It’s hard not to listen to Oprah. The media magnate has spent decades guiding rapt audiences toward one broad, secular nirvana. Live your best life, her show and her post-television mantra became. In whispers and in proclamations, the mogul has championed the joys and comforts of mindfulness-driven behavior.
But at a campaign event last week for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s gubernatorial race that may now culminate in a runoff, Winfrey raised the stakes for a particular subset of her listeners. She shared a story she’s told before on her show, that of the late Otis Moss Sr., a sharecropper who walked 18 miles to vote in the 1946 election—the first in which black Americans had been widely permitted to vote. Moss was told he arrived too late to cast his ballot at his final destination, and he died before he would have another chance.
Oprah was decisive in her connection of Moss’s story to this year’s election. Winfrey noted that she had come out for Abrams—but also to honor the ghosts whose presence hovered above the two black women. “I’m here today because of the men and because of the women who were lynched, who were humiliated, who were discriminated against, who were suppressed, who were repressed and oppressed for the right—for the equality at the polls,” Winfrey said at the Abrams event in Marietta. “And I want you to know that their blood has seeped into my DNA, and I refuse to let their sacrifices be in vain.”
“For anybody here who has an ancestor who didn’t have the right to vote and you are choosing not to vote wherever you are in this state, in this country, you are dishonoring your family,” she continued later. “You are disrespecting and disregarding their legacy, their suffering, and their dreams when you don’t vote.”
Thinking back on Winfrey’s words a week later, as news of voter suppression in Tuesday’s election continues to roll in, it’s once again difficult to ignore the cruel irony of telling black citizens their vote is both historically mandated and an uncomplicated matter of individual choice. After all, Oprah’s exhortation to black voters—especially black American voters—is hardly the first of its kind. Politicians and celebrities have long pressured black voters to turn out at the polls specifically by insisting it’s what our ancestors, or sometimes “the ancestors,” fought for. This year’s election cycle was no different.“Our ancestors fought for our rights to vote,” the rapper E-40 tweeted on Tuesday, along with a photo of himself brandishing an I Voted sticker.