Oprah Unplugged

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.


SS said...

Hi, Mrs. J. Just wanted to say I agree with you--and Oprah. Thanks for the post. SS

field-negro said...

Well said Mrs J., I have had my issues with Oprah in the past, but kids are kids as far as I am concerned, whether it's in North Philly or South Africa-although suspect that I am more into the whole Pan- Africanism thing than you are-And as long as Ms. Thing is helping them, that's a good thing in my book.

Mrs. J said...

Thanks, field (nice to hear from you). I think we're basically on the same page here.

But I have to admit that I was slightly taken a back by part of this comment:

If Oprah can have a Pan Africanist perspective, what makes you assume that I don't? Maybe I need to go back and read my archives or something, because in my book,
black is black is black is black" (to quote the Jungle Bros.) – from Brooklyn to Brixton to Burkina Faso and beyond...

Maybe it was my Kwanzaa post? LOL

Yolanda said...

Very well said- I completely agree

Christopher Chambers said...

Is she generalizing? Yeah. Is she right? Yeah. When are we going to stop forcing ourselves to choose between t he extremes? Yes, its a racist structure and a bullcrap No Child Left Behind Act, blah blah, but it's also a warped culture that our kinds are living and it's got nothing to do with white opporession. You won't change things until attack both.

Frankly I think kids and parents here wo are trying to start and fund charter schools ought to take it as a challenge to chnge Oprah's mind and show the world that they value what is valuable, and not what Diddy, Jay-Z or Danity Kane says is cool. As for spreading the money around, unfortunately we live in a milieu (mostly due to our own b.s.) where we can only "save" kids a little at a time. In other words, it's better to pour $10million into one school, be it in S. Africa or West Baltimore, than $1million on ten different schools.

Mrs. J said...

I agree, esp. with that last part.
Why were so many people suggesting how she could have spent the money better? She'd be bankrupt by now if she didn't know how (or have people who knew how) to handle her money and make those kinds of decisions.

Meanwhile, many of those same people complaining are off at DSW buying new shoes instead of paying off their student loans...

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

You are so right Mrs. J.

I don't think most Americans can grasp what a school like this means a country where it is a luxury esp. for girls, to receive an education.

What is going on? Are we black americans becoming just as myopic as the majority of the people in this country? It's okay for Bono, Brad and Angelina to fund programs in Africa, but the wealthiest African-American woman cannot?

My sister sent me a very depressing article regarding how Jackson, Belafonte and Sharpton are very cold toward Obama. According to them he is not African-American enough. Sigh.

We will never accomplish anything if we keep tearing down those who do. Oprah spends millions of dollars on charities here at home. All the haters need to voluteer more and shut the hell up.

Mrs. J said...

Thanks, nyc/caribbean, so well put. If you happen to see this, could you forward me the Obama article (to the okp email address)? Thanks!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Mrs. J, of course my sister can't find the article now. She said it was out of the UK. She works in DC and everyone is talking this issue.

I have no idea if Obama can win but he has def. made the '08 presidential race more interesting.

Aly Cat 121 said...

Yeah my Hunny told me about the "outburst" from folks about Oprah's school in Africa. And I didn't see anything wrong with her building a school for African girls, and I taught in some of those "urban" schools where you couldn't get substitutes. Well what my Hunny suggested is that maybe the "outburst" didn't come from us "colored" folks but perhaps folks of another color who may be trying to smudge or stain Lady Ophrah BECAUSE of the things she does and the causes in which she donates and creates, etc.

I mean really, how many black folks you know would honestly say that there should be no schools built in Africa? And that she needs to use that money her? Cuz as poor as we may be, we know that they probably need it alot more than we do. I mean after all, they are our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts . . . . .

Mieke said...

Oprah's criticisms are really about our culture as a whole. You see the grotesque quest for “things” in Black and white neighborhoods -rich and poor. Our educational system – or maybe it is as Oprah says – our culture emphasizes and values the wrong things. It drives me nuts that I can only find pajamas and underwear with superheros or sports figures/symbols for my boys. I want to celebrate science, space exploration, dog mushing, numbers, books, something...anything but football and baseball. And the Cinderella thing...ugh.

