The Glory of Oprah

Why the “talkinest child” understands women and the power of television better than anyone else

One of the highlights of the finale at the United Center occurred early in the show: a dazzling performance by Beyoncé of her song “Run the World (Girls).” The production began with a bit of theater that was at once earnest and hammy, and no less affecting for being both; for all her sophistication and sexuality, one of Beyoncé’s great talents is her ability to exude the breathless innocence of youth itself. To the accompaniment of “Pomp and Circumstance,” in an outfit of leotard and high heels that somehow managed to signal that her remarks were in the style of a commencement address, she announced: “Oprah Winfrey, because of you, women everywhere have graduated to a new level of understanding of what we are, of who we are, and, most importantly, who we can be … Oprah—we can run the world!” There was a quivering, building excitement, because you knew she was about to burst into the number, and after a few tension-filled moments, she did. A team of gorgeous backup dancers in black hot pants and red stilettos marched onstage, and Beyoncé handed each one a diploma, then launched into the exciting song:

Who run the world? Girls!

Who run the world? Girls!

Like most grrrl-powered productions, it was sexy, exciting, and hollow. Girls don’t really run the world, and they’re not likely to—and certainly not in high heels and hot pants—anytime soon. But that didn’t matter, because the dancing was so sensational, and the star so electrifying, and Oprah so happily overcome by the moment. And the performance was obviously a tribute to something genuine: if girls aren’t poised for world domination, it’s not for lack of Oprah’s own efforts. Few people have undertaken such a lifelong, bighearted, and wide-ranging campaign of improving the lives of girls, especially poor black ones. The number, though, was a sizzling bit of fluff, as thoroughly entertaining as it was immediately forgotten.

But another moment in the evening will be remembered for a long time by everyone who saw it, whether in person or on television. It highlighted another of Oprah’s commitments, and one for which she is far less known: her work on behalf of black men. Her friend Tyler Perry announced that some of the “Morehouse Men,” each a beneficiary of the $12 million endowment she has established at their university, had come to honor her for the scholarships she gave them. The lights were lowered, a Broadway star began singing an inspirational song, and a dozen or so black men began to walk slowly to the front of the stage. Then more came, and soon there were a score, then 100, then the huge stage was filled with men, 300 of them. They stood there, solemnly, in a tableau stage-managed in such a way that it might have robbed them of their dignity—the person serenading them (or, rather, serenading Oprah on their behalf) was Kristin Chenoweth, tiniest and whitest of all tiny white women; the song was from Wicked, most feminine of all musicals; and each man carried a white candle, an emblem that lent them the aspect of Norman Rockwell Christmas carolers—but they were not robbed of their dignity. They looked, all together, like a miracle. A video shown before the procession revealed that some of these men had been in gangs before going to Morehouse, some had fathers in prison, many had been living in poverty. Now they were doctors, lawyers, bankers, a Rhodes Scholar—and philanthropists, establishing their own Morehouse endowment.

From the stage, Perry told Oprah, “You’ve often said that when you educate a black man, you empower families, you empower sons and daughters, and you change generations.” It was entirely different from Beyoncé’s salute, because it wasn’t the dizzy promise of a high-heeled hegemony; it was a statement of large, complex, and painful truth. Putting an end to the pathologies that have crippled poor black America is in the hands, not of the community’s women, but of its men. Oprah’s willingness to illustrate the destruction and violence that black men can visit on their families and also to reveal the ways they can transcend that pernicious pattern, and become upstanding family men and admired professionals, has always lent her mission something transgressive and important. Because her politics are explicitly Democratic, and because she shines such a bright light on the ways poor black people have been victimized by forces beyond their control, she is derided by many conservatives. But to watch the segment on the Morehouse Men is to realize that on certain matters, she seems more like a Bill Bennett than a tax-and-spend victimologist: she espouses an up-by-your-bootstraps approach, urging poor men to get educated, work hard at their jobs, provide for and stand by their families, and lift up their communities.

“I have always known that I was born for greatness,” Oprah infamously said in a 1988 interview with Barbara Walters that has dogged her ever since; “I just always knew. Just always knew.” It was the beginning of the Oprah Story, as her meanest critics have chosen to tell it. In the Oprah Story, the star is a kooky megalomaniac who thinks her success with a syndicated afternoon talker proves that she has been called forth from the misty depths of God’s best ideas to lead a grateful people into new realms of human consciousness and right-fitting Spanx.

The Walters interview, conducted in Oprah’s Chicago apartment on a pair of vast white chaises, in a room filled with cut flowers and white candles—and marked by the dreamy, semi-oratorical style Oprah used then in her most heartfelt interviews—was the perfect platform for the Story’s initial launch. Born for greatness? This was a woman who liked to drag red wagons full of lard onstage to demonstrate how much weight she’d lost—only to gain it all right back and to treat the disappointment as a national development no less sinister than the Fugitive Slave Act. Upholders of the Story find Oprah’s inclination to break into tears when she meets fellow celebrities mere narcissistic scene-stealing. Why in the world would a woman born in the Jim Crow South burst into the ugly cry when encountering Mary Tyler Moore—of all people!—if not to make sure the attention was on herself and not her guest? Last, and most irritating to the Storytellers, is Oprah’s insistence that her protean success (she is one of the richest women in the world) was the result not of hard work and a well-crafted business plan, but of nothing more than a thought, an idea, a dream—as though all you have to do is click your heels together and say “There’s no place like syndication,” and suddenly you’re more wealthy and powerful than your wildest imaginings. Well, actually—yes, that was pretty much what it took: an idea about herself, expressed as soon as she was capable of holding ideas, that failed her only once. And when she got her second chance (her one lucky break, if you can call it that), she took it.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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