Oprah Winfrey needs no introduction. Top rated talk show host, television producer, actress, author, and philanthropist. It goes on and on and on. How the young girl from Kosciusko, Mississippi who turned 69 in January braved all odds to become one of the most influential and richest women in America still seems like a fairy tale dream to so many.
What are not in doubt are her talent, drive, ambition and resilience to succeed as an African-American woman living in America.
Oprah was around five years old, when she made up her mind that she wasn’t going to have the life those around her at the time expected of her. She was raised on a small Mississippi farm by her grandmother, whose highest hope for her granddaughter was that when she became someone’s domestic worker, she would be treated kindly by her employers. “I just hope you get some good white folks when you grow up, treat you right, treat you nice,” Winfrey said her grandmother told her.
Despite the fact that she had bigger plans for her life she freely admits that there’s no way she would have imagined herself being in the position she currently is. Sitting atop a multi-billion media network and with a personal net worth of over $3Billion, it is safe to say that she has completely re-written the rules on what it takes for a black woman to hit it big in America.
Born in 1954 in Mississippi, to a teenage mother, but raised by her grandmother. When she was six, she was sent to live with her mother, who worked long hours as a domestic maid. When she was nine, Winfrey was raped by a cousin, and over the next few years was sexually abused by other men. She went to live with her father in Nashville at 14, hiding the fact she was pregnant and gave birth to a son two months early who died soon afterwards.
Living with her father and stepmother provided stability and high expectations – her father expected good grades at school she says because he could see she was smart. When she was 17, Winfrey won a beauty pageant sponsored by a local radio station. Someone at the station, perhaps noticing her smooth, warm voice, asked her to read a news report on tape. She did it so well and was offered a part-time job.
Winfrey got admitted into Tennessee State University in 1971 and she began working in radio and television broadcasting in Nashville shortly after.
In 1976, Winfrey moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to work for WJZ-TV as a news reporter and co-anchor of the six o’clock news. It wasn’t a success. “People at the time resented the fact that Jerry [Turner, veteran anchor] had been given a co-anchor, and it was a young, African-American woman.”
Winfrey was moved to a morning slot, where she was paired with Richard Sher (the man she shared a sofa with on her first talkshow in 1976) for a talkshow titled, People Are Talking. The show became a hit and Winfrey stayed with it for eight years, after which she was recruited by a Chicago TV station to host her own morning show, A.M. Chicago.
The People Are Talking show became a sensation. Viewers absolutely loved it as they felt she could relate to the person who didn’t have a penny to their name and a person who had billions. Whenever she did a story of children killed in a fire, or children murdered and abused, or stories of women who had endured so much agony, she would cry and cry. She would try to remain objective but she wore her heart on her sleeve, and people really loved that about her.
When she joined WLS-TV in Chicago, they gave her the AM Chicago morning talkshow to anchor. Winfrey’s honest and engaging personality made the show became so successful they had to rebrand it The Oprah Winfrey show and was syndicated nationally. The program became the highest-rated television talk show in the United States and earned several Emmy Awards.
She had been spotted by Quincy Jones around the time she was in Chicago, who recommended her to Steven Spielberg for a role in his adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple. Her critically acclaimed performance led to other movie and animation voice-lending roles. By the time she ended her talk show in 2011, leaving to set up her own cable channel, she had become a billionaire, and one of the most powerful and influential women in the world.
She has been credited with everything from liberalising US culture to reinvigorating America’s publishing industry with her book club, to influencing Barack Obama’s victory, following her endorsement.
Her talk show pioneered the public therapeutic confessional – guests and their empathetic host talked about everything from divorce to body image to childhood abuse to addiction – and later morphed into a vehicle for self-development and triumph over adversity. “In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film,” said Winfrey in her speech at the Golden Globes award she received in 2018, “is to say … how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome.”
America’s relationship with Winfrey has always been a complex one, says Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, and author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream. “She is the first black billionaire, so in the black community she holds a special place because she has shown the promise of going from abject poverty to unimaginable success.” As a woman “she’s shown that it is possible to become a millionaire, and then a billionaire, without having a husband who does it for you.” Winfrey has been with her partner Stedman Graham since 1986, but they never married. Within that same black community there are many who despise her.
Some see her as a puppet of the white establishment. Someone who is bought and paid for by corporate America and just like Obama, she will only care about Black’s for their votes. Some other critics of hers say that all her movies and shows have never casted blacks in a positive light. It has always been negative. Precious, The Inkwell, Dope, Greenleaf, Haves and Have Nots are some of her popular movies and shows in which they claim she does many films with fair skin or bi-racial people and dark skin people are often cast as the Villains.
