Where Has Oprah Taken Us?

The Religious Influence of the World's Most Famous Woman
By Stephen Mansfield

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2011 Stephen Mansfield
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59555-415-4


1. Oprah Rising.................................1
2. The Turning..................................35
3. The Age of Oprah.............................75
4. Oprah's Spiritual Family.....................117
5. Oprah's Favorite Things......................171
About the Author................................221

Chapter One

Oprah Rising

Life is like a great big roller coaster. Everything in life don't happen like it's suppose to.

—Outkast, "Humble Mumble"

For those who wish to know the spiritual journey of Oprah Winfrey, there is a fracture, a fault line, that must be recognized. It separates all that came before it in her religious life from all that would unfold after. It is a partition in time of the kind historians delight in, a turning point like those in the novelist's tale, and it is essential to understanding what would become the Oprah Winfrey brand of faith.

This great divide occurred when she was in her twenties and working as a reporter at Baltimore's WJZ-TV. She was also attending Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in those days, and it was there, on a Sunday morning as she sat listening to a sermon by the Reverend John Richard Bryant, that the rupture began. The theme for the day was the oft-repeated Old Testament assertion that God is "a jealous God" (see Ex. 20:5). Winfrey later recalled the moment:

I was just sitting there thinking for the first time after being raised a Baptist ... church, church, church, Sunday, Sunday, Sunday ... I thought, "Now why would God, who is omnipotent, who has everything, who was able to create me and raise the sun every morning, why would that God be jealous of anything that I have to say? Or be threatened by a question that I would have to ask?"

Doubt settled into her soul. What she had been taught of God and Christianity all those years in church suddenly seemed uncertain. She began reaching for some broader, more accessible scheme of truth than what she had been told. Nearly by the end of Bryant's sermon, Winfrey had taken her first steps toward a new faith. "I was raised to not question God. It's a sin. But I started to think for myself ... and that's when I really started, in my mid-twenties, my own journey towards my spirituality, my spiritual self."

It was the kind of epiphany upon which destinies turn, and yet it is surprising that a single theme from a single sermon might lead to so much. It is particularly surprising given that Winfrey might easily have drawn far different conclusions about God being a jealous God from the ones that she did, as we shall see.

Obviously, other factors were at work in her soul. Undoubtedly, there were already fissures in her faith before that Baltimore Sunday morning. There had to be more than just one troubling sermon to account for the new trajectory of her spiritual life and for her discarding of much that she had taken as true before that day. Given the implications of this breach both for Winfrey and for the world, we should ponder her life prior to that critical moment for some understanding of how this turning point came about.

The Mississippi Years

Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. A town of some six thousand at the time, Kosciusko was named for a Polish general who fought on the side of colonial forces in the American Revolution. Perhaps some of his heroism seeped into the people of the tiny Mississippi community. Its other famous citizen was James Meredith, the courageous civil rights leader who was the first African American to risk enrolling at the University of Mississippi.

There has been much debate and mythmaking about Winfrey's childhood, and it has obscured the hard facts and harder experience of black life in rural Mississippi in those days. It has also obscured the character and drive of the people who are the true heroes of the Oprah Winfrey story.

Young Oprah Gail was born to an unwed mother, Vernita Lee, but was raised in the arms of an extended family of such faith, generosity, and affection that it is not hard to understand how greatness might arise from it. At the heart of this family was Hattie Mae, Oprah's grandmother. A stern but loving and industrious woman, Hattie Mae was the granddaughter of slaves and possessed only a third-grade education. Her husband, Earlist, never did learn to read. Yet she would raise six children, and she would create such a gracious and virtuous culture around her that it would influence her famous granddaughter all her days.

We should remember that this was during the darkest season of the Mississippi story, when the state was the poorest in the nation, when racism roamed the night in white sheets, and when poverty crushed African American lives underfoot. For rural blacks, indoor plumbing was as much a dream as respect from white society. A black man faced with an approaching white on a town sidewalk was expected to step into the street when he passed. To vote was, in some parts of the state, to risk one's life. Lynchings were not unknown, and wise blacks taught their children to distinguish good whites from bad whites as a skill of survival. Faced with such conditions, blacks clung to their faith, to each other, and to the belief that character and righteousness would ultimately prevail. These certainties produced the nobility and determination that eventually became the bedrock of the civil rights movement.