The impact these young women in South Africa will have on future generations is going to be bigger than we can imagine.

lori said...

Hey Mrs. J.

I am loving you and your site. Keep it up.

And it's a darn shame that Oprah had to go all the way to Africa to find some worthwhile colored kids to uplift!!!!! I meant that's what this is all about really. Since many people think Oprah is god, and god has given up on poor Black American kids, will the rest of the world follow suit? Yikes!

I guess it's time to save ourselves! And therein lies the problem. Who are we? Those of us Black folks with degrees and children and enough money to vacation and... you know our kind of people...we don't honestly have any connection to the inner city and we're just as perplexed and disturbed and sorry as Oprah is. So who lends a hand? Who is responsible for them people...who begins the uplift? we want things to change, like we want peace in the middle east. secretly we're thinking it's their problem. they've got to want peace. they've got to want something better for themselves.

I am totally rambling. so i'll stop, but you bring up good topics.

peace out.

Mrs. J said...

Aly – I don't doubt your hubby's belief about the other people who are talking...I've heard (read) so much from the mainstream that sounds that way. I just chose not to mention them this time b/c between that and their outrage over the thread count of the sheets to Sunday's article on salon.com (about being "embarrassed" that O had to spill her guts), mainstream folks have me too annoyed right now to write a post that's not at less than 5000 words. And nobody wants to read that. But sadly, we really ARE saying these things too – check out drmarclamonthill.com.

mieke – I agree, it was also a statement about society in general. I think she assumed we all knew that already. The only pj's I can find for mine that are without the dumb stuff are on Hanna Andersson.com. And that's really not happening with three kids to clothe. Keep me posted on what you find. :)

lori – Wow. I really did not mean to come off like I wanted to leave our brothers and sister hanging. But after visiting Africa in '94, I realized how much we all take for granted here (compared to truly impoverished countries)...even folks on welfare. I'll do a better job at sticking it to the black middle class next time, because I do think they (we) need to take greater responsibility to try to help change things for ALL of us. You're from Philly so you understand what I mean by my telling you that I am only one generation removed from 10th and Christian. My dad grew up in S. Philly, my greatgrandmother lived there for 91 years...there's no selective race memory here. Thanks for your viewpoint! I love your blog, too. :)

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

A little update: According to CNN, Jesse now says his "heart" is with Obama and he thinks he will be supporting his "neighbor."


litta said...

Ms. J-

I don't know where you got your statistics with regard to 5% college proficiency, but it is completely off the mark. South Africa has one of the best primary and secondary educational systems in the world, and an exceptional college system ( I got my stats from the UNESCO website). I agree that there are many social disparities that result in an uneven access to education, but the country definitely did not need Oprah to save it. It's great that she is giving 152 children the chance to live in the lap of luxury, but that money could have helped thousands of children by paying their school fees for several years, getting them stationary that their parents can't afford and buying them shoes to wear in the winter. Her new project is just another perpetuation of an elitism that leaves many children looking into the gated palace..

Mrs. J said...


Thanks for calling my attention to that mistake, it's the Jo'burg public school system, not the entirety of SA! That was in the Newsweek article. My apologies, retraction made. :)


I am not Star Jones said...

i know I'm late to this conversation but where is it written that Oprah Winfrey needs to care about African American children?

Oprah has decided emphatically where she wants to put her energies and talents. I say that parents and everyone else who is interested in the nurturing of black children (their own and others) need to do the same.

Everytime I take the NYC subway and see a gaggle of kids acting loud and ridiculous, Oprah Winfrey's academy is the last thing on my mind.

I'm thinking about why these kids are being so loud and disrespectful. Do their parents know? Do their parents care? Is this how children are socialized to behave? And what can I do in my small way to change it?

This expectation of Oprah (and anyone like Oprah) to share a heavier burden for building a nation of children with pride, integrity and dignity needs to go the way of the 2 dollar bill.

We have to save each other. In whatever way we can.