For the first time in US entertainment history, a black woman has won the prestigious Cecil B. deMille award at the Golden Globes. The first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor was actor Sidney Poitier, who won over 30 years ago, later won this very same award in 1982.
Acting and presenting legend, Oprah Winfrey made a rousing acceptance speech that acknowledged so much - Black Rights, the oppression of women, the #MeToo campaign – amidst an unusual awards night that placed activism on full display. In a show of solidarity, attendees to the awards night wore black to raise awareness for the TimesUp campaign, which aims to put an end to sexual harassment of women and fight for women’s rights. Social media has erupted since Winfrey accepted her award, with countless Tweets and shares of her inspirational speech where she talked about representation. Some are now even championing her to run for the next US Presidency. For me, the most stirring comments that Winfrey made were that of herself as a little girl watching Poitier win, “His tie was white and his skin was of course black, and I’d never seen a black man celebrated like that …. It is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls that are watching me win that same award”.
Some commentary has suggested we still have a long way to go in matters of acknowledging black achievement of women, and that the entertainment area is no different from other industries where recognition is not readily given for women in general, varying racial groups or people of diverse backgrounds and identity. Wearing black to an event may seem somewhat of a hollow gesture, however the symbolism of black holding power is an interesting one, and not lost in an industry where standing out from the celebrity crowd wearing a statement piece would be an enviable goal. While current conversations around women, sexual harassment and abuses of power are in full view, there appears a positive light shining in as Winfrey discussed, speaking truth to power.
Wearing black to an event may seem somewhat of a hollow gesture, however the symbolism of black holding power is an interesting one, and not lost in an industry where standing out from the celebrity crowd wearing a statement piece would be an enviable goal.
Representation of black women is something I have written about previously, and will be a continued part of my work. To see a black woman be recognised for her years of service is empowering to the community with which that woman belongs, but to the wider community also. Those who write and share our story can regularly change how we are represented, and creating visibility for black women worldwide must be done sensitively, honouring the way in which we go about in our world. We as women need to claim ownership of our own stories therefore, to ensure they are our truth. Representation of black women in Australia has moved also, but we need to own it ourselves, and have more forceful discussion around the many representations Indigenous Australian women display.
“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Winfrey said.
In Indigenous Australia, there are numerous black women representing strong, diverse areas in powerful ways. Women in community who are never acknowledged, women in areas of politics and government, sport and the arts. We see these women everyday, but do others see them? I am fortunate enough to see this from many angles, with Elders in community showing the way, and leading academic women of colour who epitomise strength, knowledge and leadership. Having skirted around in live theatre many years ago, I have also witnessed the strong creative black women who work to portray Indigenous women’s lives on the stage.
I remember as an undergraduate, writing an essay about Indigenous Australian representation in film and the theatre. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of great stories written about black women on television, with some exceptions. I recall actor Deborah Mailman’s performance in the series The Secret Life Of Us as a stand out for the way in which the work was written and performed. There was no sense of tokenism, no ‘overperformance’ of Aboriginality from non-Indigenous writers. Incidentally, Mailman herself was the first Aboriginal woman to win an ACCTA Award in 1998 for her performance in the film Radiance. Mailman’s representation as herself on winning accolades is one of humility and grace. Additionally, I think of Miranda Tapsell’s performance in the recent television series ‘Love Child’ and her acceptance speech at The Logies in 2015 which called for more racial diversity on our screens. "Put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us," Tapsell said.
Although we know of the other Indigenous people who succeed and achieve great things in our communities, it would mean a lot to see those faces on our screens elsewhere, and seen outside of our space where it can create even greater impact on representation to the wider community. Vehicles for that shift in representation exist now more than ever with digital media platforms, alternative media, and commercial or mainstream media outlets now seeing the value in sharing our stories. Opportunity is upon us to demonstrate that, as written in previous commentary, we are not simply black women, sexualised and victimised. We are strong, we lead, and we speak truth to our own power. Times up for us to no longer be seen, so let’s show all the little girls watching what they can achieve or aspire to in the future.
Tess Ryan is a Biripi writer and academic. She is currently a Post-doctoral fellow with The Poche centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne. Follow @TessRyan1