The Glory of Oprah

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

Oprah Winfrey grew up as poor as a child can possibly be in modern America. Born to an unwed teenage mother in rural Mississippi, she spent her earliest years on her grandmother’s farm, in a house without electricity or running water and with an outhouse in the yard and a big pot for boiling clothes on the back porch. The cast of characters in her intimate circle changed often. When Oprah was small, her mother left to go north for work, leaving the child with the grandmother, who beat her regularly. Oprah recalls this experience without rancor: it was the way people raised kids in the South, she says; “she could beat me every day and never get tired.” Oprah would later move to Milwaukee to join her mother, and then to Nashville to live with her father. One of her two joys as a young child was church, where from the age of 3 she was performing little pieces in front of the congregation. “Little Miss Winfrey is here to do the recitation,” the preacher would say, and she would march up and recite scripture in her rich, powerful voice. Her other love was school, in particular the fourth grade, where her teacher, Mrs. Duncan, was the first person to recognize something special about this little girl. “She let me lead devotionals,” Oprah remembers, “and pass out the graham crackers.”

One legacy of her childhood of upheavals and broken connections, of lost friends and vanished relatives, is that Oprah loves reunions. She loves to surprise people on air by revealing that their lost family members or youthful sweethearts are not just figments of memory and longing, but are real human beings, waiting in the wings, about to walk onstage and sew up the torn seam of their past. She has even arranged her own on-air reunions: one was with Mrs. Duncan herself. “I ran home on the first day,” Oprah told the audience about her fourth-grade year, “to tell my dad I had the best teacher that anybody could ever have.” And then, her voice already breaking, she asked her favorite teacher to come onstage and meet her, for the first time in 30 years. Mrs. Duncan turned out to be a very proper southern white lady with a bun and a blue suit, and she handled her moment of celebrity with the combination of graciousness and unflappable authority that once was common in schoolteachers. “Bless your heart,” she said, as Oprah gushed and wept; “bless your heart.”

Oprah had a hundred questions—did Mrs. Duncan remember the way she had spent her recesses not playing, but collecting money for the missionaries? Did she remember if one of her friends had been in the class? No, Mrs. Duncan did not remember those things; “I’m sure Oprah remembers so many happinesses—more than I,” she said, in a tone at once formal and warm, addressing the audience members as though they were themselves a class of fourth-graders. She seemed to apprehend, perhaps on the counsel of a producer, that Oprah would ask for her memories of that 8-year-old, but the teacher’s responses—while delivered fondly—would have been more appropriate for a school report card than a hyper-emotional reunion with a sobbing megastar. “You were such a fluent reader,” she told Oprah; “you grasped ideas readily”; “when a task was assigned, you would look around to make sure everyone was following through.”

They made an appealing pair, sitting together onstage; that Mrs. Duncan was not a fawner, that she did not love-bomb Oprah, or try to overstate her role in the magnate’s development, only underscored the transformative effect she’d had on that long-ago child. Oprah is a deeply emotional person, and must surely have been so as a little girl, all the more so because of the nature of her early years and the lack of reliable adults in her life. What Mrs. Duncan was able to do for her—even all these years later, when Oprah was calling for tissues, smearing her makeup, and working herself up into a high-pitched, childish voice—was to calm her down, help her manage her raging feelings into something settled and comfortable. “I don’t mean to put you on the spot,” Oprah said, a bit stiffly, when it turned out Mrs. Duncan didn’t recall the year nearly as well as she did. But the old teacher knew how to turn a disappointment into a happiness: she admitted, under mild pressure and with evident affection, that Oprah had been her favorite student. At this, Oprah emitted a squeal of childlike pleasure and vindication, and she was briefly transfigured by the powerful sensations. For a moment, it was possible to see exactly what she must have looked like as an 8-year-old.

It’s a good thing that fourth grade was such a happy year for Oprah—that she was allowed to pass out the graham crackers and revel in her teacher’s affection—because that was the last year of her childhood. That summer, she was raped. She was a child of 9, and hardly understood what was happening to her, although she “knew it was bad,” she said many years later, “because it hurt so badly.” Afterward, while she was still bleeding and suffering, the man—her 19-year-old cousin—took her to the zoo and out for ice cream, and he told her to keep what had happened a secret, or she would be in terrible trouble.

