Oprah Winfrey was born as obscurely as they come in 1954. Her mother was an unwed teenager, her state of birth, Mississippi—a state, everyone now agrees, not entirely friendly to unwed pregnant African American teenagers back in the 50’s, nor to their little helpless offspring. Winfrey was “raised,” if that’s the right word for it, in a slum in Milwaukee, where, at the age of nine, she was raped, and where, at the age of fourteen, she gave birth to a baby boy, who died in delivery. Life was a little bit difficult for Winfrey at the beginning. You could say that Winfrey wasn’t among the blessed when it came to things such as home stability, family support, a safe, beautiful, unpolluted community, and so forth. But Winfrey was a fighter. If she wasn’t among the blessed in outward circumstances, she was certainly unusual inwardly—with a drive and ambition, a magnetism, unusual in anyone born under any circumstances.
Winfrey was eventually passed along to the state Tennessee, where she lived with a man she refers to as “father” to this day. A local barber, he provided Winfrey with the balanced environment she’d been so dramatically lacking up until that point. Now it was Winfrey’s turn to see what she would do with her inner gifts. She was very active in her local high school, and immediately took an interest in the burgeoning art of radio broadcasting, especially talk radio. Winfrey had a smooth, pleasant, comforting voice, which at the same time expressed urgency and moral seriousness. This combination proved so attractive that Winfrey landed a radio job while still in high school, and at the tender age of 19 she found herself as the co-anchor of a local television station. Winfrey was on her way. From here on out there would be no stopping her. Her horrible beginnings, which might have (and which indeed have) crushed so many others, seemed to give Winfrey a sense of a higher calling and purpose. She desired to speak out to others who were either in or had survived similar beginnings, and to inspire them to make something of their lives and also the lives around them.
Winfrey wasn’t a co-anchor for long. She had a gift for speaking without a script, for improvising in the moment on whatever the subject was, and of humanizing the subject by bringing a certain intensity of emotion to it that people had not experienced before. She soon found herself in the world of daytime television. She was given her first opportunity on a daytime television program based in Chicago, which, when Winfrey arrived, was rated third in the state. It didn’t take long for Winfrey’s active presence to rocket it to first, at which point Winfrey made her move. She formed her own production company, and with astonishing swiftness (for one so new and seemingly inexperienced) achieved national syndication. Oprah Winfrey was now a national, and soon an international, name.
Winfrey is thought by and large to have a generous heart and a quick, curious mind. Her book club has brought hundreds of classic titles to hundreds of thousands of readers, and her billions of dollars have been used in countless charitable causes the world over. Some have accused her of being too emotional and of sensationalizing sensitive topics such as poverty, unwed mothers, racism, emotional and sexual abuse, and so forth, while others point out that these topics by their very nature are highly emotionally charged and that Winfrey is doing their unfortunate victims a service by forcing people to pay attention. Whatever your position, you have to agree that Winfrey is a force of nature and that whatever her flaws she’s championed mightily some unquestionably worthy causes.