Ultimately, this encounter made McDonald realize that that the reactions and conversations and opinions that African-American women have about Oprah Winfrey say a lot about what it means to be a black woman in 21st-century America.
Originally, McDonald's book, which is based on interviews with African-American women from all walks of life, was to have been called Embracing Oprah. Problems with legal clearances gave it the title of Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity and Contemporary Black Women, though the original title survives as the name of a chapter.
And Oprah still runs through it, something that resonates with McDonald, who considered a career in television before turning to academics. A native of California who came to Hopkins in 1994, McDonald initially studied communications and interned for a California TV station.
"I started off my career with a chance to take a very similar trajectory," she says of Oprah. "I always thought that if that had happened, I would make exactly the same political and economic choices she is making. At least I hope so. I am a huge fan."
How did your book come about?
I began work on it, conceptualizing it, in 2001. I sampled 88 women from all classes and looked at the different things they had to say about contemporary black womanhood and all that entails. What I was trying to do was tease out any big divides among these women.
In the end, I had to flip my thesis around because I was assuming that there would be big class divides, but the data did not show sharp divisions.
What came out was that African-American women across class divisions think a lot more alike about who we are than they do differently; about what they value about black womanhood, about what they feel about one another, about family.
A lot of the popular talk is about class divisions and schisms in the black community. And those are there. But if you really peel it back, most black women are actually on the same page. What is needed is someone to cut through all the muck. The point of this book is to remind black women about a lot of what they share.
What are those things?
I believe the book captures the vigor of the value that black women place on the community among them. There are strong lines of consensus among black women about their self-esteem, the strong pride they take in being called black women, about the history of black womanhood.
There is a language and cultural system among black women that is born out of a certain cultural experience. This experience is undoubtedly linked to the black political economy, to issues of wealth and poverty. And, though in my research, the question was not quite worded this way, there is a recognition of a linked fate, that my success is tied to your success.
They feel good about being black women, both individually and collectively. They recognize that the rest of society may not see black women that way and part of their pride comes from battling the negative images out there, using their knowledge of their African heritage, their legacy of surviving slavery and their contemporary success, Oprah being the epitome of that success.
So why Oprah?
I think black women collectively feel that they own her as part of the community, in a way like any other family member, or certainly a kind of sister.
In my interviews, other women popped up, like Condoleezza Rice, though many had trouble with her politics. And Halle Berry, who had just gotten the Academy Award. Some wanted to talk about whether she had handled that moment as she should have. But it always got back to Oprah.
And that's why she becomes the metaphor, because she is used as a way to thinking about the struggle black women have in relating to each other across the class divide, a way of thinking about struggling to bridge those differences.
What did you find out about how these women feel about Oprah?
Overwhelmingly, they are extremely proud of her. What they do with each other is use her as a sounding board, to find out if you are the "right" kind of black woman, to see how other women gauge her authenticity.
They look at the choices she made in her career. They know how she acted when she was in Baltimore. They talk about how she looks, her choices in makeup and hair. They look at whether or not she is holding true to what she was before on some nebulous timeline, to what her blackness was back then and whether she got white when she became famous
This is not an unusual dialogue between black women, but she is such an extreme version of change and accomplishment that people tend to spend more time wrestling over her.
In my work, white women are constantly letting me know that they don't understand "Why you guys don't just love Oprah." The point is that black women are compelled to embrace her and we do it in the way we want. Don't dictate to us how and why we love her. Our reaction to her is owned by us, not by you, and you really can't know what that means.
I would imagine you would not mind if your book got you onto Oprah's show?
I had never thought about that, but a graduate student suggested it. I would get so nervous, but I would certainly be delighted if more people heard about the book.
I think the time is ripe for someone to focus black women on a collective project, so we are all working together, rather than splintered on so many projects. For me personally, that is what I would like to see Oprah do, organize black women and become their leader to, say, demand reform of the public schools, to get black women to hammer and hammer and hammer on that until something is done.
We have the power to make change and she could lead that change.