Sometimes, inspiration comes in the form of a power suit and a sensible Afro.
It all started in eighth grade. I owe a lot to my middle school English teacher. She made us all participate in our own Toastmasters, meaning we each had to give five-minute speeches about any topic of our choosing. The point was to become competent at organizing and delivering speeches and explaining things clearly.
I was nervous but also excited by the opportunity to educate my sometimes less-than-enthralling peers about anything I wanted. But as often happens when presented with limitless choices, I was paralyzed by the possibilities. I kept a running list of potential topics, but not one idea outshone the rest.
As had often happened before and has often happened since, television gave me the answer — more specifically, the E! Entertainment channel gave me the answer. One night when I no doubt should have been doing math homework, the “E! True Hollywood Story” of Oprah Winfrey came on TV.
I’d been a casual fan of Oprah for a couple years. I was at the awkward age in my life when neither playing with toys nor going out with friends was a common after-school occurrence (it’s called middle school), and that meant that I had a lot more time to watch TV.
But that E! True Hollywood Story converted me into a hardcore fan. After seeing Oprah’s story — the story of an impoverished childhood as a rape survivor, and the story of fighting for a job at a local TV station and using it to eventually propel herself to national syndication, against all odds — I became mildly obsessed.
Because — no apologies to the naysayers — Oprah is awesome. And I honestly can’t think of a better mainstream famous female role model than Ms. Winfrey.
Women in the media often exist to be looked at. They succeed on the merits of their looks and sexuality, or their relationships, or their ability to perform in the role that is manufactured for them. But Oprah succeeded because of her ability to talk, and most importantly, her ability to ask questions.
Much has been said about Oprah’s ego, and I can understand how some would find her overbearing and ridiculous. But she didn’t get to the top by being obsessed with herself — in fact, it’s just the opposite. Oprah originally gained popularity by shedding light and peering into all sorts of topics, often ones that were overlooked or mistreated by the traditional media.
Through different interviews and shows, she put a human face on issues, one of the most notable issues being AIDS. Major TV news shows can conflate this epidemic into being all fear and no content, and that was especially true in the ’80s. But by having a talk show — a program whose very title implied that its purpose was to let people talk — Oprah could allow stories to be told.
In 1987, the same year that Ronald Reagan finally publicly acknowledged the existence of AIDS, Oprah, who had only been on air a few years, did a show about the town of Williamsburg, West Virginia, which had recently been rocked by a controversy revolving around an out gay man who was HIV-positive, a public swimming pool and a lot of ignorance. She traveled to the town, and the citizens were both her audience and her interviewees.
The episode showed a public dialogue that, while being very hateful and prejudiced, also served as an important narrative for the country to see. The rest of the media had covered the issue, and people had judged what they thought about it. But Oprah putting the story, the issue, the man and the entire town on television for an hour was huge because it existed as a record of what was really going on at this point in history. It wasn’t hyped up with the language of fear that many media outlets used when covering AIDS, and it wasn’t downplayed into almost nonexistence the way Reagan wished it to be. It simply was: Oprah asked the people questions, and they answered.
It was definitely a risk to do that show, as many of her viewers at the time probably still harbored deep resentment towards homosexual people and an intense fear of AIDS. But she did it anyway — why? For ratings? That probably had something to do with it. But still, she went far outside the safety net of what talk shows were supposed to be about at the time, and she continued to do so, covering things like sexual abuse, meat contamination, drug addiction, obesity and much more.
And when Oprah revisited the town 23 years later, we could see how much had changed since 1987 — and how much remained the same.
So naturally, 13-year-old me gave a speech about her. I don’t remember much about it, beyond yelling at my fellow students that they’d all won free cars. But I hope I stressed the importance of asking questions.
Because over the years, Oprah has asked a whole lot of people questions. Her style has changed, her subjects have changed, and some would say she’s grown less relevant, and worships far too frequently at the altar of consumption.
But the fact that being a dirt-poor, sexually abused African American girl who grew up to be one of the most influential people on the planet, is owed mostly to her ability to ask questions — and her persistence at doing so — remains remarkable. It attests to the power of human connection, to the importance of dialogue, and to the unstoppable force that is curiosity and the equally impressive need to be heard.
And as her talk show comes to an end, the power of conversation is more important than ever. Nobody will ever replace Oprah Winfrey, but hopefully everyone can keep in mind what she said during her final episode.
“Wherever you are, that is your platform, your stage, your circle of influence,” Winfrey said. “That is your talk show, and that is where your power lies.”