After tantalizing promos of Oprah promising to reveal a family secret that “shocked her to her core” and that she personally feels is a “miracle,” there are many people, especially black people, who just don’t think that discovering an unknown half-sister is such a big deal.
From TV shows like Showtime’s Soul Food, where Tyra Banks was once introduced as the child the three sisters never knew their father had, to the countless jokes from black comedians about children thinking one man is their father only to find out later that another man actually is, it’s just becoming old hat. When it comes to unknown relatives just popping up, our family trees don’t stop shaking. And the advent of Facebook has only made it easier to deliver such news.
Still, just because Oprah is among many others who’ve discovered an unknown sibling, that doesn’t make her news unremarkable. In fact, today’s episode is probably a useful one for many African-Americans. For one, it firmly roots Oprah in a specific place and time of African-American history. In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine that teenage pregnancy or unwed motherhood was ever taboo, especially in the African-American community. But in the 1950s and 1960s, it was quite a fall from grace.
That doesn’t mean that there were no teenage pregnancies or unwed mothers; it only means that it was not socially acceptable. Last week, Oprah got Piers Morgan’s buzzmeter working overtime by truthfully admitting that the stillborn birth of her child gave her a second chance as a teenager. She seriously doubted that if the child had lived she would be who she is today.
WATCH FOOTAGE OF OPRAH’S REUNION WITH HER HALF-SISTER:
In her mother Vernita’s case, the deck was highly stacked against her. She was a poor, inadequately educated, country girl navigating the big city. Yes, today, her daughter is a billionaire but we’ve learned for every Oprah, there’s a Patricia, Pat and Jeffrey. Pat battled drugs and died in 2003 at the age of 43. Before that, Jeffrey died of AIDS at age 29 in 1989. And, now, there’s the open revelation of a fourth child given up at birth that she left at the hospital. That child was placed in a foster home and eventually adopted in Milwaukee, home to Oprah’s mother and her other siblings. Not surprisingly, Patricia, herself, also became a young mother.
In an emotionally-wrenching snapshot of Vernita Lee that Oprah taped she speaks of giving Patricia up. Although Patricia is seated alongside her, she never warmly acknowledges her youngest daughter and remains transfixed on Oprah as she answers very difficult questions. Already a mother of three by the time she became pregnant with Patricia, who bears the same name as her other daughter but was not named by her, Lee admits she gave Patricia up because she wanted to get off welfare. Even after all these years, it’s clear that Lee is uneasy with what she did. “It was a terrible thing that I had done,” she shares, with sadness and regret in her voice, “gave up my daughter when she was born.”
Women like Vernita are ones that we’ve read about for certain in some of our most beloved African-American novels. But, more importantly, they are women that we all know. They don’t all have a child who grows up to become a famous billionaire but there’s almost always at least one who, in spite of all the obstacles, succeeds. And that one usually carries a huge weight on her or his shoulders. This is what we saw on Keyshia Cole’s BET reality show The Way It Is. And, again, what we know to be true in our everyday lives.It would be wonderful if everybody came from an intact and loving home with one mother and one father. Given the many horror stories, life in the black community would sure be a lot easier.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it is for a lot of us. And just because the ideal dynamic is not some of our realities doesn’t mean that we have to wallow in that and be less than. Oprah is a living testament to that. Life really is full of lemons but you can still make some seriously good lemonade. As Oprah observed to her sister and her audience, their mother can’t embrace her because she’s stuck in 1963.
“You can let the shame go,” she spoke to their mother through the camera. “It’s really alright. There are millions of people all over this country who are just like you, who have given up their children because they knew at the time they could not provide for them.”
So while Oprah sharing the long-lost sister she never knew she had might not be as exciting as giving every member of her audience a car or a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia, it’s the real life story behind who Oprah Winfrey is and why she has been so successful. Stories like discovering her long-lost, secret sister might not be sexy but they are the backbone of what has fueled The Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 years. They represent the uncomfortable reality that we all encounter at some point of our lives. Instead of hiding from the truth, Oprah has helped many embrace those difficult times, understand them and make the best lemonade out of them.
We hold Oprah in such awe because she was made for this. She’s not only a host; she’s both a victim and a survivor. If Oprah Winfrey, the child of an unwed teenage mother shuttled from Mississippi to Milwaukee to Tennessee, sexually abused as a child, with the weight of a needy family on her shoulders, can become one of the single most significant phenoms in television history plus own her own network then truly there is hope for us all.