Oprah Gail Winfrey was born to an unmarried teenage mother on January 29, 1954, and was raised by her maternal grandmother on a Mississippi farm until the age of 6. She was then sent to live with her mother in Milwaukee, where, from ages 9 to 13, she was repeatedly molested by male relatives and another visitor. At age 14 she gave birth to a premature baby who died shortly thereafter. Winfrey then moved to Nashville, Tennessee to live with her father and his wife. The couple provided the girl with discipline and stability, and Winfrey became an honors student in high school.
At age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and was hired for an on-air job at WVOL Radio in Nashville. She also won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she majored in speech communications and performing arts. After graduating, Winfrey took a job as a news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. In 1976 she became a news co-anchor at Baltimore’s WJZ-TV, where she also co-hosted her first talk show. And in January 1984, Winfrey moved to Illinois to host A.M. Chicago for WLS-TV. Less than a year later, the program was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. It entered national syndication in 1986 and became the highest-rated talk show in television history. Also in 1986, Winfrey established Harpo Studios, a production facility in Chicago.
Winfrey’s influence over the publishing industry exploded when she began her on-air book club in 1996. “Oprah Book Club” selections became instant bestsellers, and in 1999 Winfrey received the National Book Foundation’s 50th anniversary gold medal for her service to books and authors.
In 2000, Ms. Winfrey and Hearst Communications collaborated to launch O, The Oprah Magazine, sometimes simply abbreviated to O, a monthly magazine targeting a mostly female audience. The first issue was published on April 19, 2000. As of June 2004, its average paid circulation exceeded 2.7 million copies.
In the spring of 2002, just over six months after 9/11 and shortly after American-led forces had ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, the Bush administration asked Winfrey to join an official U.S. delegation in a week-long tour of Afghanistan’s schools. The purpose was to celebrate the fact that in a society where females had long been denied a host of civil and human rights (including the right to an education), young girls would now be permitted to attend school for the first time in years. Winfrey chose not to participate in the delegation. As her public-relations representative put it: “Given her responsibility to the [television] show, she isn’t adding anything to her calendar…. She was invited, but she respectfully declined.”
An April 25, 2005 program entitled “Oprah Takes You Around the World” included a short segment about the Arab-Israeli conflict showing numerous images of Israelis bearing weapons against unarmed, suffering Palestinians and made no mention of Palestinian terrorism. The theme of Palestinian victimization was revisited in a 10-page feature in the June 2005 issue of O which emphaszed Palestinian grievances against Israel and was again silent about Palestinian terrorism.
Winfrey made headlines in September 2006 when she told interviewer Larry King that she hoped Barack Obama, her favorite U.S. senator, would run for president. The following month, she interviewed Obama and his wife (Michelle) and promoted the senator’s book, The Audacity of Hope, propelling it instantly to bestseller status.
In the Fall of 2007, Winfrey held a fundraiser for Obama’s presidential campaign at her California home and raised several million dollars. At a large Iowa rally for Obama that December, Winfrey said that the Illinois senator could be “a president who can bring us all together,” “a leader who shows us how to hope again in America as a force for peace,” and “a man who knows who we are and knows who we can be.” When Obama secured the Democratic Party‘s presidential nomination in June 2008, Winfrey said: “I’m euphoric … And if he wants me to [campaign for him], I’m ready to go door-to-door.”
In August 2008, Winfrey attended the Democratic National Convention and likened the experience of hearing Obama speak, to what it might have been like “to sit and listen to Lincoln speak or Roosevelt speak or … to understand what Martin Luther King was saying 45 years ago.” Winfrey also told reporters: “[W]hat I saw with Barack Obama was something that was transcendent and I felt transformational for me as a human being and for this country…. And I feel that what he was able to offer us as individual citizens and as a united country was something that we have never seen before.”
In October 2008 Winfrey hosted a second fundraiser for Obama, this time in Chicago.
Winfrey has stated that “everybody should see” former Vice President Al Gore‘s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, which asserts that the greenhouse gases produced by fossil-fuel combustion are major causes of potentially catastrophic global warming. According to Winfrey’s Oprah.com website, Gore’s film delivers “the sobering news about a threat to our civilization’s future.” Winfrey herself owns a gas-guzzling, $42 million private jet, of which she once said: “Anyone that tells you that having your own private jet isn’t great is lying to you.”
On the subject of immigration reform, Winfrey has called for “a clear path-to-citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants who reside in this country.” She has also voiced her belief that government has a duty to give low-income people “access to healthy food and a roof over the heads and a strong public education.”
