Making Whoopi

Posted on February 15, 2011 by

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The world’s first African American to win an Oscar pens a letter to Whoopi Goldberg

By Hattie McDaniel

Dear Whoopi,

I was hanging out in Heaven yesterday, eating some candy hearts for Valentine’s Day, when someone passed along a link to you complaining on “The View” (or as we call it up here, “The Bitching Hour”).

After watching your rant and reading the article in question, I have to ask: Have you lost your mind?

It breaks my heart to see how incredibly you’ve missed the point, how horribly you’ve misdirected your outrage. Aside from the fact that the authors didn’t incorrectly exclude you anymore than they excluded Louis Gossett, Jr., Prince, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and the other African Americans — it feels good to refer to us as that now, especially considering what they use to call us back in my day — who won Oscars prior to 2001, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry made history.

I think you were used to reading about yourself every time these “Black Actors at the Oscars” stories come up — I know how you feel and face it, they’re basically the equivalent of the “Abraham Lincoln: Still Dead” evergreen at this point — and noticed that your name was absent. What you didn’t do is read carefully enough to see that it was a stylistic choice and not an error or a mistatement of fact.

You think being left out of an article that wasn’t even about you is hard? Try having your most famous role be that of a slave. Now that’s hard! (Sorry to mimic Sue Sylvester but I just love “Glee,” though I wish they’d do more with Mercedes than make her a magical negro.)

Monday morning, you invoked my name in your rant about how the Times critics “dismissed” and “erased” your Oscar win. But I looked back at your old Oscar speech and you didn’t mention me at all. I don’t think it was on purpose. It was probably an oversight and not a callous attempt to dismiss the trail I blazed for you. How about this: I’d appreciate it if when you use my name to make a point, make sure the argument is about us and not you.

Whoopi, be glad they even let you be on TV. They let you have your own sitcom where you were a producer. I had my own sitcom, where I played a maid and had NO creative control. You were nominated for two Oscars, one of which you won. Your characters, Oda Mae Brown and Celie Johnson, each had more than one name, unlike mine (I’m not even sure Mammy was my character’s name, I think it was a title). You even got to host the Oscars — FOUR TIMES. Don’t forget, sweetheart: I didn’t even get to sit with my peers when I won the Oscar. I was seated in a segregated section.

And I know how far we’ve come. Listen, I’m really appreciative of all you’ve done to further black comedians (and comediennes) and all the progress you’ve made for black women in Hollywood. I watched you win your Oscar in 1991 with tears in my eyes, the precipitation of pride. And even though you’re not really acting anymore — though I howl with laughter each and every time I see you on “30 Rock” — I still have great fondness for you. You’re out there being positive, outspoken and thoughtfully advocating for others and the causes you believe in, no matter how much trouble it gets you into.

Whoopi, you are a gift. You are my heir in so many ways. You didn’t have to play the slave. You got your Oscar — and a well-deserved nomination — by playing characters far more empowered, fleshed-out and independent than I had the luxury of playing, than I ever could have dreamed of being able to play. So why are you tainting your legacy with this hissy fit?

Myself and Mo'Nique on the nights of our Oscar wins. (Image from freckledcitizen.com)

I don’t think you missed the point on purpose. My guess is that you’ve taken your eye off the ball. I’m not dumb; I know there are still so many struggles black women — whether in the home or Hollywood — have to endure. I know many of us are still heading households alone, and have limited access to healthcare and a long way until we reach pay equity. And it breaks my heart to see that, 20 years after your Academy Award triumph and one year after the lovely Mo’Nique paid tribute to me as she won the very same Oscar that I received, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has taken a significant slide backward with the whitest Oscars (in acting) in 10 years. You should be mad. We should all, regardless of race, be mad. But somehow, in your comments yesterday, that didn’t appear to be the source of your frustration. You invoked my name and made it about you. You said “it hurt me terribly.” You said “it’s hard not to take it personally.” And when you shifted the focus from the drought of Oscar-worthy and Academy-noticed roles for Blacks in Hollywood to yourself, you also took the attention of your hundreds of thousands of viewers — the people who can help make a difference — with you.

But Whoopi, it’s not about you. It’s not even about me, Denzel, Halle, A.O. Scott or Manohla Dargis. It’s about mankind’s collective struggle toward equality, a fight played out in the microcosm of Black Hollywood. It’s about the work we still have to do and how frustrating it is that after all the progress we’ve made, some days we wake up to find we’re still Sisyphus.

So Whoopi, I don’t mind you screaming from your soapbox about your causes and your feelings. And I’ll always be proud of all you’ve achieved — proud enough to even forgive you for “Eddie.” But the next time you trot out that little gold statuette, the one you worked so hard to earn, the one denied to so many people who looked like us and may have even deserved it more that we did, make sure you raise that Oscar with the weight of Black Hollywood’s legacy and not your own ego. I promise more people will take your protest seriously if you do.

Love,

Hattie McDaniel

*Hattie McDaniel, as you may know or have guessed, spun off this mortal coil long ago. So you’ve found out our secret: Ms. McDaniel did not, I repeat, did NOT actually write this letter. We used her persona for satire. Cool?

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