To the 152 students of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, the talk show queen is far more than a cultural icon. She's the beacon of hope that apartheid surpressed. A post-modern Harriet Tubman – with money, power and a mani-pedi.
But fans and foes alike are questioning the media maven's motivations for building the exclusive, $40 million school in Henley-on-Klip, South Africa...instead of someplace like the South Bronx. Seemed like the whole world loved Oprah – swore she was their homegirl – 'til she sent out party invitations and their names weren't on the list.
But Winfrey had her reasons, which she matter-of-factly revealed in Newsweek:
“I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there,” she says. “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”
Uh oh. It seems that the same folks who cringe when Bill Cosby opens his mouth now have a new neck bone to pick with somebody. They took the blunt comment as an indictment of urban black youth (when "inner-city" became synonymous with only black youth, I'm unsure). They took serious issue with Oprah airing our dirty laundry, 200 thread count bedsheets and all. It's not that they entirely disagreed with her, they just didn't like that she said it. They felt she was selling us out. For building a school on the continent that happens to be our ancestral home.
Oprah might have her qualms with hip hop and the materialism it condones, but she's never turned her back on Black America. The millions she's contributed to historically Black colleges, taking the initiative to build homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the numerous other causes she's donated to – both publicly and privately – should confirm that.
I don't think Oprah's candid statement should have come as a shock to most. It's no big secret that she's one of the few examples – arguably the best example – of African Americans who overcame poverty to find unparalled success within America. She believes that despite its many flaws, the U.S. education system does its job. In South Africa, a nation still suffering from stark contrast in equality, only 5% of Johannesburg's public high school students finish school proficient enough to college. Most South African shantytowns lack electricity or running water while many people in our projects get BET. Just a couple of good reasons to think twice about asking Oprah for an ipod.
Perhaps she could have phrased things differently, but I'm glad Oprah was honest. The fact still remains that in this country – even in the most troubled urban school – there is a guidance counselor beyond those graffitti-covered walls who gets paid to help a kid see their potential. Of course it takes a village, but we don't need a hook up from Oprah to make it happen. Not as much as others might. Surprise! Turns out it's really not all about us.
Hopefully, Oprah's perspective will challenge American students to prove her wrong. What a beautiful thing that would be, if the opening of a school in South Africa inspired kids from the South Bronx to the South Side of Chicago and beyond to know as much about Marian Anderson as they do about Mary J. Blige.
That, too, will be something to celebrate.