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The Night Whoopi Gave Me a Win
February 21, 2016  | By Candace Kelley

On that night in 1991,  I claimed the big TV in the house. That 30-inch set. All mine. Cue Oscar themed music.
I was preparing for something (hopefully) that I had never seen before in my life. It was the 63rd Academy Awards, and Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Ghost and she had a major chance of winning. This possibility?  A Big Deal. She had me at her 1985 one-woman show Whoopi Goldberg: Direct From Broadway.
I was in deep. Making sure I watched as many Oscar-worthy movies as possible. Watching intently as Ray Liotta declared he gets “to live the rest of his life like a Schnook” in Goodfellas, and making sure I knew the history of hobbling thanks to Kathy Bates in the movie Misery.
The Oscars mattered to me because like everyone else in America, my life’s journey up until that point was a training ground for competition. As a society, we have a deep social need to categorize people as winners and losers. In fact,  I declared myself a winner, when I chose in a calculated fashion, the faster moving Whole Foods line. From getting your child into a certain kindergarten program and the Olympics, to getting a job, there are winners and losers, and I wanted Whoopi to win.
That night, I situated myself before the show started.  And no, I could not join the awards show after it started. Whoopi needed me to be there right from the time Oscar host Billy Crystal came in on . . . .  wait, is that a horse?
Why was I in this awards show so deep? Well, let me take you back and put the 63rd Oscars in a 1991 context. The decades-old apartheid system that systematically oppressed blacks that sparked major violence was close to being officially dismantled.  And while Nelson Mandela was released a little over a year before that Oscar night, the weight of segregation rested heavily on the world’s shoulders. Every day, newspapers were filled with headlines about race. This simple idea that because your skin was darker made you lesser was ever present.
Meanwhile, black men were in a state of hyper-visibility because of police brutality and what many were calling misogynistic rap lyrics. N.W.A. and Ice Cube topped the charts as two diametrically opposed views about their values surfaced. Were they misogynists  or modern day griots? From where I sat, comparatively black women were just not making headlines en masse. We were just invisible. And then there was Whoopi.
So, I sat in a chair in the middle of my parents family room floor. Why I was so alarmingly close to the TV, I can’t explain.  But when Denzel Washington called Whoopi’s name as the winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, it was a watershed moment that mattered. When she walked on stage, and she was still black? And still wore her non-mainstream locs and spoke in true Whoopi form? I felt like I was on the stage at the Shrine Auditorium, and people could see me when she spoke.
During her acceptance speech she said, “I come from New York. As a little kid I lived in the projects, and you're the people I watched.” I was thrilled because she was the person I was watching and she looked like me.
One of the most endearing terms to me happens to be a South African greeting: Sawubona. It means “I see you.” The power of those three words. It is so overwhelming just to be seen and recognized.  I see you. I see your dignity. I see your respect. I see your journey. I see you as a person.
Whoopi Goldberg was the first African-American woman I saw who won an Oscar and for me, even if for a night, her win made me visible. To be told by anyone that you are worthy of being talked about and celebrated is part of the human experience. Now, the fact that, according to the Academy, there is not one person in the whole universe worthy to be nominated for an Oscar is perplexing. Yet, not surprising. The Academy Awards are an institution that like so many, is steeped in racism and sexism. But this is exactly why I’m not ready to turn my back on the Oscars or on any other awards shows.
No, Blacks do not need to be validated by the Academy, but the universe has presented an opportunity to everyone to change the mindset of the Academy. A group of people whose decisions have a super valued currency not only in America, but the world.  Whoopi’s win and a collection of other historical moments and movements adds to the set of tools needed to chip away at racism in a way that changes everyone’s level of humanity.
Meanwhile, Chris Rock is hosting the awards show, and he should be. At the same time, the boycott of the ceremony is in full swing. And it should be because oddly enough, now that many of the power wielding blacks decided to remove themselves from attending the Oscars, the Academy finally sees them.
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