I remember the early days, when Oprah was just starting out. At the time, this was a big, big deal. You just didn’t see a black woman hosting a daytime talk show. And there she was, big hair and big personality, storming the airwaves. My earliest memory of her was when she had a number of white supremacists on her show. One of them—a fairly swarthy-looking sort—was blathering on about white power, yada, yada, yada. Oprah stopped him mid-sentence, asking him, “What are you doing up there with the white power people? You look like you’ve got some Negro blood to me.” For a long time after that, Oprah could do no wrong in my book.
—Teresa Wiltz, senior culture writer and interim managing editor for The Root
Who was that guy that faked that memoir? James Frey. Oprah lost all decorum. It wasn't like her neck was going side to side, but that was the only thing missing when she let him know that you don't mess with the O.
—Terence Samuel, deputy editor of The Root
Am I the only one who remembers Oprah in the ‘90s? She wasn’t always the suburban darling who we know now. I remember Tyra Banks getting so much flak when she launched her talk show, as if it could never measure up to Oprah’s mega success. Tyra’s too loud. She’s too around the way. Her segments are too cheesy. It was as if Banks’ excessive personality and pop-culture presence made her “too black” for Ms. Winfrey’s kind of crossover success. Has no one seen Oprah on that episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air? She made an appearance on the show—just like another present-day media mogul—donning big hair, bad fashion and dishing sassy one-liners. Now that O is retiring, this could be Tyra Banks’ shot at taking over the throne of daytime talk. The two may have a lot more in common than we think.
—Saaret E. Yoseph, assistant editor for The Root
I've never known a world without Oprah on TV. I'm 24, and her show is 25. I didn't watch Oprah much growing up, but I do remember watching Kim Wayans on In Living Color and Debra Wilson on Mad TV, always making jokes of her weight, her tearful episodes and her suspected attitude problem. And don't forget the episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, when Oprah invited the Banks family—sans Will—to the show. Those are some of the funniest Oprah moments—and she wasn't even there.
—Erin Evans, copy editor for The Root
It was big when Oprah gave away free cars to everyone in her studio audience, but it was even bigger when she gave away Kentucky Fried Chicken grilled chicken to thousands of hungry people. After a grilled-chicken promotion coupon was posted on Oprah.com, there were feathers flying everywhere. Fights and even riots broke out in KFCs across the nation when it turned out there was not enough chicken for everybody.
—Eboni Farmer, intern and writer for The Root
I thought nothing could beat the folly of Beyoncé showing Oprah how to gyrate to “Bootylicious.” But, then I watched Jay-Z’s cipher with Oprah this September and realized if this wasn’t one of her most overdue black moments, it definitely was one of her most memorable ones. While I gained rare insight into Jay-Z’s editing and freestyle rapping, his spitfire precision and mid-phrase self-correction, I couldn’t help but chuckle at Oprah’s earnest attempt to repeat the most basic of Jigga’s verses: Little boy from Brooklyn, made it from the ‘Stuy/girl from out the South made it to the ‘Chi/Only goes to show that the limit is the sky/if life give you lemons then you make lemon pie. Yes, in this episode of the African-American Horatio Alger story, of black mogul to mogul love, Oprah was too eager, too unfamiliar with the basic rhyme pattern, and pointed her finger too much as she was rhyming. But, there was also something else at play here, for Oprah, patiently guided by Jay-Z and cheered on by both the simple DJ beat and the bobbing heads of her audience, reached her arms out to the hip-hop generation, and finally, if only for a moment, and I mean close to a nanosecond, rocked the mic.
—Salamishah Tillet, regular contributor to The Root
I love Twitter. It solves all the deepest, most “unbeweavable” celebrity rumors in 140 characters or less. I especially loved it when Ms. Winfrey told her "tweeples" that no, she does NOT wear a weave, thank you very much. She even posted a picture of her pre-press and curl in the mornings. So if Oprah can get everybody to stop eating beef in Texas, I wonder if she can stop black women from getting the creamy crack every six weeks.
—Jada F. Smith, intern and writer for The Root
Full disclosure: I'm no Oprah fan. The materialist version of empowerment she sells feels more like thinly veiled shame to me. That said, O has had her moments of genuine strength. And not coincidentally, the best was also her blackest moment on the public stage: The "You told Harpo to beat me?!" speech in the film version of The Color Purple. She's never been more powerfully, unapologetically black and female than in reading those lines. "I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I'll kill him dead before I let him beat me!" That's right, girl. That's right.
—Kai Wright, senior writer for The Root
Oprah has always been a black woman who shared an affinity to the circumstances that have shaped African-American people. She’s certainly had her “white moments.” From her hazel-colored eye contacts to telling Oscar winner Charlize Theron that she has the perfect beauty, Oprah, like so many of us, has been living with the demons that accompany American black life. However, it’s her on-screen performances where she gives us our money’s worth. I’m talking about her performance as Sethe in the 1998 film version of Toni Morrison’s, Beloved. Yes, Alfre Woodard would have ripped a new hole into that character, but Oprah reached deep and brought forth the ancestors. I’m referring to the scene where Sethe describes the circumstances that led to her daughter’s slaughter. Oprah, I mean Sethe, stands by her window and recalls the moment when the white schoolteacher came up the road, determined to take her back to bondage. I know Morrison provided the Pulitzer Prize-winning words about righteousness and 19th-century white folks, but it was Oprah who conveyed them. Oprah hit the word “righteousness” with the soft sting only a black person who has experienced soul-deep discrimination understands. Who has heard blood-chilling stories from great-grandparents about the compromise and courage it takes to navigate American life. That was some “very black” stuff, baby.
—Keith Josef Adkins, blogs at On the Dig for The Root
Although she’s ruled the world of daytime television with an iron fist that no Harpo could beat, Oprah Winfrey has caught a bad rap from some blacks who feel she’s catered more to the interest of our paler brethren out in Middle America.
Granted, an episode themed “Oprah and the Osmonds” doesn’t exactly resonate well with many black folks, but don’t you remember Oprah standing tall and telling some dark-haired white supremacist that he looked like he had a bit of the Negro running in his blood line?
Or some saying Queen O played Lela Rochon when she appeared on the show to promote Waiting To Exhale because she felt her character was “weak”? And don’t kid us, we know you saw Oprah spit hot fire (well, she tried and that’s all that counts) with Jay-Z recently? She even let Chris Rock search her scalp for tracks! And that’s after she showed a childhood picture that made her look like the first Negro to discover Polaroid.
So give Oprah a break. She’s always been down … just down for other demographics, too.
—Michael Arceneaux blogs at The Recession Diaries for The Root