In the past, I had often wondered why some people born with a silver spoon in their mouth have ended leading nondescript lies or have become failures; while others with even no “spoon” to speak of, have reaped success with a capital S. Now I know, after reading about the life of Oprah Winfrey, activist, actress, producer, reporter, TV talk show host, a national celebrity.
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Ophrah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Even as a baby, she was faced with what her biographers have called a “mountain of obstacles.” She was poor, black, and female; her parents were teenage and unwed. Her mother, Vernita Lee, was a housemaid and her father was a barber.
The young Oprah was raised on a farm by her grandmother, and she maintains that the care her grandmother gave her early on probably saved her life. She began reading aloud and reciting sermons at the tender age of three. More parents should be like Oprah’s granny, who often said she was “gifted,” and the child took it to mean that she was special. This praise was enough to help Oprah endure the hardships she had to go through when she went to live with her mother. A little praise can go a long, long way. Parents should refrain from dishing out to their children such remarks as, “How many times have I told you not to….” This can be highly disconcerting and discouraging to the youngster. It only serves to lower his self-esteem.
After a troubled adolescence in the small farming community where she next lived, she was raped by a number of male relatives and friends of her mother. Perhaps it would have been better had she reported the abuses to the proper authorities since those men were criminally liable, but she didn’t know any better. Instead, she held the anger and the pain inside and ran away.
Before she finally gave up her wild behavior, she became pregnant and gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. This incident devastated her and prompted her to turn her life around. Today, we may avert this sorry state of affairs by having our adolescents join clubs such as the “Say No To Sex and Drugs” kind in which the youngster (girls) are taught by qualified lecturers the art of self-defense and the dangers of drugs and sex.
Oprah’s second chance came when she was sent to live with her father. He insisted on her adhering to the discipline he imposed on her. As a result, she earned high grades in school and read a book every week.
At the age of nineteen, Oprah landed her first job as a reporter for a Nashville radio station. Not long after, she entered Tennessee State University to study Radio and TV Broadcasting. Life in the university was not without its glorious moments. Endowed with good looks, Oprah entered several pageants and won the titles of “Miss Black Nashville” and “Miss Tennessee.” Oprah teaches young people that it is not enough to immerse oneself in books and studios. Life must have its light moments too.
In 1976, Oprah moved to Baltimore to host the TV Chat show People are Talking. Eight years after, she hosted her own morning show, AM Chicago. Her major competitor then was Phil Donahue. Several months later, she had 100,000 more viewers than Phil Donahue. Oprah’s success in radio and TV broadcasting is attributed to her open, warm-hearted personal style. All who work along this line can learn from her example. Oprah’s success led to a role in the film, The Color Purple, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Winfrey launched the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986 as a nationally syndicated program, and the show grossed $125 million after one year. Unlike others who stop after their first successful project, Oprah went on to open a miniseries, The Women of Brewsters’ Place. She also signed a multi-picture contract with Disney. Her life shows us that ambitions and hard work pay off.
Forbes magazine adjudged Oprah to be the richest African American of the 20th century and the world’s only Black billionaire for three years running. Life Magazine dubbed her the most influential woman of her generation. In 2005, Business Week proclaimed her the greatest Black philanthropist in American history.
In 1994, President Clinton signed a bill into law that Winfrey proposed in Congress, creating a nationwide database of convicted child abusers. This is probably a positive offshoot of the molestation inflicted on her as a child. The poverty she experienced in her youth may also have prompted her to help further the education of poor but talented black young women and to found a girls’ school in January 2007. This school, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, is located on a 52-acre campus in Africa.
Oprah Winfrey has come a long way from being a poor, black farm girl from Mississippi to a national celebrity by her own ambition, courage, hard work, and faith in herself. Her life is a beautiful example for not only the underprivileged black youth to follow but for everyone as well.
She has managed to transcend her poverty, sex, and color to emerge a victor with flying colors. Her life reminds me of the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley:
“I am the master of my fate, I am the Captain of my soul.”
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