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Shambhala Sun | May 2011
You'll find this review on page 79 of the magazine.

The Oprah Effect

OPRAH: The Gospel of an Icon
By Kathryn Lofton
University of California Press 2011; 297 pp., $22.95 (paper)


While writing the biography Alice Walker: A Life, I interviewed the cast of the film version of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. One of them was Oprah Winfrey, who had earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her performance in the 1985 movie. When we sat down together for the interview some dozen years later, Winfrey kicked off her shoes (in the African American “sister friend” tradition) and reflected openly on her remarkable ascent. We also discussed homophobia, her sometimes fractious family relationships, gender conflicts in the black community, and, of course, her role in the film.

Making The Color Purple “was my first time experiencing love in its purest,” Winfrey recalled tearfully in her sumptuous office at Harpo (Oprah spelled backward) Studios in Chicago. “I would go to the set every day even if I didn’t have work to do.”

As it happened, Prizzi’s Honor actress Anjelica Huston took home the Oscar. “I was actually terrified that they’d call my name because I had on the tightest dress I’d ever worn in my life,” Winfrey told me, laughing. “I didn’t think I’d be able to stand up and walk to the podium without a major disaster.”

Born in Mississippi, then a brutally racist state, Winfrey conquered poverty, sexual molestation, and teen pregnancy (her son died shortly after birth) in her trek to the summit of the television industry. Today, at fifty-seven, she is the proprietor of a vast media empire, including the recently launched Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). She is worth an estimated $2.4 billion and is widely hailed as one of the most influential people in the world.

“What is Oprah? A noun. A name. A misspelling,” writes Kathryn Lofton in Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. “For the purposes of this work, the materiality of Oprah Winfrey—her body, her biography, and her singularity—is interesting only insofar as it documents and creates Oprah. Shifting from her to it is not easy, since Oprah is a professionally lovable sort of she. But the move is necessary if we are to know just what it is exactly that she sells. Because whatever Oprah is, it will be, in perpetuity, a product.”

That Lofton, a white professor at Yale, one of the most elite universities in North America, begins her book with a cavalier casting of Oprah Gail Winfrey as an it speaks volumes about the ways in which black women have been dehumanized in America since 1619 when a group of shackled Africans were put ashore in Jamestown, Virginia. “A slave has no more legal authority over her child than a cow over her calf,” observed a white Southerner in the 1850s.

It’s clear that many view Winfrey as a commodity. Yet, she has been for me, since her emergence as a national figure in the mid-eighties, a flesh and blood work-in-progress, like most human beings. Apparently stuck on it, Lofton fails to discuss the origins of Winfrey’s name.

“The baby girl would be named for the biblical character Orpah from the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament,” writes Lois P. Nicholson in her young adult biography, Oprah Winfrey: Entertainer (Chelsea House 1994). “But [Oprah’s mother] gave birth at home with the assistance of a midwife, and according to Oprah, ‘the midwife got the letters transposed, and I wound up as Oprah on my birth certificate.’”

In her effort to define Winfrey as a modern-day “messiah” who promotes mindless consumption through the “mega church” of her television, radio, magazine, film, and Book Club enterprises, Lofton likens Winfrey to nineteenth-century missionaries who sought to bring civility and salvation to “primitive” African tribes.

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