theme of her own dissatisfaction is what reigns. It is drenched in racism and thinly established by an anecdotal and dizzying pastiche that backhandedly creates the persona of a militant and deanged Oprah. It's weird. And I am still asking myself, why are you so angry Erica? She seems like a jealous little kid who on a family trip screams "me, me, me", each "me" more desperately seeking validation and recognition than the previous.
At the outset of Jong’s article she makes clear her discontent with her perceived role as “the happy ho of literature”. So I’m thinking, “oh cool, Erica Jong hates to be pigeonholed and defined.” But then I keep reading. “And following it [their first meeting], I accepted Oprah's invitation to come down to Baltimore and be on her local talk show. At that time, I was probably better known than she. I had already been published all over the world. But I liked her and thought we were friends from the spa.” Immediately Jong positions herself “above” Oprah, as a figure more promising and known doing a favor for the amicable “pudgy and young” black woman that she “liked”. It was awkward to read and made me feel embarrassed to imagine Erica Jong (unmasterfully) creating a hierarchy where Oprah is positioned “beneath” her. Thus begins her proclivity for perpetrating racism through self-aggrandizement and condescension. All the while doing it with these weird delusions of grandeur.
The article is scattered, poorly punctuated and I don’t think proof-read or spell-checked. Poor editing aside, however, one of the things that happens when you construct an argument from discrete moments and memories is that the seam of your argument begins to rely as much on proximity as it does on the content of those memories. Towards the beginning of the article Jong relates the interview she “agreed” to do with Oprah (because she didn’t, of course, gain any audience or publicity, she was just helping out a friend). “‘Don't worry if I nudge my co-presenter,’ she [Oprah] explained. ‘It's how we communicate on air.’ And indeed, she kept poking him. It was odd, but memorable. I'd done quite a few programs without ever seeing this.” What sticks out is the word poke, as it is often used as slang for sex. It sticks out because Jong’s previous paragraph details the spa session in which she and Oprah discussed the difficulties of finding “supportive and sexy men”. The paragraph directly following characterizes Oprah’s “lusty humor”. There is sex all over the place and because Jong fails to provide any solid context for this positioning, I find myself wondering if she means to imply through her curiosity (it was odd, but memorable) that Oprah was exploiting her sexuality with her male co-presenter. Metaphorically “poking” him on air as it were. Perhaps she wants only to describe Oprah’s television personality as unconventional, but I think the implication is there and it is belittling.
As is Jong’s “girlfrien’” approach to Oprah throughout. “I always liked her verve, her lusty humor, her bounce, and I really didn't care whether she was born rich, poor or middle class. Who knew? We had stuff in common, both were talkative and funny”. Bizzare. Why was Oprah’s nascent economic situation even relevant? Do Jong’s opinions of individuals normally hinge upon their economic status? I doubt it. Rather, I understand Jong’s comment as unequivocally racialized and quite cynical at that. “Who knew?” How amazing that Americans from different racial and economic backgrounds can have stuff in common and get along! Jong begins to develop her point about half-way through her article: Oprah has gone from the happy, approachable girlfrien’ type that hangs out with her in the spa to the unnecessarily paranoid, (too) politicized and unapproachable militant that starts her own magazine to control the world’s opinion of her. Jong pretends to like the idea of Oprah’s magazine, O, even indicating that she might have been the catalyst for its inception (delusions of grandeur?). Here again is Jong’s erratic and unreliable pattern. She supports Oprah at first for starting her own magazine but then quickly alters course and vilifies her by creating an image of Oprah as a kind of paranoid autocrat that must have complete control to avoid being “nervous”. What’s more, Jong literally suggests Oprah’s paranoia is completely racial, that her discomfort with white people was the driving force behind her magazine. That Oprah created a publication about everything from cooking to politics that is read by millions all over the world because white people make her nervous? And she wonders why Oprah’s paranoid? Because of people making sweeping and insane judgments like you just did, Erica. This is almost a joke. I’m laughing.
Jong drives her point of Oprah’s paranoia as extraneous and based in her fear of white people by name-dropping a few of her white celebrity friends---Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Liz Taylor---as folks that “can laugh at themselves” are “humble” and “self-effacing,” not “shits”. So then who is the “shit” to which she is referring? Is she referring to Oprah, the paranoid monster that can’t just manage to chill out in the same dressing room as her when they’re in a play together?
And then the shocker that literally made puffs of huge balls of anti-racist smoke come out my ears:
“But Oprah seems to have gotten more mistrustful with fame, not less. And she seems to have gotten more race conscious than she was when she was younger. You never felt that Oprah was a professional Negro. She seemed totally unaware of race -- but what do I know about being black? It's not like being Jewish with a Chinese nom de plume.”
OOOOOOOOOOOOOOKAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYY. The pinnacle. This is better unpacked with my favorite move: an open letter. Erica Jong, here is my open letter to you in response to above quote. Oprah is arguably the most famous woman in America. Barring her race, I’d say that’s a reason to have le grand guard. You have never experienced that kind of fame and probably never will. So fall back. You have, however, in your article created an image of Oprah as a once “Happy Darky” that never indicated to you, an “insider”, that she had a mistrustful bone in her “pudgy” Mammie body but has now turned into psycho, nervous, militant black woman. You captured Oprah (in your oh so limited friendship) as not having the “sense” that Oprah was a “professional negro” or was “aware of race”. Your tone is implicit; I was waiting for you to finish the thought, to read “but…she is a professional negro now”. All that came before, about her shift from being carefree to a care-monger only supports such. I got news for you honey: Oprah was always black, knew she was black and dealt with her blackness. Just not with you. Like you said “what do I know about being a black woman?” Nothing. And it’s clear that you don’t want to know anything about it because the small inroads she’s made in her quest to break racial barriers you marked as the beginning of her paranoid anti-white brigade. But the jig is up for you, Erica. You were fooled. And now you look like the fool.
She dished with you in a hot tub, or whatever, the same way she appeals to millions of white ladies in Pleasantville, by stealthily ignoring race. But now she has reached such great heights that she is able to break free of the chains that bound her and can speak openly about race. It was all her game, Erica. Don’t you see? And Oprah has absolutely no obligation “not to carry grudges” because she does not need to be complicit, she does not need to lie down when she has the power to stand up. But don’t be confused, her power, no black American’s power makes them into magic fairy’s “transcending prejudice” and making magic fairy dust that un-races them. And I wouldn’t blame her if she held a grudge against you. Your hegemonic childish outburst excuse of an article says only one thing and it’s not about Oprah. It’s about your dissatisfaction with your own reality and your inability to let a Black woman rise above you. And THAT is messed up girlfrien’.
Love always, Tete