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.
Because into every household in America, no matter how low or mean or outright evil, into each squalid nest and decent place pours the great, pure light of television. And there, sitting on the linoleum floor of her mother’s long-ago apartment, was Oprah Winfrey, her face tilted up to take it all in. She missed most of Diana Ross’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, because she was on the phone calling everyone—“Colored person on the television! Colored person on the television!” She was in that same apartment (the one where she was first raped) when she turned on the Academy Awards and saw Sidney Poitier stepping out of a limousine, and she ran to the telephone again: “Colored person stepping out of a limousine!”
She watched Leave It to Beaver, and in the absence of a cookie-baking mother, she dreamed on his. She got older, and she started watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and she fell so in love with Mary and Lou and Ted, with Mary’s apartment and Mary’s life, that she would wash her hair before the show and leave the conditioner in for the whole 30 minutes, not washing it off until Bob Newhart came on, because she didn’t want to miss a second. She came of age as a television watcher in the days when every story on TV had a happy ending, when the idea of America as a place filled with kindly and often corny people was something that was mostly true—maybe even only true—on television. And she came of age when black people were just beginning to make their way into that magical, safe place.