Deconstructing Whoopi.

I’ve never seen The Color Purple in its entirety. Oh, I’ve seen snippets here and there—enough that, if strung together sequentially, I’d have nearly 7/8 of the film before me. I’m only disclosing this because I’m fairly certain that The Color Purple will be raised in criticism of the discussion I’m about to open.

See, I’m about to talk about Whoopi Goldberg. And in my experience, no discussion of Whoopi Goldberg is ever complete without mention of her Revelatory Turn as Celie in The Color Purple. I mean… I get it. Whoopi was great as Celie and, for many, the cool points she earned as part of Spielberg’s formidable cast erased a multitude of Goldberg’s race-related “sins.”

But my earliest memories of Whoopi Goldberg have nothing to do with “Till you do right by me….” My earliest memory of Whoopi Goldberg is from an oft-forgotten ’80s gem called Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I was seven when this film emerged, probably eight when I saw it on cable. On first viewing a few thoughts ran through my head:

  1. “Is that a woman or a man?”
  2. “Oh. That’s a lady. Who is this lady and where did she come from?”
  3. “Where’d she get that goofy name?”
  4. “Why aren’t there more Black people in this movie?”
  5. “What’s up with her hair?”
  6. “Why is she always waving her hands around all wild and wide like that?”

I was naive. I didn’t know what dreadlocks were when I was eight, didn’t know that black chicks and white dudes were allowed to hook up on movie screens, didn’t know that there were ways to be feminine on celluloid that didn’t involve the wearing of dresses, cosmetics or jewelry.

Needless to say: I didn’t get Whoopi Goldberg.

Because I knew nothing of her stand-up work, I had only the study of her films (aside from The Color Purple, of course) by which to shape an opinion of her. As time went on, she continued to befuddle me—as a bookstore owner/thief surrounded by an all-White cast in Burglar, as an au pair/Mammy figure surrounded by an All-White cast in Clara’s Heart, and as a flamboyant psychic helping her two, top-billed White co-stars find romance despite the grave in Ghost. But the more befuddled I became, the more attention I paid to Whoopi when I saw her onscreen.

I simply didn’t know what to make of her. I hadn’t yet known any Black women like her, who easily navigated all-White social circles and rarely dated within their race (onscreen and off), who rarely played into the stereotypes of traditional femininity but were near-constantly romantically linked, in spite of their system-bucking.

Occasionally, as I grew up, I’d overhear adults judgmentally murmuring about her. At the height of her ’80s popularity, words like “sellout” and “Mammy” and “shuckin’ and jivin'” were always wafting out of the grown folks’ conversations at my house, but I didn’t know then what any of that was about. I’d just remember her turn as a concerned professor in the Emmy-nominated episode of A Different World, where Tisha Campbell reveals her HIV status or I’d think of her performance in the film adaptation of Sarafina! and I’d shrug.

Whoopi was “Black enough” for me.

She was a staple of my childhood and whether or not she dated white men or relied on a broader brand of physical comedy than I typically laughed at didn’t really matter. Seeing her onscreen comforted me. She seemed smart, for one. Her voice sardonic, her lips smirking, she always looked like her whole Hollywood persona was an inside joke and, someday, she’d reveal that the joke was on her detractors.

But then came the Friar’s Club Blackface Debacle of 1993. That year kind of marked a turning point in my unwavering and still somewhat unexplainable support of The Whoop. It was one thing for her to be dating that dude who played Sam on Cheers. It was another to not only cosign his Al Jolson impression but to confess to various media outlets that it was her idea.

Mind you, by 1993, I was fourteen and going through my Black Militant Awakening Phase (the result of attending Deer Park Middle, the first school and last school in my K-12 academic career that wasn’t like, 85% Black). Suggesting that your White boyfriend show up at a Friar’s Club roast in burnt cork and exaggerated lip grease while bugging his eyes was just something I couldn’t abide—the utter dopeness of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit notwitstanding.

