Becca Balint: A remarkable speech, an extraordinary woman

Something big had happened: My newsfeed was chock full of Oprah Winfrey. Even as I type her last name, I know it's superperflous; everyone knows her by "Oprah." There is only one, and she's been named the world's most powerful woman by many news outlets. And Winfrey is the only person to have appeared on Time's "most influential people" list on 10 separate occasions. So it's not surprising that so many in my social network had a lot to say about Winfrey, after her powerful speech at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday.

After her remarks concluded, Facebook and Twitter were filled with calls for Winfrey to run for president in 2020. There was also an equally powerful rebuttal, as others said it was patently absurd that a "former talk show host" should be the leader of the free world. These responses made me uneasy.

Oprah Winfrey is not merely a "former" anything. She moves millions of people — emotionally and, yes, intellectually and politically — and has for many years. She speaks to a deep part of who we believe we are as Americans. Of course, as an elected official myself who's watched the Trump train wreck, I think that we ought to look for a candidate with actual experience moving legislation. But there's no denying that the calls for her to run in 2020 illuminate our deep desire for a powerful change agent.

Oprah took the stage to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her "outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment." She's the first African-American woman recipient in the 66-year history of the award. This context was not lost on her; she began her remarks by remembering the moment when she watched Sidney Poitier win the Oscar for best actor in 1962. His win was truly groundbreaking. But much more poignantly for Oprah — and thousands of children across the nation — it was a validation of their very lives as black Americans. She's now playing that same role for young girls across the globe.

It was a remarkable speech. She used no notes. She never searched for words nor stumbled over pronunciation. I've watched it several times now, and I'm continually astounded by the arc of the speech, the way she carries her body, and how she holds the room from the first moment she took the stage.

Her flawless delivery made the content of the speech even more powerful. And her unflinching critique of racism and sexism, merged with personal stories and historical context, took the viewers on a journey akin to a kind of cultural redemption. It was as if — after holding our breath for a year of Trumpism — we could finally collectively exhale.

Born into poverty in rural Mississippi in 1954, her parents separated soon after her birth and left her in the care of her maternal grandmother. She was sent North at the age of 6 to live with her mother in a neighborhood in inner-city Milwaukee.

Winfrey bounced between her father's home in Nashville and mother's home in Milwaukee throughout her childhood. She suffered sexual abuse as a child by trusted family friends, and she gave birth to a child when she was in her teens. Her son, Canaan, died in infancy.

This woman has certainly endured much trauma, but she has not "overcome" her hardships — she has incorporated them into her very being, and she rejects a simple narrative of triumph over adversity. Oprah Winfrey is beloved and admired because she has pushed so many others to strive to be our best, most complete selves, despite the horrors life might throw at us. We crave a leader who brings us ever closer to our great potential. There's no shame in this being our signpost.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate majority leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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