NEW YORK – If not for the coronavirus, Oprah Winfrey says, she would be out in the streets and marching with the Black Lives Matter protesters.
She has instead found other ways to add her voice.
She is working with Lionsgate on a multimedia adaptation of The New York Times' “1619 Project” on the legacy of slavery. She interviewed Stacey Abrams and Ava DuVernay among others during a two-night special on her OWN network about racism and how to address it . The current issue of O: The Oprah Magazine features a cover photo of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black emergency room technician killed by police in her home in Louisville, Kentucky. It's the first time in the publication's 20-year history that Winfrey herself has not appeared on the front.
And on Tuesday, Winfrey announced she had chosen Isabel Wilkerson's exploration of race and hierarchy in the U.S., “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” as her latest book club pick.
Wilkerson's book, Winfrey said in a telephone interview, “could change the way we see each other, how we see our humanity and the structure of our world."
The 59-year-old Wilkerson is an author and journalist who won the National Book Critics Circle award in 2011 for her previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the Black migration from the South in the early 20th century. In “Caste,” she looks at American history and the treatment of Blacks and finds what she calls an enduring, unseen and unmentioned caste system — not unlike those in India or Nazi Germany — that has yet to be fully confronted.
“You cannot solve a problem unless you identify it and define it,” Wilkerson told The Associated Press, adding that Winfrey's endorsement means “many more people who have not learned about this will have the chance to read about something that deeply affects us all.”
“Caste” was published Tuesday and already has won praise, with the Times calling it an “extraordinary document” and “almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century this far.” Winfrey cited the book in June, listing it along with Robin DiAngelo's “White Fragility” and Ibram X. Kendi's “How To Be An Antiracist” as essential reads on racism.
“Caste” continues Winfrey's book club partnership with Apple that began last fall and includes such previous picks as Ta-Nehisi Coates' novel “The Water Dancer” and the nonfiction “Hidden Valley Road,” by Robert Kolker. Winfrey, who has self-quarantined at home in Santa Barbara, California, since March, says she hopes to create a series of video conversations and podcasts with Wilkerson. An interview with Wilkerson will air this fall on Apple TV Plus.
Winfrey said many details in “Caste” were revelatory for her, such as the Nazis' admiration for the Jim Crow system.
“That was shocking to me,” Winfrey said. “Hitler was using the racist South as a template for race purification in Germany.”
Winfrey has been a literary tastemaker for decades, in part because of her commitment to a given book. She read “Caste” a few months ago, before bound, printed copies were available. Struggling with the digital edition Random House sent her, she asked for a physical version, however possible, and received from the publisher loose pages that she stapled together and placed in a three-ring binder. She then bought 500 copies, which she plans to send to leaders in business, sports and politics, including all 50 state governors.
“I am sending it to people I think will benefit from it and are open-minded enough to receive (what it says),” Winfrey explained.
Asked if she would mail a copy to the White House, Winfrey sounded surprised and said she hadn't planned on it.
“Who's going to read it there?” she wondered.
Winfrey has had an eventful 2020 from the start. Her book club choice in January, Jeanine Cummins' novel “American Dirt," set off a debate about the representation of Latinos in the literary world that also touched upon the relatively few Latino authors Winfrey has selected for the club. Last week, she announced that O would become primarily a digital publication in 2021, though she says the magazine remains profitable.
“Like with all magazines, the ad sales numbers have gone down, but it was still making money,” said Winfrey, who called the focus on digital a natural evolution and one that allows O to present work in a more timely way.
She still hopes to feature more works by Latinos in her club, but for now she wants to “focus on social justice and see where that carries" her. Winfrey said she was in tears when she called Wilkerson to tell her she had chosen “Caste,” and she became emotional during her interview as she discussed putting Taylor's picture on the cover of O.
“If I could, I would be in the streets, holding up her picture," she said.