Photo: © Patrick Fraser/Corbis Outline
There's no straight line from Kosciusko, Mississippi, to Paris, France, or to London, England, or to, for that matter, Chicago, Illinois. The fact is that Oprah Winfrey reaches all those places with her irresistible personality and charm.
Her journey has been, and still is, complicated. She was born poor in a poverty-stricken village in Mississippi. She was born Black in an era and an area where racism was the order of the day and was to be expected and legally accepted.
Fortunately, before she reached her teens, she had heard and believed the lyrics of an old gospel that advised, "Don’t you let nobody turn you round, turn you round, turn you round." She decided that she would not allow anyone or any group to reduce her humanity.
Oprah began to read in the library of the Black school in Kosciusko, Mississippi. She drank down novels as if they contained the sweet iced tea of southern summers. She met White children in the pages who were worlds apart from the mean White youngsters who teased her and called her vulgar names in the dirt roads of her hometown. She read and memorized the poetry of the great African American poets Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Their lines, filled with self-respect, had an enormous impact on the young Winfrey. The poets exclaimed that Black was not only beautiful, but also exquisite. Langston Hughes's "Harlem Sweeties" told her that her complexion was perfect, and the poem strengthened her resolve to grow beyond the confines of negativity.
Have you dug the spill
Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims
On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie,
Sweet enough to eat.
So if you want to know beauty's
Stroll down luscious,
Delicious, fine Sugar Hill.
Oprah, like any other southern-born Black child, desperately needed the assurance that African Americans were worthy of praise and appreciation. She found that assurance in James Weldon Johnson’s song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known as the African American National Anthem.
Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun.
Let us march on till victory is won.
The climate in Kosciusko was heavy with the idea that White was always right and White had might and that Black should always get back, get back. Oprah decided that she would not indulge any man-made hindrance between human beings constructed for someone else’s convenience and at someone else’s whim.
The question was: How could a Black girl born into such a negative climate escape this crippling environment and become one of the most powerful voices in the world?
Oprah used her deeply felt religion to combat all the offensive strikes against her. She believed that she was a child of God and took sincerely the words of a nineteenth-century hymn writer:
My Father is rich in houses and lands,
He holdeth the wealth of the world in His hands!
Of rubies and diamonds, of silver and gold,
His coffers are filled, He has riches untold.
I’m a child of the King.
A child of the King:
With Jesus my Savior,
I’m a child of the King.
She began to recite in her grandmother's church, and the older church members commended her, bragged about her, and said she was very good.
When Oprah Winfrey left Mississippi and later went to live with her father in Tennessee, she found herself less restricted, less hemmed in by racism.
Conversations in her father's barbershop were driven by political and social issues. Winfrey bloomed. When she entered Tennessee State University, she was convinced of a belief she had held secretly and that belief was: She was, after all, very intelligent.
Oprah Winfrey was given not only a fine brain but also enormous energy. Her ambitions had not focused on any desire, save to be the best she could be.
When I was told of this book and informed that a number of people would write about Oprah Winfrey and possibly describe her, I was reminded of an ancient Indian folktale about a group of blind people who were asked to describe a super-size elephant.
One person was taken to the elephant's side. He used both hands to feel the rough skin of the animal. He exclaimed, “I know what an elephant is. He is a hairy wall.”
The second person was given the wiggly tail, and he shouted, "An elephant is a very excited snake." A third person was guided to the trunk, and he said, “I know an elephant is a tree.” Each person found another portion of the elephant to describe.
Ms. Oprah Winfrey is much more complex than an elephant or even a herd of elephants. These writers (I include myself) who have attempted to describe Oprah are not blind. So I am sure this book will offer many facts. Since I know that facts can often obscure the truth, I can tell you one truth about Oprah Winfrey that I have learned in our friendship over twenty-five years.
Oprah Winfrey is a child of God and a citizen of the world. Phenomenally.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels.
The bend of my hair,
The palms of my hands.
The need for my care.
'Cause I’m a woman
“Phenomenal” © 2011 Maya Angelou Courtesy of Abrams from The Oprah Winfrey Show: Reflections on an American Legacy
Published on October 17, 2011