In the decade following, Whoopi’s approval rating constantly vascillated. For ever Sister Act 2, there was a Made in America. For every Ghosts of Mississippi, there was a Corrina, Corrina.

And let’s just talk for a minute about Corrina, Corrina, shall we? In what universe was this film a good idea? What executive looked at the script for that tripe and said, “Yes. I think America would love to see Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta get it on in a period piece where, even with a degree, she has no choice but to be his domestic… in yet another rousing turn as a young child’s ever-lovin’ Mammy? And those scenes were Tina Majorino licks the little black child actress’s face and tells her she tastes like chocolate or wears her hair in unkempt ‘pickaninny-style’ plaits sounds fabulous!”

Seriously. I need to know who greenlit that film because I owe his or her doorstep a flaming bag of poo. (Turnabout is fair play.)

Around 1998, when Whoopi appeared in the screen adaptation of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, I guess I started coming around. It was one of the few times I’d seen her with an all-Black cast and I was struck by how relaxed she seemed in the role of Stella’s cancer-diagnosed BFF. Also immediately noticeable was how much Whoopi had aged in the twelve years since I’d first seen her. She was hippy and saggy and comfortable with who she was on that level few women really reach until they’re perimenopausal.

The wild gesticulations and White-man-wooing that’d mark so much of her early career sort of melted away in Stella. And suddenly, Whoopi Goldberg began to remind me of the women who’d shooed me out of their grown folks’ business all those years ago. In short: she was becoming more of a Big Momma than a Mammy, more a wisdom-laden matriarch than a “What’s wrong, Massa? We sick?” archetype.

If you think I’m reaching with the Stella example, look no forward than Whoopi’s current gig on The View. Some of the things she says, particularly things like how a vote for “government reform” implies Constitutional reform… that could extend to a re-examination of Blacks’ freedom. Pick a day, any day, to tune into The View and you’ll find that, at this point in her career, The Whoop is not only on fire, but really wouldn’t give much of a damn if she weren’t.

These days, I find myself wondering if Whoopi has been like this all along. You don’t just morph from blackface-suggesting, over-gesticulating, primarily White-male-dating mascot to pro-Black Mother Wit, do you? Can the Whoopi Goldberg who thought Corrina, Corrina was a great representation of the Black woman on the silver screen be the same Whoopi Goldberg who systematically takes Elisabeth Hasselbeck to task for her racist, sexist, partisan insinuations on the daily?

I think she can. She can and she is. If nothing else, growing up watching Whoopi Goldberg on the small and big screens prepared me to dismantle a ton of assumptions—about race, about beauty, and about accountability. She’s one of those anomalous sisters who reminds you that there’s no such thing as “Black enough,” no need to paint and pluck and plump yourself in order to be considered attractive, intelligent or desirable, and no entire group of people you can placate by fitting into the box they’ve carved for you.

Even if she puts another White dude in blackface and parades him around some stodgy gentleman’s comedy club, totally diminishing my understanding of her yet again, I’ll always be grateful to her for that.

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22 thoughts on “Deconstructing Whoopi.

  1. shani-o October 6, 2008 at 5:22 pm Reply

    Ok. I’m pretty sure your black womanhood is suspect if you haven’t seen the Color Purple a multitude of times and consider it one of your favorite movies.

    While I loved The Color Purple, I tend to disassociate that Whoopi with the mid-nineties Mammy, and with the awesome Whoopi on The View. Celie was a fluke, in my mind.

  2. slb October 6, 2008 at 5:28 pm Reply

    So I’ve been told. But that’s part of the point of this essay–that Whoopi teaches us, if nothing else, that blackness and womanhood aren’t unilateral and that there aren’t a series of preset standards you have to conform to in order to be considered a part of your race or gender.

  3. shani-o October 6, 2008 at 6:00 pm Reply

    Oh, I was joking. And I agree with you. What I was getting at is that my respect for Whoopi has increased as I’ve been unable to reconcile the many versions of her that exist.

