Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Oprah Winfrey

The circumstances surrounding the birth of a female infant in Kosciusko, Miss., on Jan. 29, 1954, were not promising. Present was the usual mix that had so often accumulated into a burden too heavy for a single-parent household like the one Oprah Winfrey grew up in. The state in which she was born had laws in place waiting to characterize her as unwelcome, to bar her participation in otherwise acceptable social activities, to shackle her to the residue of slavery and other injustices of the past. The simple truth is that her grandmother, her great-grandmother and all the great-great-grandmothers before them never experienced one day of life free from the harsh decrees of state-sponsored racial repression.

In hindsight, it appears that her birth was an uneventful one. But at age 3 she was reciting speeches from church pulpits. Upon discovering books, the child delved into the written word, turning out weekly book reports for her father. Even during turbulent times, not a moment was wasted. Seeds were being planted, watered, nurtured. On April 13, 1964, nearly an adolescent and watching television from the linoleum floor of her mother's walk-up flat in Milwaukee, she witnessed an event that connected to something deep inside of her. She was watching the live broadcast of the Academy Awards ceremony and saw a young African-American actor receiving the film industry's highest honor. Sharing in that moment and all it implied, she later told me, caused her to say softly to herself, "If he can do that, I wonder what I could do?"

The ground had been set. The journey of Oprah Winfrey had begun. The babe, the child, the adolescent, the young woman—all their strengths were harnessed into a force of astonishing power that placed itself in the service of nature and the human family. That the world has changed in meaningful ways since 1954 is beyond question. Oprah and her activities were driving forces in many of those changes. Her enormously influential talk show, her philanthropic work with children in Africa and elsewhere, her popular book club and magazine, her empowering spiritual message, her contribution (by action and example) to improving race relations—all speak to the human family, touching hearts and leaving each one uplifted.

Mississippi too seems to be mellowing out into a more congenial place than it was in 1954. That may also be partly due to the very special energy that is Oprah Winfrey—a courageous, funny, compassionate, well-informed, dazzlingly curious person, as down-to-earth and loving as any human being I've ever known.

Poitier is a winner of the 1964 Academy Award for Best Actor

From the Archive
10 Questions for Oprah Winfrey: The talk-show host on her improving ratings, political influence and why she won't do Letterman