In August 2013, soon after a “white Hispanic” neighborhood-watch captain named George Zimmerman had been acquitted of manslaughter charges connected to a high-profile 2012 altercation in which he had shot and killed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin, Winfrey said: “To me, it’s ridiculous to look at that case and not to think that race was involved.” She also stated: “Trayvon Martin parallel to Emmett Till, let me just tell you: In my mind, same thing.” Till, whose death helped galvanize the early civil-rights movement, was a 14-year-old black teen who in 1955 was kidnapped by two white men in Mississippi who beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River.
In a subsequent interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Winfrey elaborated on her comparison of Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till: “[T]here are multiple Trayvon Martins whose names never make the newspapers or the headlines…. There were multiple Emmett Tills. There were multiple lynchings. There were multiple young black boys whose names are not remembered and often not even reported.”
Asserting that “it only happens so often where I am directly confronted [with racism], where it’s so obviously ‘in your face,’” Winfrey in 2013 recalled a late-1990s incident where she and her hairdresser had attempted to enter a New York City clothing store during business hours but were denied entry by the shopkeepers, even as white people were being allowed in. “Suddenly,” Winfrey recounted, “it dawns on the both of us. ‘Oh my god, I think we’re having a racist moment.’” (Winfrey later called the store and was told by an employee that the shop had recently been robbed by two black people “and they [the employees] were afraid to open the door.”)
Also in August 2013, Winfrey told Entertainment Tonight about another encounter with alleged racism that she had experienced just a week earlier, in Zurich, where she had gone into a high-end boutique and asked to see, up close, a particular purse that retailed for more than $35,000. But the shop assistant, said Winfrey, refused to take the bag off the shelf for her, saying it was “too expensive” and suggesting other, cheaper bags instead. “And I walked out of the store,” Winfrey recounted. “I could’ve had the whole blow-up thing and thrown down the black card, but why do that? But that clearly is, you know … it [racism] still exists. Of course it does.”
The saleswoman in Zurich subsequently denied Winfrey’s allegations, saying:
“I wasn’t sure what I should present to her when she came in on the afternoon of Saturday July 20, so I showed her some bags from the Jennifer Aniston collection. I explained to her the bags came in different sizes and materials, like I always do.
“She looked at a frame behind me. Far above there was the 35,000 Swiss franc crocodile leather bag. I simply told her that it was like the one I held in my hand, only much more expensive, and that I could show her similar bags. It is absolutely not true that I declined to show her the bag on racist grounds. I even asked her if she wanted to look at the bag.
“She looked around the store again but didn’t say anything else. Then she went with her companion to the lower floor. My colleague saw them to the door. They were not even in the store for five minutes…. This is not true. This is absurd. I would never say something like that to a customer. Really never. Good manners and politeness are the Alpha and the Omega in this business.”
In August 2013 as well, Winfrey said: “Sometimes I’m in a boardroom or I’m in situations where I’m the only woman, I’m the only African American person within a hundred-mile radius, and I can see in the energy of the people there, they don’t sense that I should be holding one of those seats…. Of course I can sense it. But I can never tell, is it racism, [or] is it sexism?”
Also in August 2013, Winfrey complained that Americans know “diddly-squat” about the history of the civil-rights movement. Further, she said that whenever she hears the racial slur “ni**er,” she thinks of the “millions” of people “who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree.” In fact, a total of 3,446 blacks were lynched in that manner between 1882 and 1968.
In a November 2013 interview with the BBC‘s Will Gompertz, Winfrey stated that President Barack Obama was commonly a victim of racism. “There’s a level of disrespect for the office that occurs in some cases and maybe even many cases because he’s African American,” she said. “There’s no question about that. And it’s the kind of thing no one ever says, but everybody’s thinking it.”
In the same interview, Winfrey was asked if the problem of racism in America had been solved, to which she replied:
“Of course the problem is not solved…. As long as there are people who still—there’s a whole generation—I say this, you know, I said this, you know, for apartheid, South Africa, I said this for my own, you know, for my own community in the South—there are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die.”
On November 20, 2013, Barack Obama presented Winfrey and 15 other individuals with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that the U.S. gives to a civilian. Other honorees that day included Bill Clinton and Gloria Steinem.
In June 2016, Winfrey told Entertainment Tonight‘s Nancy O’Dell that she was endorsing Hillary Clinton for U.S. president. “I really believe that is going to happen,” said Winfrey. “It’s about time that we make that decision.” “Regardless of your politics, it’s a seminal moment for women,” Winfrey continued. “What this says is, there is no ceiling, that ceiling just went boom! It says anything is possible when you can be leader of the free world.” “I’m with her,” added Winfrey, touting Mrs. Clinton’s campaign slogan.