Of character and righteousness Hattie Mae Lee knew much. She is remembered as the warm center of her family and an influence for faith and good works in her town. To help keep her family fed, she cooked each day for the local sheriff's office. She was also a skilled homemaker and had the devotion and discipline to transform a wooden house three miles outside the city limits into a thing of beauty, a gathering place lovingly remembered through the years. Katharine Carr Esters, Oprah's cousin, recalls that

Aunt Hat kept a spotless house.... It was a wooden, six-room house with a large living room that had a fireplace and rocking chairs. There were three big windows with white Priscilla-style lace curtains. The dining room was filled with beautiful Chippendale furniture. And in Aunt Hat's bedroom she had this beautiful white bedspread across her bed that all the kids knew was off-limits for playing on.

It is now well known that the unusual name "Oprah" came about as the result of a clerical error. Vernita, likely shaken and unsure at the birth of her first child, allowed her Aunt Ida to suggest the new baby's name. It would be "Orpah," Ida decided. This was an odd choice. Orpah was the obscure name of the sister-in-law of the biblical figure Ruth. According to the ancient story, the two women married brothers who soon died. Ruth decided to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and care for her in her old age. Orpah, after much weeping and show of affection, simply left. She would become a symbol of showy emotion without commitment, and according to the Jewish historian Josephus, she would also become an ancestor of the fearsome giant, Goliath, nemesis of King David. Orpah was not a name that would have evoked noble themes for those who knew their Scripture, and perhaps this is what Ida intended. Fortunately, the midwife at the child's birth, Rebecca Presley, inverted the letters in the biblical name and entered "Oprah" instead.

There was another oddity on the birth certificate. The father of Oprah Gail Lee was listed as a man named Vernon Winfrey. Vernita had identified him as one of three men she had been with and the most likely candidate for father of the child. Vernon, a tall, slim, kindly man who worked as a coal miner, took Vernita at her word and accepted Oprah as his own. He would become the only father she would ever know, and he would do much to shape Oprah's character and thus the woman the world would one day celebrate. Years later he would realize that he was not the child's father. By then, it wouldn't matter. He had invested too much, loved too deeply. Oprah had already become his child in every sense that mattered.

Since Oprah's mother was an unwed teenager who worked off and on as a maid, mother and daughter lived in Hattie Mae's home and enjoyed the fruits of that kind woman's character and liberality. The family was poor by nearly every standard, but hunger was always kept at bay and the home was filled with storytelling, laughter, and warmth. By all accounts, Oprah lacked for nothing. Her grandmother doted on her. Hattie Mae worked for a wealthy white family named Leonard, owners of the main department store in the area. Often Hattie Mae would return home from work carrying clothes, toys, and books the Leonards had sent along as gifts. Little Oprah had everything the Leonards' daughters had, family members recall, and this was an astonishing grace given the times and the vast economic chasm between black and white.

Besides providing richly for her granddaughter, Hattie Mae also fashioned her early character. "I remember when I was 4 watching my grandma boil clothes in a huge iron pot," Oprah has said.

I was crying, and Grandma asked, "What's the matter with you, girl?" "Big Mammy," I sobbed, "I'm going to die someday." "Honey," she said, "God don't mess with his children. You gotta do a lot of work in your life and not be afraid. The strong have got to take care of the others." I later came to realize that my grandmother was loosely translating from the epistle of Romans in the New Testament—"We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak" (15:1). Despite my age, I somehow grasped the concept. I knew I was going to help people, that I had a higher calling, so to speak.

On Sundays, the child was dressed up and trotted off to Buffalo Baptist Church. It was there, as in Hattie Mae's home, that the essentials of the Christian faith were embedded in young Oprah's soul. Books and materials being in short supply, children were encouraged to learn their "pieces"—memorized Bible verses and stories, favorite religious poems—and to recite them often before appreciative grown-ups. It was how a caring community assured that their faith lived on in the next generation. At home, Hattie Mae taught her granddaughter the Bible stories so dear to her. This was done with drama and devotion. Oprah took to it with zeal. In time, she perfected the story of Daniel from what she had learned from Hattie Mae and from the poetry of the black pulpit. She delighted in retelling the tale and was not beyond playfully hitting an adult to announce the start of a performance. She came to love Scripture, first its drama and later its meaning, and this early religious education served to awaken both her imagination and her gift for oratory.

