Oprah Winfrey: A Trailblazing Rags-to-Riches Story

oprah_on_the_scoop.jpgAt the age of six, Oprah Gail Winfrey was living with her grandmother in poverty. By the age of nine, she had been sexually abused by her cousin, an uncle, and a trusted family friend. At thirteen, she had run away from home, and by fourteen, she had become pregnant and had lost her child after birth. Nevertheless, Oprah was able to overcome these initial setbacks. Now, at the age of fifty-three, she is one of the most powerful women in the world.

Oprah's life undoubtedly unfolds into the classic American rags-to riches story. After overcoming a difficult childhood, she has not only earned the title of one of "the richest African-American of the 20th century"[1], but has also managed to become one of the most influential individuals in the international arena. However, while many self-made Americans coming from disadvantaged backgrounds work their way up so that they can live their lives in comfort and gain personal recognition in their communities, Oprah was determined to do more for humanity. Not only has Oprah managed to become rich and powerful, but she uses her fame and power to help those in need. Oprah unselfishly gives back a portion of the fortune she has acquired over the years to help people living in poverty and lacking the opportunity to succeed - actions which set her apart from many others.

Although the rags-to-riches dream is a popular tradition in American culture, in reality it is predominantly a myth. Contemporary media has popularized "get-rich-quick" schemes, such as television game shows, that award individuals thousands of dollars for very little or no effort. Although these schemes imitate the rags-to-riches tradition, they do not offer a sustainable solution to the social issues that ultimately cause poverty. In real life, very few people are able to achieve this dream because of various systemic problems (such as uneven wealth distribution, political issues, and discrimination) that are embedded into American society. Oprah recognizes these barriers and works to help affected people break through the obstacles and achieve success. For instance, she is the founder of the Angel Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money for children living in poverty, she has put 100 black men through college with seven million dollars in scholarships, and she has created the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation in South Africa to help educate young girls who would not have the opportunity otherwise[2]. In a video message*(see link below) posted on her web site, Oprah talks about how she created the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy so that the girls could "thrive" and "transform" not just in their physical states, but in their emotional states as well. Oprah recounts a dream she had in which she was able to see the girls who would one day attend her school, but they were blurred and unidentifiable – just like the blurred images of girls that the viewer sees. She claims, "When I interviewed potential students...I knew that these were the faces – these were the names – in my dreams."[3] As she utters these words, the images of the girls sharpen, revealing the faces of smiling, pensive students. This sudden contrast demonstrates how the gift of education can completely transform the lives of children by allowing them to first and foremost develop their own personal identities, without which they cannot succeed. And so, instead of simply handing out money, Oprah works from the root of the problem, giving these people the opportunities they need to help themselves through social institutions such as the Oprah Winfrey Academy. In doing so, Oprah helps these people attain the rags-to-riches dream while, at the same time, criticizing and highlighting its fundamental problems.

*A message from Oprah (video):

Oprah's numerous philanthropic projects are a testament to both her compassionate character and her difficult past. Although she struggled both financially and emotionally throughout her childhood and adolescent years, Oprah was still able to achieve career success and happiness. However, rather than simply leaving it at that, Oprah has returned to her “roots” in the form of the many children that she helps. After working hard to earn the status of billionaire, she now uses the memories of her past hardships, coupled with her newfound fame and fortune, as inspiration for providing others with opportunities that she herself did not have. In an interview with Businessweek’s Michelle Conlin, Oprah asserts, “Education is freedom. It provides the tools to affect one’s own destiny.”[4] By giving young girls in Africa and young men in America the chance to an education, Oprah hands these individuals a chance to obtain what she has obtained for herself. Although her own story illuminates the "rags to riches" external image the_oprah.jpgAmerican myth, her actions demonstrate that by acquiring fame and riches, she has also acquired a greater – not diminished – responsibility to improve the human condition. Furthermore, she takes this responsibility seriously and plays an active role in the programs she chooses to support. It is obvious that Oprah has an awareness of how she is making a difference, because she takes part in the activities of the programs. As seen in the photograph on the left, Oprah has visited the schools in Africa to take part in their daily activities. In this particular photograph, Oprah resembles a mother or teacher figure that looks over the shoulder of a child to help them read a book. Her hand on the child's shoulder demonstrates the nurturing, reassuring nature Oprah seems to naturally exude. This, along with all of the children watching around her, shows that she is well-received and that the children are comfortable with her presence. By creating a personal connection with the people she helps, her audience begins to develop compassion for them as well. This type of philanthropy is self-propagating; by providing individuals with the institutional framework to achieve success, she hopes that her philanthropy and compassion is infectious. Oprah is revolutionizing the rags-to-riches legacy, changing it from a path of individual progression to one that a collective community can take to ensure the welfare of all of its individuals. The implications of such philanthropy are truly substantial, not just for Americans, but for all of humanity.