This is despite the fact that he has supported and continues to support various black women and children in terms of skills acquisition, education and scholarships. She established a school in South Africa for girls called The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) in the Gauteng Province of South Africa.
Despite all these, a lot of black folks still aren’t convinced. In 2019, Curtis Jackson aka 50 cent called Oprah over her spill-all documentary on Russell Simmons, the co-founder of one of America’s biggest hip-hop labels Def Jam Recordings.
The rapper had asked why Winfrey was going after Russell Simmons and Michael Jackson and not Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein.
50 Cent made it clear at the time that wasn’t in support of the fact that she is about to do an expose on another black man considering she took an active role in the controversial documentary series on Michael Jackson called ‘Leaving Neverland’.
50 cent had shared on social media a photo of Winfrey with her one-time good friend Russell Simmons, who has been accused of sexual assault. He noted that while white men facing similar accusations go unnoticed by her production interests. Winfrey seemed to be in a habit of going after black men. In an Instagram post he made at the time but later deleted, he wrote – “I don’t understand why Oprah is going after black men. No Harvey Weinstein, No Epstein, just Michael Jackson and Russell Simmons this sh*t is sad. Gale hit R Kelly with the death-blow documentary. Every time I hear Michael Jackson, I don’t know whether to dance or think about the little boy’s butts. These documentaries are publicly convicting their targets. It makes them guilty till proven innocent.”
Monique Angela Hicks popularly known as Mo’Nique is also another African-American celebrity who has called out Oprah for her perceived ego, high handedness and her propensity to join the white establishment in bringing down black male celebs. Mo’Nique in 2020 called out the talk show host for what she claimed was a “disparity” in the way she treats the people around her. She revealed to the media that she “felt compelled” to write to her after seeing the way Oprah allegedly treats people “who were accused of the same” crimes.
Other black celebrities who have accused Oprah of turning her back on her own people include popular American rapper and actor Ice Cube, Janet Jackson, Ludacris, Snoop Dog and a host of others too numerous to mention.
Oprah on her part has always stood her ground and has said on several occasions that she does what she thinks is best irrespective of whose feelings got hurt. Not giving a damn has brought her this far, she clearly has no plans on mellowing down now.
No matter what anyone thinks of her though, she still represents a symbol of hope to lots of young black girls and women in America and around the world who see her story, tribulations and achievements as something worth striving for.
As part of her Golden Globes speech in 2018, she talked about abuse suffered by generations of women and touched on what kept them down, particularly poor women and women of colour. “What was big about that moment was she said this is about structure,” says Wright Rigueur, an Author and Professor of American History. “I think Oprah does understand the idea of inequalities that are built into the system.” You can see that, she says, through her work in providing girls with access to education in South Africa, and “through her sponsorship, particularly women of colour – her mentorship of [Selma director] Ava DuVernay comes to mind”.
The media mogul’s successful career can be traced back to her days as a news reporter in Baltimore, where she experienced multiple highs and lows that helped shape her as a professional.
She began as a co-anchor interviewing different local people in Baltimore neighbourhoods before being demoted to a weekend feature reporter when she was at one of her lowest points.
“It is a tribute to Oprah that she made the best of the situation, and in retrospect what seemed like a demotion proved a great opportunity for her further career. People Are Talking launched on August 14, 1978, and after interviewing two actors from her favourite soap opera, All My Children, Oprah said she felt like she had finally found her place in television,” Forbes magazine reported.
The report looked into some of the steps Oprah has followed to attain indisputable success.
It includes constantly reinventing herself, relating with her audiences, and not restricting herself to one medium.
“She never restricted herself to just one medium—television talk shows—but built an entire media empire spanning TV productions, films, magazines, a book club, the internet, lectures, and more. Unlike other journalists, she did not work as an employee for long; she built her own empire as a media entrepreneur,” Forbes reports.
As the media mogul turned 69 in January, she looks on to the future with hope, calling every birthday a “new beginning.”
“What lies ahead in the future, none of us knows, but I’m encouraging you to expect some delight. There will be challenges, of course, but lots of delight,” she wrote on Oprah Daily.
Winfrey has always symbolised possibility and we’ve become excitable at the prospect of President Oprah happening in future because it seems like the inevitable, desirable conclusion to her life’s story. She is essentially saying we need to offer people on the ground platforms in order to fix inequality and broken systems,” says Wright Rigueur, rather than look to this one woman.
It doesn’t matter how many platforms she or her associates provide for the down trodden, her present status has placed her firmly in a sphere that few can match. She will always be looked up to, rightly or wrongly she has earned that status.