Last week Oprah finally made it official. “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as we know it, will end in 2011, rounding out 25 seasons of national syndication.
It’s not as dismal as it sounds though. Oprah isn’t retiring; she’s actually upgrading. After all, black women don’t score their own network every day. To ensure that the soon-to-be launched Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) is successful, Oprah is planning to sprinkle her Oprah dust freely. That means no distractions. You’ve heard the expression ‘why buy the cow when the milk is free?’
It’s not that Oprah’s milk has ever been completely free. The first black female billionaire to build her empire from the ground up didn’t get to where she is today without business savvy. When Oprah Winfrey arrived in Chicago from Baltimore to take over a little show called “A.M. Chicago”, once hosted by hometown heroine Marilu Henner of “Taxi” fame and Jayne Kennedy, no one could have ever predicted that she would be the one. That was 1984.
Not long afterwards, the show was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and, by 1986, following her success playing Sophia in “The Color Purple” in 1985, the show was nationally syndicated. The coup was that, by then, Oprah owned her own show through her own company Harpo which is Oprah spelled backwards.
Looking at today’s television talk, it’s hard to envision what Oprah was up against. Like many things in life at that time, television talk was dominated by white men and Phil Donahue was the king that Oprah dethroned. She accomplished that gargantuan task with the mythical qualities that have always been attributed to black women. She was warm and compassionate, wise and all-knowing without being a know-it-all. She also had issues and problems just like her audience.
Is there anything that Oprah hasn’t experienced? Born to a single mother in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1954 and raised by her grandmother for the first six years of her life, Oprah was so poor she reportedly wore dresses made out of potato sacks. When she joined her mother in Milwaukee, she thrived academically but suffered emotionally due to sexual abuse and other challenges. By age 14, she was pregnant and had a baby that died in infancy.
Landing in Nashville to live with her father was what made the difference. There she thrived. She worked in radio and, later, on television. She had a television job as a student at Tennessee State University before moving on to Baltimore to co-anchor the news and, later, to co-host “People Are Talking,” the show that changed her life.
Throughout her journey, Oprah has battled her weight, going from fad diet to fad diet before eventually adopting a healthier lifestyle. She’s given away cars and taken businesses from the brink of failure by including them in her “favorite things” episodes. She has even spoken to Ku Klux Klan leaders, not to mention just about everybody that could be, and is, somebody in this world. Right before her audience’s eyes, she’s evolved, taking them along for the ride.
It’s Oprah who encouraged the women that overwhelming make up her core fan base to live their best lives, to battle their demons and dare to be happy and healthy. She’s even got America reading. Her “Oprah Book Club” has propelled many books to the top of bestsellers’ list. She’s built shows around African-American literary geniuses Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Ernest Gaines. Heck, she even started her own school for girls in South Africa and launched her own monthly magazine, O where she’s been, with two recent exceptions, the sole cover model. There’s just not anything that Oprah Winfrey hasn’t tackled and won and, yet, she’s not resting on her laurels.
Oprah Winfrey has set a high bar for black women and all women. Because of her, there is no ceiling. Challenges still exist of course. Racism and sexism and all the other isms have yet to disappear. But Oprah Winfrey hasn’t let any of those stop her. She’s consistently made a way out of no way, peddling hope to those less faithful, leading by example and triumphing.
Because of Oprah Winfrey, scores of black women will continue to travel into the fields of the unknown, with no particular destination in mind other than reaching a better life tomorrow than they have today. Her genius is that she managed to package that and sell it to everybody. Now she’s got an entire network to program and only one thing is certain: only Oprah can trump Oprah.