In October 2016, Winfrey again spoke out in support of Mrs. Clinton, saying:
“The reason why I haven’t been vocal, other than saying I’m with her, is because I didn’t know what to say that could actually pierce through all the noise and the chaos and the disgusting vitriol that’s going on and actually be heard. But there really is no choice, people. All the people sitting around talking about they can’t decide. This is what I what I wanna say … I hear this all the time. You get into conversations — and there’s not a person in this room who hasn’t been in this same conversation — where people say, ‘I just don’t know if I like her.’ She’s not coming over to your house! You don’t have to like her. You don’t have to like her. Do you like this country? Do you like this country? You better get out there and vote. Do you like the country? Do you like freedom and liberty? Do you like this country? OK. Do you like democracy or do you want a demagogue [Republican nominee Donald Trump]?”
In her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony in January 2018, Winfrey, noting that she herself was now “the first black woman” to win the Cecil B. DeMille award at that annual event, recalled the emotions she had felt when watching Sidney Poitier win an Oscar for “Best Actor” at the 36th Academy Awards in 1964. “I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black,” she said, “and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that.” Asserting also that “we all know the press is under siege these days,” she lauded the media for its “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice, to tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies.” And she told a story about a young black woman who, 74 years earlier, had been gang-raped by a group of white men:
“And there’s someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know, too. In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted [sic]. Recy Taylor died ten days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”
On February 20, 2018, Winfrey announced her intention to donate $500,000 to the upcoming “March For Our Lives,” an event that was conceived by survivors of a deadly February 14th shooting at a Florida high school, and was scheduled for March 24. Its purpose was “to demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address … gun issues.” “These inspiring young people remind me of the Freedom Riders of the 60s who also said we’ve had ENOUGH and our voices will be heard,” Winfrey tweeted.
In May 2020, Winfrey spoke out about the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who had been fatally shot nearly three months earlier by two white men in Glynn County, Georgia. The killers, 64-year-old Gregory McMichael and his 34-year-old son Travis, told police that they had pursued Arbery, whom they suspected of having been involved in some recent local burglaries, after they spotted him running through their neighborhood – though some accounts claimed that he was merely out for a jog. When the father-and-son tracked the young man down and confronted him, a fight broke out and the younger McMichael shot and killed Arbery. Winfrey, for her part, characterized Arbery’s death as a consequence of intransigent white racism: “He went out for a jog while being Black. I wonder what was he thinking in those last seconds of his life? Unimaginable to go for a run in 2020 and end up dead because of the color of your skin.”
As of May 2020, Winfrey had a net worth of $3.5 billion. Her principal residence is a 42-acre ocean-view estate in Montecito, California; she also owns homes in six other states and on the island of Antigua. All told, Winfrey owns at least $200 million worth of real estate in the United States, and her annual net income is approximately $315 million.
In July 2020, Winfrey and the Lionsgate entertainment company announced that they would be collaborating to produce a series of video adaptations — in the form of feature films, television series, and documentaries — of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project,” a controversial series of articles identifying slavery and racial oppression as the most significant elements of American history. Winfrey tweeted: “When the #1619Project came out almost a year ago, I stood in tearful applause for the profound offering that it was giving our culture and nation. Today, I am honored to be a part of @nhannahjones’ vision to bring her transformative work to a global audience. Stay tuned, y’all!”
On July 27, 2020, Ms. Winfrey and Apple TV+ announced that The Oprah Conversation, a new television series where Winfrey would explore various significant topics in discussions with newsmakers from around the world, was slated to debut on July 30. In the first episode, titled “How to Be an Antiracist,” guest Ibram X. Kendi spoke with white people who confronted their own allegedly racist beliefs and attitudes.
The second episode of The Oprah Conversation, which aired on August 7, 2020, featured former National Football League linebacker Emmanuel Acho and was titled “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man: Part 1.” During the course of the program, Winfrey said: “There are white people who are not as powerful as the system of white people — the caste system that’s been put in place — but they still, no matter where they are on the rung, or the ladder of success, they still have their whiteness.… [Whites have a] leg up. You still have your whiteness. That’s what the term ‘white privilege’ is. It means that whiteness still gives you an advantage, no matter.” Among Mr. Acho’s remarks were the following:
Also during that same second episode of The Oprah Conversation, Winfrey praised her white guests for confessing to their own “racism.” One such individual was a Jewish man from Manhattan named Seth. “You’ve become ‘woke’ during this period, and realized in that awakening that you are racist, right?” asked Oprah. “I just want to know how that happened.” Seth replied: “I was born in the ’70s. I was born and raised in Manhattan. I’ve always considered myself to be liberal. Now I’m not only a friend of people of color but also an advocate for [them], but this this [Black Lives Matter] movement over the last month has been powerful. I realized that I couldn’t be not racist. I realized that I either was a racist or an anti-racist, and I wasn’t — I’m not — an anti-racist.” In a similar, apologetic spirit, a white woman named Lisa spoke of the “unconscious biases that white people — that we as white people — have.”
Further Reading: “Oprah Winfrey” (Achievement.org).