Unlocking Oprah Winfrey's Secrets

The Root's partner site, Slate, delves into Oprah's life story--sans Kitty Kelley.

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by Stephen Metcalf

From an early age, along the way to pleasing white audiences who wanted the uplift without the guilt, Winfrey learned to make her blackness both integral and incidental to who she was-quite a deft maneuver. "I grew up a little Negro child who felt so unloved and so isolated," said Winfrey. "The emotion I felt most as a child was loneliness." This is classic Winfrey. Racism is invoked, if as a picturesque antique ("little Negro child"), only to be abstracted into an emotion, an affect. (Or worse, a self-help bromide: "We got it all wrong," she has assured us. "For years we've talked about the physicality of slavery-who did what and who invented that. But the real legacy lies in the strength and courage to survive.") The Oprah Winfrey Show repurposes everything-up to and including the Holocaust-as an individual struggle, the most proper response to which is the engagement of an internal coping mechanism, and finally, self-discipline that, if executed properly, culminates in personal triumph.

As a defense against poverty, racism, and rape, and against the total and often violent dis-esteem of the wider culture, it is no wonder black women develop a defense mechanism-a kind of self-reliance on steroids-that looks nowhere but inward for the beginnings of solace and renewal. (I'm thinking of Marguerite in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in the depth of her inner exile; or Celie's letters to God in The Color Purple.) The genius of Winfrey was to take this, strip it of its historical specificity, recast it and standardize it, and offer it up as a template for mass self-understanding. Donahue had respected the intelligence of women watching daytime television, addressing them as capable people who wanted to engage big-think issues, issues that preoccupied Donahue himself, such as the nuclear standoff or consumer rights. (Ralph Nader was his most frequent guest.) The women in Oprah's audience are not addressed as mothers, wives, citizens, employees, or (god forbid) activists. They are addressed as selves. In the early aughts, the sociologist Eva Illouz sorted the show's episodes by theme. "The Failed Self" is its most common subject, followed by "The Assaulted Self," with "Broken Relations" coming in third.

The breakdown of the black conjugal family had preceded the breakdown of the white conjugal family by at least 100 years; it is one of the most toxic legacies of slavery. In the '70s, divorce rates surged. To the losers in this new culture, of a far more porous family structure for whom life often appears as a series of nonbinding commitments, and for whom the home is no longer necessarily a bulwark against the warlike relations of the outside world, Winfrey had a readymade language, a survivor's language of ennoblement through adversity in which the self is a final asylum in a world where nothing else can be trusted.