Oprah Winfrey’s rousing Golden Globe speech has many speculating whether the media mogul will become a presidential candidate in 2020, with some pundits questioning the merits of another “celebrity” president.
But to equate Oprah with other “celebrity” politicians like Donald Trump and Arnold Schwarzenegger skirts the history of how black celebrities have long assumed political roles – often unintentionally – within the black community.
When it’s viewed through this lens, the transition into politics for someone like Winfrey is more natural. Oprah, for her part, seems to understand the tremendous importance of high-profile blacks in American society. During her monologue, she became emotional when she described how, as a young girl, she watched Sidney Poitier receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 1964 Golden Globes – “I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that.”
But the ability of black celebrities to symbolize hope and racial progress precedes Poitier. The black singers, actors and athletes of the 1930s and 1940s weren’t simply entertainers; they were living proof that African-Americans didn’t need to succumb to racist stereotypes, and could be treated with dignity, even deference. With structural racism embedded in the nation’s social and economic fabric, this, in and of itself, was a political act.
As I point out in my book “Black Culture and the New Deal,” during the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. government recognized the political potency of the black celebrity, and would tap into this power to project a democratic ethos at home and abroad.
Elevating the black cultural hero
By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to seek a second presidential term in 1936, African-American voters had become an important demographic for the Democratic Party. But with white Southerners comprising a significant part of Roosevelt’s base, segregation and discrimination were more difficult for the government to directly confront.
Roosevelt still needed to figure out a way to reach out to the black community. So instead of passing legislation to correct racial inequality, his administration developed cultural programs that would employ large numbers of black men and women, and promote the skills and abilities of African-Americans.
For example, New Deal Arts programs included individuals such as Carlton Moss, Sterling Brown and Zora Neale Hurston to create books and plays that would depict African-Americans in sympathetic, humane ways. The Federal Writers’ Project’s American Guide Series, which Brown edited, highlighted the diversity of African-American communities and customs. The Federal Theater Project featured plays written and directed by black men and women that grappled with pressing racial issues.
This was a potent political tool; federal officials understood that African-Americans would be deeply affected – as Winfrey later was when watching Poitier receive the DeMille Award – by seeing African-Americans portrayed in more realistic and respectful ways.
A message of unity and freedom
The stakes became even greater as America entered World War II. Simmering racial tensions needed to be reconciled with America’s democratic, anti-fascist ideals.
Cultural programs promoting racial cooperation abounded within war agencies. Office of War Information posters and Hollywood films such as “Bataan” featured white and black men working and fighting together.
But no one was more central to this brand of propaganda than boxer Joe Louis.
In 1938, Louis had stunned the world by defeating German Max Schmeling. Geopolitically, it was a display of American superiority. But for African-Americans it was a triumph over whites.