Why Oprah's legacy is a mixed bag for some black males

OPINION - While she has set the standard for black women in the media, many feel that she has done this at the expense of making black men look bad on her show...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Today, media diva Oprah Winfrey begins the final year of her groundbreaking talk show. From her book club to O magazine, Winfrey will take her empire into a new era with the start of her OWN cable network next year.

By now, everyone has their favorite Oprah episode, whether it was the show where all the audience members got brand new cars (and paid $7,000 to keep them) or the infamous Tom Cruise couch jump. In the 25 years she has been on the air, Winfrey has not only helped set the standard for other daytime talk shows, but has also broken down many barriers for other female minority television personalities who follow in her footsteps.

However, many in the black community wonder aloud if Winfrey has sold out a little to get to her lofty position. Specifically, while she has set the standard for how far black women can go in the media, many feel that she has done this at the expense of making black men look bad on her show. I have watched her show casually over the years, and while I have gotten some pleasure out of viewing many episodes, I can also understand the many complaints about this issue from many black men I have talked to recently.

It seems that there are two types of black men that get to appear on her show. The first type are the “non-threatening” types who appease her audience of mostly white, suburban soccer moms, like the “funny and lovable” Will Smith gushing over his wife Jadaand “fatherly” Bill Cosby, lecturing about the downfall of black youth.

The other type of black male she has consistently had on her show are the ones who have done “something bad” toward women. Who could forget the “gay hysteria” that Oprah brewed on her show when she had J.L. King, bestselling author who exposed the “down low” lifestyle, an apparent phenomenon of black men who are secretly gay but have unprotected sexual relations with women, on her show. Many critics believe that this episode demonized gay black men, making them solely responsible for the high rate of HIV/AIDS among black women.

This was followed up by the on-air fight between best-selling novelist Terry McMillan and her ex-husband Jonathan Plummer. McMillan’s 1996 bestseller How Stella Got Her Groove Back and subsequent movie of the same name starring Angela Bassett were based on her relationship with Plummer, who later revealed himself to be gay. McMillan eventually divorced Plummer and sued him for $40 million, citing “emotional distress, invasion of privacy and placing her in a ‘false light’ to harm her professionally and personally.”

Recently at a book signing for her new book in Boston, McMillan said she has since forgiven Plummer and has moved on with her life, but was told by Winfrey’s people that the talk diva had “expressed interest” in having both of them back on her show for the farewell season. But for some reason, I think the absence of tension between McMillan and Plummer just wouldn’t make for good TV now, or at least on Oprah’s show.

And then there is the whole issue of Winfrey having anti hip-hop sentiments. In 2006 rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube accused Winfrey of having such a bias because of the lack of rappers that get invited on her show. Ice Cube, who starred in and produced the box office hit Barbershop, felt that he was dissed by Winfrey.

“For Barbershop, she had Cedric the Entertainer and Eve on, but I wasn’t invited,” he told FHM magazine. “She’s had damn rapists, child molesters and lying authors on her show. And if I’m not a rags-to-riches story for her, who is?”

(It should be noted that Winfrey has had female rappers on her show, like Eve, as mentioned, and Queen Latifah in support of her movie The Secret Life of Bees.)

To add insult to injury, regular Oprah contributor Nate Berkus also debuted his new talk show today. Berkus, an interior designer, is yet another white male along with Dr Phil and Dr Oz who is getting a show thanks to Oprah’s influence. I actually enjoy getting advice from him on my own home improvement issues, but you mean to tell me that in the 25 years Winfrey has been on TV, she has not encountered a qualified black male expert who she could not only groom to be a television personality who could takeover her mantle, but more importantly, be a role model for other black males? While she has the right to do what she wants in her media empire, one would think that someone of her power would use it more responsibly.

My only hope is that she uses her last season to change the way black men are viewed in popular culture. If Oprah doesn’t do it, who will?