Black History month is not just a month to be celebrated; black history is American history. Black History month: commemorative; American History: inclusive for all Americans. Many black writers address the principle of being appropriately and fully respected as Americans, either in historical accounts or in everyday life. Dorothy Butler Gilliam’s and Oprah Winfrey’s recent writings continue to address this need for change.
These two female authors’ books are not about victims, nor authored by martyrs, but rather, the writers are progenitors. Each stand up for their respective core beliefs, taking action for over 40 decades. They are individually devoted to paving the way for future generations, especially under-served communities, and they advocate for a spectrum of voices and perspectives.
Dorothy Butler Gilliam
Dorothy Butler Gilliam released her memoir January 8 titled “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America.” Oprah Winfrey first released her book “What I know For Sure” in 2014. A wealth of life experience can be gleaned from both books.
Gilliam, a journalist, activist and author, was the first black female hired at The Washington Post as a reporter. She later held an editor position, wrote a successful column that ran almost 20 years, and was previously president of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Gilliam says that the Freedom Riders and Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Equal Rights movement brought diversity issues to the forefront by blacks as the pioneering minority. Then, the oppression against the gay community and the disabled community weren’t far behind. In fact, she references Gloria Steinem’s quote, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” (1969) in conjunction with these movements.
Hearing from voices who directly represent a minority group who are speaking from a personal perspective vs. on behalf of the whole group is important. Experiencing others like ourselves in the media is essential.
Imagine how heart-wrenching it can be for black youth to watch incidences that may involve blatant disregard for lives that look like them, be it in the media or five feet away. Gilliam relates of how she heard black deaths being dismissed as “cheap deaths,” deemed unworthy of being reported about.
Alongside the celebrations and being able to report, then oversee as editor, a vast array of important issues in black communities, Gilliam reported on her concerns in her private life, before and after having her three daughters. There were many times during the stressful journey when she experienced depression and eroded self-esteem requiring therapy and deeper spirituality.
She endured intense anxiety attacks on her walk to work, fearing what she may encounter there, recalling being a “bundle of nerves.” Habitually returning to her default coping behavior of eating compulsively, perpetuated with the loss of her father, led her to find an over-eaters group for help and support. Gilliam also suffered through several chronic illnesses; one resulted in a hysterectomy.
Gilliam’s activism also resounds in her own words: “Racial equality, diversity, and inclusion are worth fighting for.” She says that the motivation towards excellence in her field was propelled by Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech that prompted young black people to “go into white corporations and excel.” Her efforts would require her to learn how to navigate perilous waters to survive how the journalism world operated in Washington DC, despite the city’s population being 70 percent black. Determined, she was up for it.
Gilliam had the opportunity to watch the growth of black news (over 400 publications), such as the prominent Defender newspaper, proven vital over the years. She also says she proudly stands behind the powerful movements Black Lives Matter and #MeToo as culturally relevant extensions of the Civil Rights movement.
Throughout the memoir, she named a plethora of talented journalists she engaged with, mirroring the diversity her activism trail is founded upon. There was no shortage of black leaders for her to look up to.
Gilliam was employed in Chicago at Jet Magazine during the time that Emmett Till was falsely accused and lynched in Mississippi at just 14 years old. His murder was a primary event that ignited the Civil Rights movement. She worked closely with the reporter of the story, Simeon Booker; Jet later published an open coffin photo with his mother.
Gilliam expresses her enjoyment working for John H. Johnson, founder of JET and Ebony Magazines. During her time there, she learned from several mentors in the business, networked with black men and women colleagues, and worked alongside activists in the gay community and leaders of the Women’s Rights movement.
One of Gilliam’s great inspirations was Thurgood Marshall, a former reporter who became a lawyer and successfully argued the 1954 Supreme Court case to desegregate public schools. He was also the first black associate justice to be assigned to the Supreme Court of the United States, one of countless examples of first contributions to the nation by black people.
Gilliam shared many recollections of progress. Once, 40 percent of the high schools in the country didn’t have student media. In a few years, persistent activism afforded the blessing to witness how young people began covering profound issues that affected them, starting with topics like murders, race relations, and cyber-bullying.
