It’s time to take another look at Oprah Winfrey. Her rise to power and maintenance of it are instructive in what it means to be an American and what it means to succeed and survive here.
When she retired from her phenomenally successful talk show seven years ago, I doubt anyone thought that would be the last time we would see her. How could a multi-billionaire talk show host remain silent or become invisible? Since leaving her show, in fact, Ms. Winfrey has founded a cable network to go with the magazine she had already published, engaged in celebrity interviews and worked as a special correspondent for “60 Minutes.”
Throughout all of these events and activities, Ms. Winfrey has been generally subtle, as much as a billionaire can be. She has not flaunted her wealth and fame, as some wealthy people can, and she has always appeared generous and grateful for what she has.
But a few months ago, there were rumblings that she might run for president in 2020. At last notice, she denied such intent, though she seems to have backers if she needs them - and even her denials have been suspect. In very recent interviews, she has suggested that she could be convinced to run by nothing short of a sign from God.
In a new film - “A Wrinkle in Time,” which opened recently - she portrays nothing short of a goddess herself, a celestial being imbued with supernatural power.
I have found myself awestruck at Oprah Winfrey’s mind-boggling rise to power over the years. At 64, she has gone from a poor little African American girl from the segregated American South, to the richest black person in America, according to Forbes. But how was she able to do this, why has she been the only person like her to achieve such heights, what can the rest of us learn from her, and what is in her future?
The answers to these questions will help us to better understand our country and even ourselves.
Ms. Winfrey appears to have benefited from both the civil and women’s rights movements in her rise to fame and success. Also, Oprah is very good at relating to and empathizing with others, regardless of race and background. She made a living at understanding the universal human condition, as she sees it.
Moreover, in a country with a difficult racial past, Oprah negotiates race well in general, and she is a professional talker. She made a living as talker, and people of all races tuned in to hear what she had to say, about virtually anything, for decades.
She also gives people what they want, making her appear generous. This was evidenced by the famous gift giveaways to the studio audiences of her talk shows. In some cases, she would give away brand new cars to audience members. How could this not add to her likability and trustworthiness?
The secret of her success in a nutshell comes down to her - her skills and abilities. But American society has also played a role: the same American society that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency, that same society says that it will allow black people to succeed astronomically - if only individually. (Oprah, incidentally, first endorsed Barack Obama as president in 2006, before he even announced his candidacy, and he was her first political endorsement.)
What that means is that at no time in America can we expect to see a dozen Oprah Winfreys and a dozen Barack Obamas on the national stage at one time. That would be too much for the country to handle. But where does that leave Ms. Winfrey, with regard to her future, and where does that leave those of us who observe her life as instructive in some way?
I don’t know. All we can do is watch and wait as Winfrey’s own wrinkle in time unfolds.
Michael Cromwell is an English teacher. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.