  4. Rebecca Walker October 6, 2008 at 7:09 pm Reply

    Very interesting piece. Love your conclusion.

  5. Steez October 6, 2008 at 9:05 pm Reply

    My introduction to Whoopi was from her one-woman show, which not only cracked me up, but made me think. It made such an impression on my young mind, I’ve given her a pass on about the last 15 years. Kinda like my mom.

  6. rakia October 7, 2008 at 9:28 am Reply

    I’m sorry. I can’t get past the first sentence. *aghast* YOU’VE NEVER SEEN THE COLOR PURPLE?!?!

  7. slb October 7, 2008 at 10:11 am Reply

    … in its entirety. 🙂 i’ve seen most of it, in bits and pieces, edited on regular tv and whatnot, but i’ve never like… rented the DVD and just sat there watching it. i’ve *read* “the color purple,” though….

    … can a sista get a cool point for readin’??? 😛

    (i knew you were joking, shani-o. i’m just super-reflexive in my defense against “the color purple” as, like, the pantheon of the black experience. lol)

  8. slb October 7, 2008 at 10:13 am Reply

    also: thanks, rebecca. 🙂

  9. ladyfresshh October 7, 2008 at 10:58 am Reply

    Shani-o – to assist in the reconciliation, because at one point in the late 90’s i had a similar problem myself (regarding the many whoopi’s), i suggest you see The Spook Show. Once i saw that i was able to understand where she comes from and how she got to where she was and where she would be going. Whoopi just is and i appreciate that, though i have to say i was very heartened when she decided to join the view.

  10. nichole October 7, 2008 at 11:38 am Reply

    Part of Whoopi’s earlier routines was to wrap a towel around her head and become the little black girl pretending she had long, flowing non-Black hair. Of course, she made it humorous but the image of a young black girl wanting to be something she wasn’t resonated in so many of us. She connected to us, and we were proud, and then she made film, career, and romantic choices that distanced her from us. Where was the Whoopi that told us it was okay that we had once imagined ourselves as something other than ourselves because now, we knew who we were and we were proud of our hair, skin, nose, bodies? Her various choices indicated that she wasn’t “okay” with the Blackness that contributed to her signature look. She had gathered us close to share a community secret and then backed away yelling, “SUCKAS!”

    Having recently watched her on The View a couple of times, it seems like she is indeed far more comfortable in her skin than any time previous, and that makes me very proud. She has created an amazing legacy that sometimes gets diminished or added as an asterisk.

    This was a great piece. Thanks.

  11. nichole October 7, 2008 at 11:41 am Reply

    oh, and when i say “us” in my previous reply, i do not mean to encompass all Black women or all Black folk. I accidentally cut the part in which I was referring to some of us who felt betrayed by her. Sorry about that.

  12. shani-o October 7, 2008 at 1:00 pm Reply

    slb: I read the book when I was 12. It didn’t scar me as much as The Bluest Eye did, but I was disturbed. When I read it years later, I found I liked it in a totally different way from the film.

    LF- thanks for the tip. I’ll check it out.

  13. slb October 7, 2008 at 1:05 pm Reply

    my mom was a household book censor. i didn’t read any alice walker, period, until i took a walker/morrison seminar in undergrad (morrison was also disallowed).

  14. thembi October 7, 2008 at 2:32 pm Reply

    I found her role in Ghost to be most Mammy-riffic of all. If ever there were a black woman more devoid of human sexuality than Etta Mae Brown playing the mayo in that Demi-Swayze sandwich…

  15. Steve October 7, 2008 at 2:36 pm Reply

    Yea I cosign Thembi, I feel like Ghost was by far the most mammafied… and sadly I love that movie…

    I wish you had also discussed sarafina..

    but beyond that this was a really good piece… I find myself thinking about Whoopi quite a bit too…I’m not sure why…

  16. slb October 7, 2008 at 3:57 pm Reply

    Steve: I love “Sarafina,” but it was runnin’ mad long as it was. Maybe that could be its own post someday.

    Thembi: you right.

