On Saturday, August 24th, the Oprah Winfrey Network will debut a new talk show, OWN Spotlight: Black Women Own The Conversation. The four-week series is produced and hosted by veteran journalist Carlos Watson, who is also co-founder of OZY Media, a digital source for news and culture content that also hosts live events. OZY Media has previously produced talk shows for PBS.
It was originally conceived as a program where Watson traveled the country and sat down with people from different cultures and ethnicities, but when he brought the idea to Oprah Winfrey she told him she would love a talk show that focused on the concerns and issues facing Black women. Watson agreed and Black Women Own The Conversation (BWOTC) became a reality, led by showrunner Jennifer Ryan.
A love letter to Black women, BWOTC is a warm, affectionate, deeply empowering acknowledgment of the significance of Black women’s voices in the American landscape. Taped before a live studio audience of 100 Black women representing a cross-section of age, class, and sexual orientations, the four hour-long episodes feature panelists, celebrities and thought leaders including Stacey Abrams, model and activist Winnie Harlow, actresses April Parker-Jones (If Loving You Is Wrong, Spiderman 3), Ryan Michelle Bathe (Empire, This Is Us), singer Monica, comedians Nicole Byer and Dulcé Sloan, California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and more.
Shadow And Act was on-site at Atlanta recreation center Greystone for the taping of the second episode, and in the audience for the third episode. While on site, Shadow And Act spoke with activist and CNN commentator Angela Rye, who appears in the second episode. “I think these types of conversations are super important,” Rye said of the series.“I think that we are remiss if we don’t understand Black women as voters, Black women as consumers. Black women as viewers are paying attention to programming like this. And the more consistent that type of programming is, I think it is better for any network.”
The first episode, a tape of which was provided in advance to Shadow and Act, features singer and actress Monica, comedian Kym Whitley and politician Stacey Abrams. The hour-long exploration of beauty through the lens of hair, body shape and makeup generated a spirited discussion. Opinions on weaves, wigs, and colorism and the way these phenomena intersect with personal and professional opportunities, flew back and forth across the audience. One woman, who admitted she had been overweight her entire life shared that her best friend from childhood told her she could participate in her destination wedding to the Bahamas only as an usher, not a bridesmaid as one would expect from such a relationship. Her friend’s decision, she soberly revealed, had to do with her weight.
The topic of colorism spawned a multifaceted debate with audience members chiming in on whether or not there is truly such a thing as light-skinned privilege. One light-skinned audience member explained she had never derived any benefit from her lighter skin tone. Another implored those present to speak up when they witnessed color discrimination or heard disparaging things being said about darker-skinned Black women. She recounted an on-the-job experience she had where her boss turned to her one day and said, “This is why I hire light-skinned women. Y’all know how to keep busy. Dark-skinned women just sit around and gossip.”
“Texturism,” in terms of hair, came up as part of the discussion on colorism, suggesting that the topic is much more nuanced than many of us would like to believe. One audience member emotionally detailed the fears she had when she made the decision to stop wearing weaves saying she deeply believed, “People are going to hate me” without the weave.
Abrams, who talked about being pushed to relax her hair when she decided to run for Governor, cautioned everyone to be mindful of the real-life everyday impacts attitudes around hair and skin color have on everyday life experiences. “This narrative,” she said, “where we equate hairstyle with who we are inside is the reason why people lose jobs, lose access, and they lose themselves.”
So heartfelt was Whitley’s expression of gratitude to Abrams for running for office, and being a role model for “little Black girls,” that it brought the audience spontaneously to its feet.
The second episode goes into motherhood and explores whether or not some women regretted becoming mothers or perhaps wished they became mothers later in life. Motherhood was also explored from the perspective of women who have put off motherhood to focus more on career goals. Panelists were actress Bathe, Rye, and Dr. Harris, who also discussed infertility, rates of infant and mother mortality, and stereotypes of Black mothers.
The show is incredibly interactive. The affable Watson is like a concerned sometimes bemused older brother in constant dialogue with the audience as much as with the panel. All episodes are taped before a live audience of one hundred Black women, Many of the audience members heard about the taping via social media and were excited to attend and eager to share their stories.Watson and the rest of his staff clearly wanted it to feel like a space for healing and many times that’s exactly what it felt like as people opened up about profoundly painful experiences with family, friends and colleagues.
The third installment tackles love and relationships, featuring panelists Harlow and Pose actress Angelica Ross. Topics for discussion include marriage, divorce, changing attitudes toward marriage, and interracial relationships. Panelists and audience members opened up about rejection by their families, by their lovers, and about finally finding love after letting go of stigmas against crossing racial lines. One woman declared her decision to stay single rather than ever entertain the thought of an interracial relationship. A lesbian woman shared her experience and cautioned the LGBTQ community against discrimination of other members in the community.
Ross’ appearance may end up being a watershed in television history as she took center stage, literally and symbolically. As trans Black women continue to face brutal violence and Donald Trump persists in removing the few safeguards in national policy that exist for trans people, seeing Ross be both the center of her own story, and leading a conversation about her experience as a Black woman, that in the past would have implicitly meant “for cis women only,” is a revelation.
Ross made repeated passionate articulations about the complicated relationship between cis Black women and trans Black women, including the one between herself and her mother. Ross’ mother, who was in the audience, recounted her journey to accepting Ross’ gender after their years of not speaking to each other. So intolerant was Ross’ mother initially that she ordered Ross to leave home. The testimonial moved Ross and many in the audience to tears.
One member of the audience, Texas native and aspiring screenwriter ND Johnson, who identifies as gender non-binary femme, was heartened by the event. “I really relished this experience,” they told Shadow And Act. “I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time hearing the right messages, being able to see the camaraderie of Black women and being able to feel comfortable in [this] space.” They say they were originally nervous about attending, but the natural openness and affection among the women quickly put them at ease. “Being welcomed with open arms, it just gives me a sense of community for Black people and Black femmes specifically; that we are here and our voices can be heard. There needs to be more, but there are people working to make that happen. Me being in this space is just one small way of showing up for the people who look like me.”
Johnson did voice one personal concern. “I would have loved to see a Black female host. That way the space would have been even more autonomous. How can we say that those are the things that we want and when we start to look behind the scenes, it’s not always reflected? Maybe the majority of the crew was female, which was wonderful, but were they Black female? Maybe there could have been more.”
Atlanta native India also attended the taping and said she appreciated the way BWOTC brought differing opinions together. She stated, “I think that a lot of us get together with our families or girlfriends, and we discuss these topics. But this brings even more opinions because a lot of your friends might be like-minded, but to get the opposite [here], I think that was big. You heard every aspect on the show.”
The last episode will feature actress Tina Lifford (Queen Sugar), activist and cultural critic Brittney Cooper and comedian, writer and activist Nicole Byer and will explore mind and body. Areas slated for discussion for the final installment include the church and its historical importance to the Black community, how the rise of more modern spiritual practices could possibly be threatening to the community, therapy and self-care.
It is fitting, and almost reassuring to have a talk show airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Winfrey herself can be considered the standard-bearer of top quality talk programming that centers the needs of women. Now, she has gone a little deeper. In a world that has only just begun to acknowledge the value of Black women’s voices, and political and cultural clout, when notions of Black women’s identity are being expanded daily, and their particular vulnerabilities are finally starting to be addressed more broadly, OWN Spotlight: Black Women OWN the Conversation is indeed the right show at the right time.
The talk show will run for four consecutive Saturdays starting August 24 at 10:00 pm ET/PT exclusively on OWN.
Photo: Leslie de la Vega/OZY