Stanley Crouch is a columnist, novelist, essayist, critic and television commentator. He has served since 1987 as an artistic consultant at Lincoln Center and is a co-founder of the department known as Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 1993, he received both the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a MacArthur Foundation grant. He is now working on a biography of Charlie Parker.
Celebrating what's right with black culture
American culture has been down on one knee for quite some time. The most recent example was the 2006 Academy Award for Best Song going to some mush-mouthed illiterates for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." At the very same time, we must remember that for all of the crass stupidity and appeals to the lowest common denominator, Oprah Winfrey continues her unchallenged reign as America's queen of goodwill.
That sense of goodwill recently showed itself when Winfrey and her followers built a neighborhood in Texas for some of those left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. And on a cultural level, it achieves something of an apotheosis
tonight at 8 on ABC next Monday at 8 on ABC with "Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball," a superbly edited documentary of the celebration of 25 black women that Winfrey held a year ago, culminating in a Sunday morning outdoor church service on the lawn of her estate (Harpoland?), which seems the size of a small town.
Anyone familiar with how easily corruption and sentimentality now combine themselves in America will be surprised first by the tone of the special. There is nothing, for example, reminiscent of the moments when rappers spout the most lewd material imaginable, then go to the mike and thank their moms, their pops, and their Lord and savior, Jesus Christ!
Instead, the show makes public something that has been largely forgotten about black women, black men and black culture in general: What attracted people the world over to it in the first place was that, at its best, there was an imposing majesty, an understanding of suffering, a heroic belief in discipline and community, and an expansive sense of humor. There was a humbling vitality best rendered in the embrace of the New Testament vision that it is never too late to rise, however low one has fallen.
Over the last few decades, every one of those elements has been so compromised, so mechanized into pop clichés, and so reduced to no more than a neon buffoon show.
What makes this documentary so startling is that the dark goo of sentimentality never makes it through a radiant wall of sentiment appropriate to the subject. The pure affection that Winfrey feels compelled to express finds targets equal to the intensity of her goodwill.
After all, when you choose to salute Leontyne Price, Katherine Dunham, Cicely Tyson, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Suzanne de Passe and women of that stature from the worlds of fine art, politics and entertainment, their very names and faces take on a monumental presence.
In their humanity and what they chose to bet on in themselves, such women symbolize not only the extraordinary achievements of black women against all odds, but the very best that the human species somehow manages to do in every place where the individual human spirit can raise its arm to be counted.
The documentary ends with a Sunday song service in which singers spontaneously take the mike. Diane Sawyer observes that she has never been witness to such a powerful spiritual event, and, in an era as debased as ours, it's easy to understand why.
I don't think that we have seen anything quite like this on television before. In its taste, its generosity, and its down-home sense of warmth and humor, it perfectly expresses the imposingly unique Oprah Winfrey, who makes it quite clear how much women such as these, known and unknown, are worthy of our honor.
This is equally true of the best of American society at large and should lift the hearts and minds of all who need to be reminded that we will make it through this present time of darkness. Matches are still being struck and candles being lit.
Originally published on May 14, 2006