It is touching to consider how devoted to learning Hattie Mae's family was. The common slur is that rural Mississippi negroes of the era were ignorant and happy to be so, that an innate practicality of mind kept them from valuing higher thought and literacy. It is a lie. Though Hattie Mae had only a third-grade education she taught Oprah the shapes of her letters as soon as the child would sit still long enough. An uncle then taught Oprah to read. In fact, she was so well taught at home in those early years that when she began school she had already learned sufficiently to bypass kindergarten and enter the first grade. This was fruit of the family's understanding—an understanding widely shared in the black community through the influence of Booker T. Washington and others—that education would empower the black man's rise. Oprah's cousin, Katharine, absorbed this belief and later became the first in the family to earn a college degree. "It took me twelve years of night school to get that diploma, but I finally did it ... I bought a thesaurus and read it like a novel."

Katharine's achievement could not have been made easier by the economic devastation that befell her community in the late 1950s. Apponaug Cotton Mill, the town's largest employer, closed and jobs became so scarce that many blacks in the area decided to move north in hope of work. They thus joined what became known as the Second Great Migration of southern blacks into northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. Already two million had moved north in the First Great Migration of 1920 to 1930. Now, for the same reasons as before—southern racism, northern economic opportunity, and hope—five million more made their way north from 1940 to 1970. Oprah's mother was among them. In 1958, realizing that there was no future for her as a maid in a declining economy, Vernita asked her Aunt Katharine to drive her to Milwaukee. Oprah stayed behind. She was four and a half and spent the next eighteen months of her life being raised by her grandparents.

Vernon, Vernita, and the War in Oprah's Soul

What the family recounts in hushed tones is that Vernita was soon swept up in the loose morals of a big northern city. She spent her money unwisely and gave her heart and her bed to a succession of men. She had a second daughter, Patricia, by one man in 1959 and then her first son, Jeffrey, by another man in 1960. She was in her mid-twenties, away from her moorings and caught up in a lifestyle she could not control. It would mark Oprah's life all her days that at this moment she rejoined her mother in Milwaukee. Her grandfather had recently died and this left sixty-year-old Hattie Mae to raise the child nearly alone. Soon in ill health, she could no longer bear the responsibility, and Oprah was shipped north.

It did not take long before all concerned realized that Oprah could not live permanently with her mother. Vernita and baby Patricia lived in a boarding house with rooms so tiny that Oprah had to sleep on the porch when she arrived. Having raced through a succession of low-paying jobs, Vernita was finally on welfare, and there was barely enough money to care for the two children, given their mother's habits. It was then that Vernon Winfrey reentered Oprah's life.

By 1959, Vernon was living in Nashville, Tennessee, and working for Vanderbilt University as a janitor. His life was pleasant. He had married Zelma Myers in 1958, a marriage that was happy and lasted until her death decades later. They lived in a brick house in East Nashville and were committed to their Baptist church and their community. Vernon had changed since those earlier, wilder days during which he had become embroiled with Vernita. He was more settled now, more dignified. He had become a man of genuine faith. Tall and lean with kind but somewhat sad eyes, he had come to understand the kind of character that was worth having, that would lead a man to better things. When he became a barber and opened his own shop, he hung a sign that proclaimed, "Live So the Preacher Won't Have to Tell Lies at Your Funeral." The words summarized the manner of the man.

When Vernita could no longer care for Oprah, the child was sent to live with Vernon. This began a season of shuttling her between Milwaukee and Nashville that left its mark. As Vernon later said, "It was a mistake. King Solomon taught long ago that you can't divide a child." Still, Vernon gave it his best. As an antidote to Vernita's meager, unstable world, Vernon offered love, discipline, and rootedness. "We welcomed Oprah and gave her a proper home with structure—schooling, regular visits to the library, a little bit of television, playtime, and church every single Sunday. I'd drive us to the Baptist church in my old 1950 Mercury and cover the seats to keep the lint off our clothes." There were children to play with in the neighborhood, trees to climb, and a community that pulled together in adversity. Oprah thrived and became the sweet, responsive child Vernon knew she could be.

In 1963, though, she returned to Milwaukee to be with her mother. This devastated Vernon. He knew what had happened. Oprah had chafed a bit under his stern rule and had complained to Vernita. Nearly ten and longing for greater freedom, Oprah yearned in particular to watch more television than Vernon allowed. Vernita, seeing her opportunity, told her daughter that if she would return to Milwaukee she could watch all the television she desired. Oprah took the bait and returned to Milwaukee. "I never saw that sweet little girl again," Vernon lamented years later. "The innocent child that I knew in Nashville disappeared forever when I left her with her mother. I shed tears that day because I knew I was leaving her in a bad environment that was no place for a young child, but there was nothing I could do about it."


Excerpted from Where Has Oprah Taken Us? by Stephen Mansfield Copyright © 2011 by Stephen Mansfield. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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