Oprah's influence also stems from the fact that she yields incomparable influence over public opinion. This has been established through her morally-conscious actions, her control over different forms of media, and the fact that she identifies with several different demographics (she is an African American, a woman, has lived in poverty, and is now an upper-class celebrity). With this status, Oprah is able to rally the community together for common causes and just about any issue she addresses finds itself in the dialogue of the American people. The poet T.S. Eliot once said, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality" [5]. Oprah, however, strives to bring this reality into the public spotlight and attract attention to it, so that those who are facing difficulties do not have to suffer its costs alone. Topics she covers are usually prevalent, widespread, and sometimes controversial in current society - such as racism, environmental problems, prejudice of homosexuality, and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. With her influence, Oprah encourages others, from working-class Americans to international celebrities, to help in efforts which better the situations of the less fortunate.


Oprah collaborated with Bono on the “(Product)
Red” campaign. A percent of the proceeds from
every sold (Product) Red item goes toward fighting
AIDS in Africa [6].

"You don't need to be helped any longer. You've always had the power to go back to Kansas,"[6] says Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Glinda guided Dorothy on her journey across Oz, helping her overcome obstacles she ran across on her way, though in the end all she was doing was showing Dorothy that she possessed the power to achieve her goal all along. Oprah works in a similar way. She gives the people she helps a boost in the right direction, and encourages them to use their own determination to succeed. Simultaneously, she gives her audience members reason to believe that they themselves hold the power to reach their goals. In one episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show (excerpt below), Oprah endorses a self-help DVD entitled The Secret, which teaches people that their quality of life is determined by their very own thoughts and actions, rather than external factors. The video features (at 4:55 min.) the stories of several people who have worked their way up from undesirable circumstances to achieve fame, fortune, and happiness, and now teach "the secret" to others. Oprah claims in the video that this is the message she has been trying to communicate on the show for years. She strives to enlighten her viewers to the fact that through their attitudes and actions they have the ability to obtain the life that they dream of. She leads them down the yellow brick road by showing them images of paths others have taken, and then informs them that they have had the power to change their own lives all along.

(Especially watch from 4:55 to end.)

Oprah's compassionate efforts have inspired individuals, internationally, to contribute to a better society. By raising awareness through encouraging stories, these followers begin to feel a connection to those who are less fortunate and they develop a desire to take definitive action. Oprah also gives people hope for themselves, by offering stories of individuals who have worked their way out of less fortunate situations by overcoming obstacles and not giving up hope. Ideally, more individuals will carry on the rags-to-riches legacy she embodies and then utilize their success to do the same for others. Oprah demonstrates that individuals who have already attained success have a greater accountability to help those in need. The classic American myth of individualistic self-advancement has essentially transformed into one which develops a community of determined and helpful individuals. Oprah's actions are truly trailblazing and the legacy that she has established for America will hopefully contribute to more idealistic social norms.

Works Cited:

[1] “Oprah the Educator.” Forbes.com, 2 Jan. 2007.[2] Barton, Noelle. "Oprah Winfrey's Charitable Giving." Updated 21 Feb. 2006. Accessed 20 May 2007. http://philanthropy.com/news/article/284/oprah-winfreys-charitable-giving
[3] "O Philanthropy." Oprah.com. Acessed 22 May 2007. <http://www2.oprah.com/ophilanthropy/owlaf/owlaf_landing.jhtml>
[4] Conlin, Michelle. "A Talk With Oprah Winfrey." Businessweek. Updated 29 Nov. 2004. Acessed 22 May 2007. <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/04_48/b3910414.htm>
[5] Nelson, Marcia. The Gospel According to Oprah. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2005.
[6] The Wizard of Oz. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, 1939.

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