Oprah Gail Winfrey, the richest African-American of the 20th century and also the greatest black philanthropist in the history of America, is an idol for many people. She is an American television host, producer, actor, entrepreneur and philanthropist. She is also among the most influential women in the world. She was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the American President, Barrack Obama, in 2013 and also an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard.
Her achievements might shine brighter than the shimmer of gold but her life was not an easy ride. She is a woman who rose from the darkest of pits to reach where she is.
Oprah Winfrey was born on 29th January’ 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to an unwed teenage mother (Vernita Lee- 18 years old at the time of Oprah’s birth). She spent her early years with her grandmother (Hattie Mae Lee), on her farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi, while her mother searched for a livelihood in the North to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She learnt her first words at her grandmother’s place and learnt to read at a very early age. Hattie Mae Lee was the person who encouraged Oprah to love books. At the young age of three, Oprah could recite poems and biblical verses in the local churches. Despite the primitive lifestyle at the farm, she enjoyed her grandmother’s support. The church community considered her a prodigy. Her world was full of knowledge and love, but it took a dark turn.
At the age of six, her grandmother became ill and hence, Oprah was sent to Milwaukee to live with her mother. In Milwaukee, she lived in a boarding house with her half-sister (Patricia) and her mother. Her mother, Vernita, was working as maid-cleaning houses, but sometimes they had to depend on welfare in order to support the family. Vernita hardly had time to spend with her kids but whenever she could, she spent it taking care of Patricia. When she was nine, she was raped by her cousin (19 years old at that time) who was babysitting her. She was again sexually abused by a family friend and an uncle till she was thirteen years old. She was emotionally devastated and had nobody to turn to. She was unable to confide in her mother and hence took to- stealing money from her mother and skipping school. She also tried running away but was sent to juvenile detention home but was denied admission due to lack of beds. Her mother decided that she could no longer tolerate Oprah’s behavior and sent her to Nashville, to live with her father (Vernon Winfrey, 20 years old at the time of Oprah’s birth). She admits that she was a sexually promiscuous teenager. At the age of 14, she discovered that she was pregnant but the boy died within 2 weeks of his birth.
Going to Nashville was another turning point of her life. Vernon Winfrey was a stern disciplinarian. Oprah found a reliable and secure home with her father, something that she needed. He oversaw that she never crossed her curfew and took her education seriously. He made her read a book and write a book report each week. Oprah in an interview said, “As strict as he was…he had some concerns about me making the best of my life, and would not accept anything less than what he thought was my best.” Under his guidance, Oprah grew into an honor student and won prizes for oratory and dramatic recitation. When she was 16 years old, she read the autobiography of Maya Angelou-“I know why the caged bird sings”. She later said, “I read it over and over, I had never before read a book that validated my own existence.” Maya Angelou and Oprah later became very close friends.
In 1971, she and one other student were chosen to attend the White House Conference on Youth in Colorado to represent Tennessee. When she was 17, she was interviewed by the radio station, WWOL. The station later asked her to represent them in a beauty pageant (Miss Fire Prevention). Not only, did she participate but won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant (first ever African-American to have won the contest). WWOL offered her a chance to hear her voice on tape and this earned her a part-time post as a newsreader. She won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, from where she completed her majors in Communications and Performing Arts.
She worked for the local media and was the youngest as well as the first black female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. Her career choice could be the result of her grandmother’s influence as she herself was heard saying that it was Hattie Mae who encouraged her to speak in public and gave her a positive sense of self.
Later, in 1976, came the break that made her famous. She moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and hosted the TV chat show- “People are Talking”. This show was a huge hit and Winfrey worked here for eight years, after which she joined the Chicago TV station, as the host for her own morning show- “A.M. Chicago”. Within a few months, she had taken the ratings of her show from the last place to the top. This success led to her famous role in Steven Spielberg’s film “The Color Purple” (1985) and was nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Supporting role.
Finally, the most known show-the Oprah Winfrey Show began in 1986 and was a nationally organized program. It was aired on 120 channels and had an audience of 10 million people. The show earned about $125 million by the end of the very first year and Oprah received $30 million for it. She soon obtained the ownership of the show from ABC and took it under her own new production company, Harpo (‘Oprah’ spelled backwards) Productions and invested in syndication projects. With talk shows becoming more and more exploitative in the late 90s, she pledged to keep her show free of tabloids. In 2009, she announced that she would be ending her show by 2011 and soon started her own network, the “Oprah Winfrey Network”, in a joint venture with Discovery Communications.
Oprah’s Angel Network has raised more than $51,000,000 for charitable programs in South Africa and for relief programs for the victims of the Hurricane Katrina. She has been dedicated towards children’s rights and in 1994; President Clinton signed a bill, proposed by Winfrey, thus creating a nationwide database of convicted child abusers. She also founded the Family of Better Lives Foundation. In 2002, she was named the first person to receive the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Bob Hope Humanitarian Award.
This is not all. There’s a lot more to her life than one article. Her life teaches us that we can achieve whatever we wish to, no matter our circumstances. She chose to live again and to forgive her past because only then can you live your present and make a future. She is a predecessor who will always be the torch of hope to women of the present and the future.