The very first time I saw Edwidge Danticat was on the Oprah Winfrey stage in 1998, as one of the earliest authors handpicked by Ms. Winfrey to have the distinction of a title for the Oprah’s Book Club. The title was Danticat’s first 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 it yet. I must admit. After I met her on Oprah Winfrey, I went out and bought her works the very next day. Funny…I would certainly listen to a friend who always gave me the best books, but I would fast run out to spend my money when Oprah Winfrey said so? What she has done for Black American female writers in America, in making her selections of our works with no pretention of “diversity,” but just a predilection for damned good books, is 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 golden stamp of approval guaranteed that major bookstore managers and publishing publicists would stay very busy, in these times where people are too hypnotized by Facebook to pick up a real 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 the unknowns that she launched into the covers of Poets & Writers to deceased heavyweights that only English teachers wagged fingers for us to know:
William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Andre Dubus, Billie Letts, Jane Hamilton, Pearl Buck, Gabriella Garcia Marquez, Wally Lamb, Barbara Kingsolver, Joyce Carol Oates, Leo Tolstoy, Ken Follett, Anna Quindlen, Sue Monk Kidd, 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. Most of her book selections were written by women. In the earliest years of the club, the majority were titles by Blacks. Winfrey practiced quiet diversity.
Beyond the hard books she placed into American circulation at rates higher than when they debuted, Winfrey’s cinematic contributions to American film have done more for Black women’s literaturethan 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 her heartfelt and dramatic “You told Harpo to beat me!” 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 she spearheaded and funded to international acclaim. Without her, it may have just had a novelty run for a few seasons.
Despite the fact that Beloved (1998) ascended Toni Morrison to unprecedented critical acclaim and meritorious notoriety, it took 15 years for one like Oprah Winfrey to guarantee it 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 and slighting her own people by building schools in Africa–at the expense of Black women’s issues or concerns, or rescue of American projects with notoriously dismal rates of academic ambition, or higher concentrations of Black guests.
She could have done little more. 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. The affirmative action undertones would have knocked the works down a peg or two, made them more pathetic than majestic. 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 a list of books that I would love to design a college academic course around, celebrating Ms. Winfrey:
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
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
*Since the time of this writing, Professor Winfrey temporarily suspended and then resurrected her book club, as well as commandeered the successful adaptation of even more Black books and stories. They include: PUSH by Sapphire (made into the film Precious), The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Ruby by Cynthia Bond, Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and the amazing story of medical science contributor Henrietta Lacks based on the best-selling book in her name.