“Their joy and increasing self-esteem gave me a boundless satisfaction,” Gilliam says.
As Gilliam moves on to report on current media statistics, citing less newspaper jobs due to layoffs and mergers when these are the times that diversity in the American media is critical. She writes, “The Washington Post, under Jeff Bezos’s ownership, is one of few daily newspapers that has done any significant hiring the last year or two.”
She is also encouraged now by the digital media journalists who are getting diversity right, citing what she considered an interesting definition for diversity from BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief which clarifies the need for welcoming all diversity of life.
Her profound pride about blacks emerges repeatedly. Yet, there are still issues close to her heart that she hopes will progressively fall away.
Gilliam expresses how she ultimately reached her current “divine” assignment: “My own opportunities have resulted from a strong faith in God through whom I was able to deal with anger and resentment and be courageous against giant societal odds.”
Gilliam’s parting words in her book say, “I want to say to whites, do not be afraid of the African American voice; be an ally. Racial equality, diversity, and inclusion benefit you.”
Oprah Winfrey is a media mogul and philanthropist, acknowledged as the most influential woman in the world.
Much of Winfrey’s journey is well-known, from her entrance into broadcast media as a 19-year-old anchor to becoming America’s first black multi-billionaire. However, those achievements are grazed over in her book titled “What I Know For Sure.” She instead stresses how close she keeps the breadth of her past, never wanting to forget where she’s come from and all the challenges that led her to who she is now.
O’, the Oprah Magazine, has featured Oprah’s column “What I Know For Sure” on its last page for over 15 years. In fact, it inspired the birthing of this book by the same name. The hope for both was that readers would be incited to ask the same question of themselves: “What do you know for sure?”
From chapters “Joy and Resilience” to “Possibility and Awe, her words place readers beside her in the vegetable garden or reading under her favorite oak trees while challenging them to “Ask the Big Questions” for themselves. The book is much more than a random commentary. Below is a small sample of the variety of her insight.
She discusses creativity and work that can come with aging. She recalls the lives lost on 9/11 as an example of gratitude for life, reflecting on how these people were not given the chance to have another birthday.
She shares the letter from the one boy who was the influence for her to stay on air five more years after the Oprah Show’s 20th anniversary. He had sensed the need for her to continue and told her so.
She extends detailed insight about the causation of significant others’ cheating, as well as why so many women instinctually put others before themselves.
And she writes, “I’ve learned to rely on the strength I inherited from all those who came before me, the grandmothers, sisters, aunts, brothers who were tested with unimaginable hardships and still survived.”
She stresses making good life choices: “If this were the last day of your life, would you spend it the way you are spending today? … Because you will die, you must live now.”
About resilience, Winfrey shares the way she’s found to ground herself: “When I feel overwhelmed, I usually go to a quiet place, a bathroom stall works wonders, I close my eyes, turn inward, and breathe until I can sense the still small space inside me that is the same as the still small space inside you and in the trees and in all things. I breathe until I can feel the space expand and fill me up. … I smile at the wonder of it all.”
She continues, “How amazing is it that I, a woman, born and raised in Mississippi, when it was an apartheid state, who grew up having to go into town to even watch television, we certainly didn’t have one at home, to where I am now?”
Winfrey says, “Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you too will keep encountering challenges. It is a blessing to be able to survive them … to put one foot in front of the other, to be able to be in the position to make the climb up life’s mountain, knowing that the summit still lies ahead. Every experience is a valuable teacher.”
Winfrey has continued to write her monthly “What I Know For Sure” column should you ever see a copy of O’ while waiting in line at the store. January’s Know For Sure statement was, “With hatred, no side wins. In the end, we all lose,” and February’s statement reads, “Family
Winfrey’s latest book, “The Path Made Clear, Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose” currently is set for release late March; but it is available for pre-order.
Dorothy Butler Gilliam and Oprah Winfrey are veteran journalists and media trailblazers in their own rights. They say that with God’s help, they both lived through their respective trials and triumphs beyond times in Mississippi as well as in Chicago. They have survived and indeed thrived through treacherous terrain when countless others lost their lives in the name of equality.