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Lions Roar : May 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2011 80 Orpah from the Book of ruth in the Old Testament,” writes Lois P. Nicholson in her young adult biography, Oprah Winfrey: Entertainer (Chelsea house 1994). “But [Oprah’s mother] gave birth at home with the assistance of a midwife, and according to Oprah, ‘the midwife got the letters transposed, and I wound up as Oprah on my birth certificate.’” In her effort to define Winfrey as a modern-day “messiah” who promotes mindless consumption through the “mega church” of her television, radio, magazine, film, and Book Club enterprises, Lofton likens Winfrey to nineteenth-century missionaries who sought to bring civility and salvation to “primitive” African tribes. The author seems to take special umbrage at Winfrey’s 2002 launch in South Africa of the first international edition of O, The Oprah Magazine. “Oprah would subsequently claim a genetic tie to the zulu people as further endorsement of her righteous role in the nation’s development,” Lofton writes. “The descendant of slaves was now returning to her continental origin to compel the unconverted.” Lofton is similarly leery of the $40-million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (a private boarding school) that opened outside of Johannesburg in 2007. Winfrey funded the school and oversaw every detail of the twenty-two-acre campus that features a yoga studio, a beauty salon, high-tech theaters, and museum quality pieces of original tribal art. “Beautiful environments inspire beauty in you,” Winfrey said, unapologetically, about her central role in the design of the acad- emy. “I said from the start, I am creating everything in this school that I would have wanted for myself—so the girls will have the absolute best my imagination can offer.” Lofton takes a different slant. “No matter the racial composi- tion of the missionary relationship... it [is] predicated on a fun- damental difference between the proselytizers (white or black) and the proselytes,” the author asserts. “For Oprah, the postco- lonial colonizer... the only reason to justify her philanthropic presence—is material inequality. These [Leadership Academy] girls may have wisdom greater than any faraway bureaucrat or invading missionary. But they don’t have yellow tiles or Body Shop soaps to line their cluttered outhouses. And this donation is where Oprah’s mission begins.” Writing in a January 2007 Salon.com article about “haters” of the Leadership Academy, rebecca Traister observed: “Winfrey might have known that news of her students’ swank surround- ings might not wash with American critics, who don’t bat an eye at white hotel heiresses dancing on banquettes, or reality shows about sweet-sixteen parties at budgets that could build a home for a Katrina victim. But impoverished black girls sleeping on nice-ish sheets? That didn’t go over so well. The affronted sense that these girls deserved only bare-minimum accommodations and that a private citizen’s money should have been used to edu- cate them in bulk rather than in gracious individual style re- flects our own beliefs that the bare minimum is all poor (black) girls need.” I believe that Winfrey’s moral values and ethic of care stem from her upbringing in the traditional black Baptist church where the nurturing of youth (especially those of promise) and public service have long been cornerstones of the institution. From an early age, the elders at her small, rural parish in Kos- ciusko, Mississippi (population about seven thousand) praised Winfrey for oratory gifts that apparently included Oscar-worthy recitations of the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. The affirma- tion Winfrey received in church honed her allegiance to “every- day people” and endowed her, spiritually, with a personal sense of unlimited potential. In that regard, Winfrey’s magnificent journey mirrors that of Aretha Franklin, whose legendary career began as the premier soloist in New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father was minister. “I always knew I was going to do well in life,” Winfrey has said, her painful childhood notwithstanding. “I always believed that whatever I wanted... I could get—I have such stable roots.” An avid reader (as evidenced by her Book Club), Winfrey’s vision was also shaped by the great blossoming of black women’s literature that began in the seventies. In addition to The Color Purple, she has cited as cherished books such works as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; Breath, Eyes, Memo- ry by edwidge Danticat; and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. All the works delve, unflinchingly, into the hardships of black life but ultimately deliver restorative messages of redemption. Per- severance is a common theme in the books; one that resonates with Winfrey and that she imparts to her millions of viewers in more than 140 countries. In keeping with the major tenets of Buddhism, Winfrey, through her empathy, honesty, authenticity, and philanthropy, has crafted a life in which she has been, with- out question, of benefit to others. Spiritually and morally, Winfrey is asking people to take re- sponsibility for their lives. “I believe that I have a higher call- ing. What I do goes beyond the realm of [normal] parameters,” Oprah has said. “A bonding of the human spirit takes place.” Approached in 1999 by hearst media (owner of, among other properties, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Esquire) about extend- ing her message of uplift through a monthly publication, Oprah reputedly replied: “Why do I need a magazine? I already have a full-time job that speaks to women all over the world.” As Lofton tells it, Winfrey was soon swayed by the opportu- nity to publish a spirit-infused but secular guide (read: Bible) for Winfrey, through her empathy, honesty, authenticity, and philanthropy, has crafted a life in which she has been, without question, of benefit to others.