“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” That’s what Celie, the narrator of Oprah’s favorite novel, The Color Purple, was told by her stepfather after he raped her. In fact, the works of all three of Oprah’s most revered writers—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou—contain descriptions of child rapes that closely resemble what happened to Oprah. They tell stories of young girls existing in households filled with transient men—boarders, mothers’ boyfriends, stepfathers, visitors—and the great peril that comes with these men. “All my life I had to fight,” begins Sophia’s famous speech in The Color Purple; Sophia was the role Oprah herself played in the movie version of the book, and she said the speech was such a clear reflection of her own experiences that she got it in one take: “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. Girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens.”

In Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove is raped—and impregnated—by her father, who catches sight of the girl washing dishes and is overcome with a savage combination of self-loathing, lust, and recklessness:

The doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him, and a bolt of desire ran down his genitals … The gigantic thrust he made into her then provoked the only sound she made—a hollow suck of air in the back of her throat. Like the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon.

“If you scream, I’m gonna kill you,” the man who raped Maya Angelou, then age 8, told her. If she told anyone what he’d done, he would kill her brother. “The act of rape on an eight-year-old body,” writes Angelou in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,

is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot. [Afterward,] he dried me and handed me my bloomers … Walking down the street, I felt the wet on my pants, and my hips seemed to be coming out of their sockets.

“You’re never the same again,” Oprah has said about the experience of being raped as a child, but there was more to come. She would be molested and raped, repeatedly, through early adolescence, by other grown men, including the boyfriend of a cousin who was living with Oprah’s mother, and by her favorite uncle. “It was just an ongoing, continuous thing,” she has said; “I started to think ‘This is the way life is.’” She became, as a very young adolescent, wildly promiscuous, getting into all kinds of trouble, including, at 14, becoming pregnant. “You can’t stay here,” her mother said, in a rare spasm of concern about the sexual propriety of her household, and so she was sent to live with her father. He was not apprised of his daughter’s condition, and Oprah had barely walked through the kitchen door before he announced the house rules: “I would rather see a daughter of mine floating down the Cumberland River than to bring shame on this family,” he said to her pointedly.

“He’s saying that to me, and I know that I am pregnant,” she remembers now; “so I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m just going to have to kill myself.’” She made some half-hearted attempts, swallowing detergent at one point, but without success. The little girl with such high hopes for herself seemed to have come early to the end of the road, but then—imagine this as your one bit of good fortune, your 10th-grade miracle—the baby died, a few weeks after birth. It was her second chance, the sudden, glorious rebirth of the dream. It was a straight line, pretty much, from there to Oprah’s success in school, at college, in her first jobs on radio and television, to her own show and the building of her empire.

How did she do it? How did she lift herself up from intense sorrow, abuse, and poverty? Well, as she has been trying to tell everyone who would listen to her for the past 25 years, she had an idea. A belief. She had it from the time she was 4 years old, watching her grandmother hang clothes on the line. “You’re gonna have to learn how to do this,” said her grandmother, a domestic. No, I’m not, thought Oprah; my life won’t be like this. It was an idea she got partly from church, where her experiences were like those of Pauline Breedlove in The Bluest Eye:

While she tried to hold her mind on the wages of sin, her body trembled for redemption, salvation, a mysterious rebirth that would simply happen, with no effort on her part.

She got it partly from the sermons and poems she memorized and recited—“Hattie Mae, that is the talkinest child,” people would tell her grandmother—each chosen for its powerfully uplifting quality: a little girl recently raped, but standing tall and blasting everyone with “Invictus”:

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

She got it from books, because she read the way many people who have been abused will read—in a deep, immersive way, impervious to the outside world, willing herself into the streets and bright living rooms and spirited discussions of the novels. Books are what got her though the sexual abuse: “I knew there was another kind of life,” she has said of that time. “I knew it because I’d read about it.” And she got her idea of herself—once she had moved into an apartment with electricity—from another source, the one that would make all the difference in her life.

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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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