Last weekend, I had the privilege of leading a group of scholars in American religious history -- including our present contributing editor Randall Stephens -- through a weekend of discussion on teaching in our field. More on that in a future post.
One of our seminar participants, Kathryn Lofton -- the pride of Racine, Wisconsin, a PhD graduate from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and presently a Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University -- has been featured on our blog before. I'm pleased now that Lofton has agreed to join our merry band of bloggers as our newest contributing editor! Yes, folks, with two new contributing editors on board, our blog is apparently once again on HGH -- appropriate for the World Series season. I'm doubly pleased because Lofton promises to bring her voracious intelligence and religious-studies-way-of-seeing-the-world to our history-heavy blog.
By way of introduction:
My book-in-progress, tentatively titled The Modernity in Mr. Shaw: Modernisms and Fundamentalisms in American Culture, offers a microhistory of conservative American Protestantism through the life of one Presbyterian fundamentalist, John Balcom Shaw (1860-1935), an editor of The Fundamentals who was remitted from the ministry following accusations of sodomy in 1918. Using Shaw’s biography as the narrative backbone, I trace the ways that religious orthodoxy, sexual identity, and modern definitions of the self commingled during an epoch of profound technological, social, and economic transformation.
In addition to this research, I have also explored the religious contours of Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia empire and the meaning of masculinity studies within contemporary humanist research. Future projects include a religious history of American happiness, which will be a broad survey traveling from the hardscrabble early national frontier of Lorenzo Dow to the pillow-strewn late-twentieth century meditation retreats of Marianne Williamson. Alongside this book-length project, I am also researching the relationship between Scientology and celebrity, as well as the religious histories of common commodities.
Here is the first of what we hope will be many provocative posts!
October 19, 2007
Dorm Matron at Oprah School Is Suspended
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) -- A dormitory matron at Oprah Winfrey's school for disadvantaged girls in South Africa has been suspended amid allegations of serious misconduct. No details were disclosed about the alleged offense at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls at Henley on Klip, just south of Johannesburg. Police confirmed they had been informed of the allegation, but weren't investigating at this stage. Chief Executive Officer John Samuel said an internal inquiry had been initiated ''based on one serious claim of misconduct involving a dormitory parent.'' The accused was no longer on campus, Samuel said in a statement Friday, and immediate action had been taken ''to ensure the safety and well-being of the academy's learners.'' ''Nothing is more serious or devastating to me than an allegation of misconduct by an adult against any girl at the academy,'' Winfrey said in a statement. South Africa's Child Protection Services have been notified, and U.S. and South African private detectives have been engaged to investigate, Samuel said. To ensure an impartial investigation, the head of the academy has agreed to take a paid leave of absence, Samuel said, making clear the woman wasn't the subject of any allegations. The school was opened in January amid much fanfare.
Editorial observers of Oprah Winfrey’s latest philanthropy have somehow made self-celebratory largesse a bad thing. Rather than applaud her South African donation, critics have lingered in a perfectly American solipsism: Where’s my money? Where’s my green blazer? A nation is in mourning for its exported makeover.
Yet this criticism misses an important opportunity for a conversation about the presumptions of international philanthropy. Winfrey’s documentation of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls -- on her television show, her website, and in the January 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine -- offers transparency to an oft-privatized American activity abroad: gift-giving. Winfrey has given a careful exposition on her role in African education, noting that a visit with Nelson Mandela instigated her initial $10 million offering, a gift that eventually grew to $40 million. However, as she claims time and again, this isn’t about money. “My own success has come from a strong background in reading and learning,” she declares, “The greatest gift you can give is the gift of learning.”While her promotional materials market this educational aspiration, they also linger on subjects less pedagogic, and more material.
Much is made of the academy’s aesthetics, and of Winfrey’s role in selecting the proper appearance for the girls and their housing. “Beautiful environments inspire beauty in you,” Winfrey suggests, “I said, from the start, I am creating everything in this school that I would have wanted for myself—so the girls will have the absolute best that my imagination can offer.” And so she did, choosing fitted uniforms, soft towels, white sheets, pillowcases bearing an embroidered O, and bathroom tiles in “happy” yellow for the girls to enjoy. The academy is a forty million dollar exhibition of accessories.
Such material redressing is no surprise to the Oprah viewer; Winfrey has made herself famous through her benevolent peddling of dreams and goods. But at the level of international patronage, the cleansing and remaking of native subjects carries a dubious legacy. Missionary photographs from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries illustrate the Christian pride taken at the exchange of indigenous garb for three-piece suits. Whether Sioux or Xhosa, the converted minority stares back at us from history, made proper by an colonial etiquette and the Sears Roebuck catalog.
It was surprising, therefore, that it was the American obsession with possessions that forced Oprah from inner-city Chicago to the Gauteng Province. “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going,” she has said, “If you ask kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers.” She, like so many before, found the naïve asceticism of her chosen mission field appealing because it contrasted with the perceived excesses of her native land.
But who is to blame for this excess, for the materialism? Any answer to that question must include an assessment of the ultimate gift giver, the one with the Pontiacs and holiday “Favorite Things” bonanzas. It is hard to break bad habits, and gifts – in the form of money, insitution, and military occupation – are what Americans do best. From paparazzi photographs to magazine advertisements, the main impression of America abroad is one of appearance, not substance. For Winfrey, there is a spiritual message sealed within this shiny wrapping: the right goods can make a right person, constructing an exterior for their interior to fulfill.
It is too soon to know how Oprah’s South African progeny will respond to this donation, whether they will embrace inner beauty or the temptations of a tailored uniform. Winfrey’s dream—the American dream—is that these lessons go hand in hand. Whether you agree with her gilded meritocracy or not, Winfrey’s academy invites us to wonder whether our goods make our services worthwhile. To worry over whether we get the goods or they get the goods is to miss the ultimate teachable moment, an object lesson in extreme makeovers.
This essay is an excerpt from a longer piece to be included in Darkness Visible: New Essays on Blackness in the Modern World, Matthew Guterl and Vivian Halloran, eds.