  17. boukman70 October 7, 2008 at 5:26 pm Reply

    OK, I’m not going to dog you out for not seeing The Color Purple. Though I thought Spielberg didn’t trust the black cast and PLASTERED the film with too much music, it’s a heck of a lot better than the book.

    I’m with you on your previous ambivalence towards the Whoopster. But I also first saw her one-woman show and am still absolutely floored when I see it. I think the one thing that I admire most about Whoopie, aside from her previous hard scrabble existence, is that she challenges EVERYBODY on their assumptions of what black is. It’s one thing to challenge white folks’ assumptions, but the fact that she’s even willing to challenge us, too, is way beyond brave. Every time I go to the bookstore and see all that “ghetto lit,” I appreciate sisters and brothers like Whoopi more and more every day.

  18. B October 9, 2008 at 1:00 am Reply

    I can appreciate your ambivalence about Whoopi’s work–a lot of it is problematic. However, I’m not sure if I follow what you’re getting at with being so troubled by her having dated white guys. This is not to say I don’t think the whole Danson-blackface business isn’t messed up, but that specific incident is not the equivalent of her having dated white guys in general. I also don’t think it is tantamount to rejecting or criticizing African American men in particular, or rejecting black folk in general. Tabloids report a lot about the romantic entanglements of famous people, but just like other relationships, there’s only so much anyone can see from the outside. We can’t know what guys have pursued her, or what guys she’s gone after. We have no way of knowing about all of her relationships. That said, what’s the problem with her dating white guys? Why does that stand in opposition to, or at least trouble, her role of being, as you aptly note, “pro-Black Mother Whit?”

  19. B October 9, 2008 at 1:01 am Reply

    Oops, that should be “pro-Black Mother Wit.” That’s what I get for reading blogs after my bedtime.

  20. slb October 9, 2008 at 5:40 am Reply

    B: i wasn’t aware that the article implied that i’m “so troubled” by her dating white men. i make reference to it twice—once to say that, when i was a child, i didn’t know any Black women who “who easily navigated all-White social circles and rarely dated within their race (onscreen and off)” [and i didn’t mean *that* as an indictment].

    the second time i mention it is at the end, and i think this is what you’re referring to most (?): “You don’t just morph from blackface-suggesting, over-gesticulating, primarily White-male-dating mascot to pro-Black Mother Wit, do you?”

    and i then follow up by answering that, in fact, you don’t “morph,” that the sum of all a person’s parts constitute the whole and who whoopi has dated and/or, arguably, “pandered” to doesn’t negate her “Blackness.”

    neither does who she dates, of course, but none of this is stuff i knew immediately; these are things i realized over several years and that’s the part of the point of the essay itself, that we come to our racial realizations over time, and often through the example of others.

    growing up, i figured that if she dated white men primarily or exclusively (and you’re right that there’s no way of knowing everyone she’s dated, but the dudes she dated publicly and with whom she attended functions, particularly in the earlier part of her career, were, in fact, mostly (not all, but mostly) white it suggested that she preferred white men to all other races of men and i really believe (still believe) that race exclusivity is loaded—especially if your race of preference isn’t your own.

    that al jolson thing wouldn’t have played, even if it’d been a Black boyfriend doing it. but i had to wonder what that idea said about her perception of black men and how that perception and her suggestion of the al jolson routine informed ted danson’s perception of black men, if at all, during the course of their relationship. (in their collusion to “poke fun at black stereotypes,” they were also colluding to lampoon black men.)

    see? loaded.

    nowhere in the article, however, did i intend to imply that Whoopi’s dating white men is tantamount to rejecting or criticizing black men. that would be getting into “Wesley Snipes Hates Black Women” territory.

  21. […] by Guest Contributor SLB, originally published at Post Bourgie […]

  22. Nicole January 24, 2009 at 3:32 am Reply

    Regardless what anyone may think about interracial dating, any Babe who bagged Frank Langella has got it goin’ on. Whoopi is one helluva woman.

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