May 25 will be a bittersweet day across America.
On that day, after a quarter century of unparalleled excellence and out-of-this-world success, Oprah is closing down “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” TV’s top-rated talk show year after year after year.
Hers is a truly remarkable and thoroughly American story, a story of triumph and grace that belongs to the world, especially the children growing up hard in places like Soweto, Detroit and the West Bank.
She didn’t inherit a penny. She earned everything she has. Some people born on third base think they hit a triple. Oprah spent much of her young life ducking wild pitches and unfair umpires. But in the best tradition of Jackie Robinson, she flew around the bases and crossed home plate standing up.
Oprah was born in Kosciusko, Miss., so poor she sometimes wore homemade dresses stitched together from sacks used to ship potatoes. Raised in a broken family, she was raped as a child and became pregnant at age 14 (her son died shortly after birth). Somehow, she found the drive and grit to climb up and out of the valley of pain and shame and begin her ascent to the mountaintop as a freshman at Tennessee State University.
That’s when and where she and I first crossed paths, although she had to remind me of it many years later. I was speaking at the university. Oprah was in the audience. She said what impressed her most about what I said was a bit of wisdom I shared with the students from my grandmother: the strongest weapon against bigotry is excellence.
It was at Tennessee State where Oprah found her calling, becoming at the age of 19 the first African-American female news anchor in Nashville. She eventually moved on to Baltimore, where she spent several years perfecting her craft, before landing in Chicago and transforming a local talk show into a nationally syndicated TV phenomenon.
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” is the highest rated TV talk show in history, drawing 49 million viewers each week in the U.S., and broadcast in 122 countries worldwide. Across the country and the world, people welcome Oprah into their homes each day.
She is their sister, their best girlfriend, their guide to a better way of living and loving. Few have done more to break down racial divides.
With her wit and humanity, she spoke across regional and racial and religious barriers. In this last year of shows, she returned to Forsyth Country, Ga., where black people had previously been chased out of town by rock throwing mobs. She didn’t return alone. A guy who called her “the N word” on her first visit several years ago joined her for the tour of memory and reconciliation.
Oprah always pushed boundaries. She did path-breaking work introducing Middle America to the plague of AIDS, helping people move beyond their fears. She became a champion of abused children across the world, her testimony helping to pass the National Child Protection Act.
Her influence takes many forms. She helped turn Americans onto reading good novels, even putting Anna Karenina on the best-seller list. She shared her own battles with weight and her struggles with relationships.
When she endorsed the far less known junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, in the Democratic presidential primary, she gave a rocket boost to his campaign. Academic studies suggest her endorsement may have been worth as many as a million votes.
Along the way, she became the wealthiest African-American in the 20th century, the first black billionaire and the greatest African-American philanthropist ever.
In my life and time, work and travel, I’ve met people at all levels and in all spheres of life. I found none like Oprah. I’m blessed to know her. We are all.
When poet Maya Angelo penned “Phenomenal Woman,” she must have been thinking of Oprah, her dear friend.
It reads in part:
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman