DAVID MILLS: It seems ironic to me – I hope you take this the right way – that you would get so popular in this particular town. As I said, I lived here for a year. And you came here right on the tail end of Harold Washington becoming mayor, and all that that brought out in people. And this is such a stratified town racially. Isn’t it kind of ironic that you are so popular here?
OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah, I do think – At least that’s what I was told. I was told that, coming to town, I would have people picketing outside my door. That’s what my bosses in Baltimore told me. Part of the reason was they wanted me to stay in Baltimore. They said, “Don’t do it, don’t do it. It’s the most racially polarized city in the country.”
And it is pretty racially volatile. Can’t deny that. But I have felt none of it. I have not felt any of it. And I think that one of the reasons is because I am person for whom race is not an issue. It is not an issue for me. I hold myself responsible for myself, based upon a history and a legacy of black women and men who have paved this way for me.
So I have crossed over on the bridges of Dr. King and Frederick Douglass, even Booker T. Washington. And Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, Madame C.J. Walker, Harriet Tubman. All of those people whose names made the history books and those whose names didn’t make the history books – your grandmother, my grandmother – who have made it possible for me to be and do what I do today.
And because of that, the civil rights struggle has taken on a new direction for me, and I think for my generation. And so I don’t belabor the past. I live from it and prosper from it. And as a result of what has happened in the past – the marches in Selma and Montgomery, forcing the FCC to hire black people on television, because we use Tide and Gleem too – because of that, I am where I am. So for me to still fight that battle would be ridiculous.
MILLS: But isn’t that battle still to be fought?
WINFREY: The struggle has taken an entirely different direction. The struggle is not to get into Woolworth’s. It’s what you gon’ do when you get in there now. It’s what you gon’ buy when you get in there. The struggle is not to be able to sleep at the Ramada Inn. It’s to be able to own one. And so my goal in this lifetime is to soar.
There’s a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay which says: “Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart, be lost, but climb.” And that’s what I’m about doing. I’m about climbing, always climbing.
And it’s what we’ve always been doing, but we just have a new direction, you know. Our ladders go a little higher now.
It’s like in Langston Hughes’s poem, “Mother to Son,” where she says, “Well, son, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had boards in it, tacks on the floor, and places bare. All the time I been climbing mountains and reaching landings and going in the dark where there ain’t been no light. And I still climbin’. And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
Well, this is about as close to a crystal stair as you can come to, for me. For me. And I still climbin’. I still climbin’. And I recognize that the reason why I can is because of this legacy. I mean, I owe, I owe, I owe them a resurrection.
MILLS: I hope people don’t take it wrong when you say that race is not an issue to you. “Is she forgettin’ about us now that she’s making –”
WINFREY: Oh, that’s such a – You know, I have people call me up and say there are not enough black people on the show. You don’t do this for blacks, you don’t do that. You’re not black enough.
And I say: I look in the mirror every morning, just as my ancestors did, who came and worked in the factories for pennies-per-day labor, and they graced their mirrors every morning, and no one had to tell them they were black.
When I was 14 years old, I heard Rev. Jesse Jackson say that excellence is the best deterrent to racism. And it was a truth that resonated with me. And it is what I have always believed. Even before I heard him speak, it’s what I believed. It had not been articulated for me.
And the doctrine that I have followed has been: If you are the best at what you do – there’s nobody else better in the class than you are – then the teacher better have a damn good excuse for putting you back. I mean, there are no excuses when you’re the best. So my goal is always to be the absolute best, period.
If something goes wrong in my life, I don’t say it’s because I’m a woman, because I’m black. I say, well, first let me check out what I did or didn’t do.
I was taken off the air as an anchorwoman in Baltimore in 1977. I was taken off the 6 o’clock news. Friends of mine said, “It happened to you because you’re black. It wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t black.” I knew – this was what I knew – that if I had been the best, if I had been ready for it, they couldn’t have done it to me. They could not have done it.
I wasn’t ready. I was still very immature… and wasn’t seasoned enough for that market. And now I’m seasoned. Now I’m ready. Had nothing to do with race. So when I say it’s not an issue, I mean that I have never used my race to defend my ability or inability to do or not do something.
I certainly recognize that racism exists, and has to be fought. People have different ways of fighting it. Mine is to be the best that I am. …
Even during the whole Black Power movement when everybody was saying “Black is beautiful, black is beautiful,” trying to convince themselves, it had never occurred to me that it wasn’t beautiful. It never occurred to me that this was something I now had to tell myself, because I always thought I was.
It never occurred to me that I was less than any other white person because in every class, in every competition, I was always the No. 1 kid.
MILLS: That’s the thing. If you’ve got a talent, if you have a world-class talent, you can afford to have that attitude. But I know you’re working with young girls from the Cabrini-Green housing project –
WINFREY: But everybody has a talent. That’s what I tell them. It’s a new day, it really is. The greatest lesson anybody can learn in this lifetime is that you are responsible for yourself. That is true now, it was true in slavery. It was true then.
That’s why some slaves rebelled and others didn’t. Because those who rebelled knew, “I am responsible for myself. The only way I’ma get out of this is to try to get out of this myself.”
I feel that that sense of rebellion has to be taken in a new direction now. And I say that to my girls. I say, “You are responsible for your life, period. You may have been victimized in your life, but you, alone, will have to claim your own victory. You can’t wait on Mr. Reagan to do it, you can’t wait on me to do it. You alone will do it. You will decide for yourself, now, at 9 years old and 10 years old, what it is you want to make of your life. And you start now doing it.”
I tell them that all the time. You don’t wait till you’re 20 and then say, “I’m gon’ have myself a big house.” You start now doing it. You start now knowing that every single thing you do in your life prepares you for the eventual end of your life.
Everything I have done prior to this moment – [that] you have done prior to this moment, David – has prepared you for this moment. Had I not started at 17, I would not be having this interview with the Washington Times. So everything I’ve done up until this moment has made this moment possible. And I say that to my girls. Everything you do –
MILLS: Do you get through? Is it encouraging or discouraging –
WINFREY: No. It’s discouraging and it’s like hitting your head up against a wall, because –
MILLS: That’s got to hurt your heart.
WINFREY: – because the girls believe that they’re owed something. That’s what they believe. And that’s taught, it’s learned behavior. Just like I learned you’re responsible for yourself, they learned that they’re supposed to be given things.
I took two of my girls out to – I had some work to do in L.A., took two of the girls out to Disneyland. So limos picked them up [at home]. By the time they get to California, they’re complaining because the TV isn’t big enough in the limo. (laughs) You know? These are girls who live in the projects. They’re now saying, “How can we see this TV? This TV’s not big enough.”
And I say, “You have got some nerve. This is your second limo ride in the history of your life…”
So it’s bits and pieces. You take little teeny tiny steps. I go out with the girls. I had to speak in Nashville, took two of my girls to Nashville to stay with me for the weekend, and give them each spending money, and say, “For every mistake you make in the English language, every time you miss a verb, I get a dollar.”
Now, by the end of the trip, they were both pouting, not speaking to me. Because I said, “That’s the rule. Because in this country, if you don’t know how to speak correctly – You are judged on the basis of how you speak. How you articulate, how you interpret other people’s thoughts. So you are not going to travel with me splitting verbs, okay?”
Whoo. So I end up with no friends in the end of the thing.
But they don’t believe it. One of the little kids, every time she’d open her mouth she’d say “he be, she be, they be going…” And I’d say, “All right, hand it over. Give me the money back.” She’d say, “So does that mean we’re supposed to think before we talk?” Like it’s an odd thought that you have to think before you speak. …
MILLS: That’s what the conservatives say. They call it the welfare ethic. It’s what that system – the idea of government helping you with your problems, taken a couple of generations, you wind up with kids like that.
WINFREY: I’m a product of welfare. I was on welfare when I was a kid. Getting out of it saved me. Because what it does is, it does create a welfare mentality.
WINFREY: Yes it does. You help people by helping them to change themselves. You don’t help them by giving them a handout. You do not. I know that in my own life and my own family.
I mean, you’d think I was First National Bank with my family. But the more you give them, the less they want to help themselves. That’s just the truth.
MILLS: At what period of your life was that happening –?
WINFREY: Oh, now. I mean, uncles and aunts and cousins I haven’t heard of. Everybody needs a house, they need a car.
MILLS: I meant when you were on welfare. What period was that?
WINFREY: I was living with my mother. And I see it. I see it in my little nieces who were being brought up on welfare. Their feeling is – what did one of them say to me the other day? “When I [grow] up, I’m gonna find me a boyfriend who’s gonna help me. I’m gonna find me a boyfriend who’s gonna buy me a car.” Looking to relationships and looking to other people to do things that you should do for yourself.
I think, certainly, there is a need for programs to help people get grounded. Ground themselves. And to help them help themselves. But I don’t believe in handouts. I just don’t.
I’m interested in uplifting people. And you can’t do that by just saying, “Here. Go for it.” People should be made to feel responsible for themselves.
MILLS: And how’d it happen for you? What turned it around? The influence of your father?
WINFREY: Certainly it was the influence of my father, who believes the same thing I believe. Who wouldn’t tolerate anything below a B in our house, because he said I wasn’t a C student.
And I’d say, “But everybody else gets C’s.” “Well, you’re not everybody else, and you’re not a C student. … As long as you’re living in this house, under this roof, you will not bring C’s in this house.”
The SDCC Files: The Black Panel
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