OW: I just expected that many people were going to see the film, and then when they didn't, I was really depressed. I remember having a conversation with Gary Zukav—which is the only counseling I got for the depression—I remember saying, "I think I'm depressed about it. I feel so terrible." And he said, "Why? What was your intention?" I said, "Well, I wanted people to see the film and to know that even though slavery was horrible, people came out of slavery and were still able to love. That's why I wanted to do that movie." And he said, "I knew that. And I felt that. I felt that." And I said, "Well, I guess I wanted more than just you to feel it." [Laughs] "I really wanted millions of people to see that and feel that." He said, "Oh, so what you really wanted was to have a big box office." I said, "Yeah, that's what I really wanted." He said, "If you really wanted that, you would have created a different kind of film." And that is true. Because when we were asked to do certain things to the film in order to make it more palatable to viewers, I said, "I won't do that. I won't change the ending, I won't change the story line, I'm going to leave it because that's the way Toni Morrison wrote it, that's what the story is."
SC: You wouldn't want to do something just because it sells. That's not your way.
OW: Granted, it was not the best business decision. That's why I don't consider myself to be a businesswoman. I don't think of business first; I think about what is right for me, personally, first. Which means that sometimes things work and sometimes they don't. And with this network I would wake up like [gasps] and think, What in the world is that? I thought, Maybe this is about me facing the fear.
SC: Fear is a natural response. The question is, What do you do with it? It's an energy that's also a kind of fuel. You can decide to use it—but for a lot of people, it stops them at the threshold. Because it's so powerful.
OW: That's right. What I realized is that I've never been afraid before. Not with any decision I've ever made. Coming to Chicago—when everybody said "You're gonna fail. You can't beat Donahue. Why you gonna go to Chicago?"—that never bothered me because I never thought I was going to beat Donahue anyway. That wasn't the goal. I just knew it was time for me to move on from Baltimore, from that job. I thought, Well, okay, if that doesn't work out, I'll do something else. Now, when it did work out, this was a classic case where being famous and being successful puts you in a box, and you're trapped by that. Because now you've got to live up to what that fame and that success is. Because people say, "Well you did that, and now you oughta be able to do this." But I came to see that The Oprah Winfrey Show was the basis and the foundation for me to be able to create everything else. And everything else will have the energy that it's supposed to hold.
SC: Clinging to the show would have been another kind of fear.
OW: I was approached by all the syndication companies, saying, "We can get you another year, another two years," but that didn't feel like the right thing to do. That feels like I'm hanging on to the ropes in the end, punch-drunk, saying, "Don't knock me out! Let me just get two more years!" I don't want to be doing that. So the fear of not knowing, the "What next?" is a very challenging, soul-searching, deep, substantive provocation. And you know what? It's supposed to be. What I now realize is, it's supposed to be.
SC: Maybe the fear is just part of it, just as much as faith....
OW: Years ago Maya Angelou told me she was in some class, and the instructor told her to repeat, "God loves me." God loves me. Say it again: God loves me. The magnitude of the universal force that created the mountains, the trees, the oceans, the skies—loves you? If you can create a space to take all of that in, there is no fear, ever. And ultimately that is what I came to when I was talking myself down from my anxiety about starting OWN. I remember one morning being in Maui and looking at Lahaina from my window, and I could see the clouds coming up, and it was an apricot morning sky. I was in my bedroom that looks like the bow of a ship where you can see 280 degrees on either side of Maui. And I thought, Here you are, in bed, afraid of making the next move and look at where you are...look at where you are. Look at where you have been brought from. I started thinking about my little house in Mississippi, and I started to cry. I thought, Look at all the times when God didn't leave you alone. And I thought, Okay, okay: God is not going to give me this opportunity and just leave me alone—why would I be put in this position, just to fail?
We Hear You!