No doubt you’ve seen or heard Oprah Winfrey’s powerhouse speech to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the 75th Golden Globe ceremony on Sunday. No doubt it was delivered with confidence and passion.
But I have another question–did you return to read the speech?
Do yourself a favor. Read it. Note how she expertly joined concepts that would otherwise seem to be a jumbled, disjointed laundry list of subjects in lesser hands. In one speech–and, at about nine minutes, one relatively short speech–Winfrey covered lots of ground.
She shared a snapshot of her childhood, paid homage to Sidney Poitier, acknowledged the fact that she is the first African American woman to win the award, thanked the people who supported her, defended the essential role of the media, told the story Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks’ role to pursue justice for Ms. Taylor and declared #timesup, weaving seemingly disparate ideas into a tapestry of history, heartbreak–and hope.
It was a tall order. And Winfrey delivered.
Examine the passages more closely:
In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for Best Actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black—and I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that. And I tried have tried many, many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses. But all I can do is quote and say that the explanation in Sidney’s performance in Lilies of the Field: “Amen, amen, amen, amen.”
Winfrey wastes no time. She inserts incredible detail here, right at the beginning of the speech, immediately drawing in the listener. She doesn’t just tell you she was a kid watching the 36th Academy awards. You find yourself instantly sharing Winfrey’s space, sitting beside her on that linoleum floor in Milwaukee. You see what she sees. You feel what she feels.
I’d like to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, because we all know the press is under siege these days. But we also know that it is the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To—to tyrants and victims and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.
She’s doing a lot here. She thanks the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for the award, and then immediately acknowledges and lauds the role the broader press has played to uncover predatory behavior, whether by Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore. And that not everyone appreciates that work.
“What I know for sure” is a familiar phrase to any reader of O, the Oprah Magazine or viewer of OWN. And she uses this familiar phrase as a transition from the stories of abuse of famous Hollywood names to the stories of other women whose names are not well known, but whose work helps make our country run.
But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military. (Emphasis mine.)
Here, she broadens who sexual harassment victims are, reminding the audience in the auditorium, across the nation and around the world about the women who endure abhorrent behavior because they have “children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to purse.” They are our mothers. They are Winfrey’s mother.
And they are one woman in particular. Recy Taylor.
And there’s someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know, too. In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and a mother. She was just walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.
Their time is up. And I just hope—I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’s heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it’s here with every woman who chooses to say, “Me too.” And every man—every man who chooses to listen.
This is one of the most brilliant aspects of Winfrey’s speech. She introduces the harrowing story of Recy Taylor and re-introduces the work of Rosa Parks, not as the “meek seamstress” who was tired one fateful day on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but as the brave, savvy activist for women’s and racial justice that she always was. By so doing, Winfrey gives greater historical context for the cultural moment, and ends this section by declaring to abusers and predators that “their time is up.” Ever inclusive, Winfrey also highlights the men who “choose to listen” as allies.
And I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “me too” again. Thank you. (Emphasis mine.)
She ends her speech with a call to action that also serves as a dare to hope. It is brilliant and needed, especially considering the weight of Ms. Taylor’s story, just one paragraph before.
This is a superb speech, written and delivered by the master.
Take note–and take notes.