CW: This article contains descriptions of severe poverty, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, and teenage pregnancy that might be triggering for some readers.
When you think of Oprah Winfrey, many things may come to mind. The "Queen of All Media", Oprah is famously known for changing the face of television and along the way, continuously shattering glass ceilings in a way unheard of Black women at her time. Although I've undoubtedly always been impressed by Oprah's tenacity to build a career unlike any other, what I've really found particularly striking about her is her ability to overcome.
Today, Oprah's life may be brimming with riches, awards, and prestige but unfortunately, that was not always the case. Her childhood was quite the contrast; when you hear her gut-wrenching stories of rural poverty, sexual and physical abuse, and teenage pregnancy, it is almost difficult to believe that suffering young girl was the same Oprah Winfrey, media mogul, we know and love today.
Oprah was born on January 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi. She was born to an unmarried teenage mother, and for the first six years of her life, Oprah lived with her maternal grandmother in severe rural poverty. She has stated that she was so poor that she was often left to wear overalls made from potato sacks, causing her to be cruelly nicknamed, "Sack Girl." During this time, she would get beat with switches that her grandmother would braid together, and in a talk with spiritual author Eckhart Tolle, she describes how she was not allowed to show emotion in reaction to these whippings but instead, had to smile and repress her painful feelings.
At age nine, Oprah was sent to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to stay with her mother, and it was around this time that she was raped by a cousin, and also molested by an uncle and family friend. Considering the horrific realities that she was facing, it's unsurprising that Oprah became a troubled teenager; she was once sent to a juvenile detention facility and after running away from home, became pregnant at age 14. She prematurely gave birth to a son, who died shortly after birth.
As she continued to rebel in her teenage years, Oprah was eventually sent to live with her father, Vernon, in Nashville, Tennessee. A military man, Vernon was strict but ensured that Oprah's education was a priority. Under his watch, Oprah's life began to turn around; she rose to become an honors student, joined her high school's speech team, and even scored a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she studied communications. Her break into the journalism business came when she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant at age 17. As part of her pageant title duties, Oprah was required to visit a Nashville radio station. A natural-born speaker, Oprah went in and read the news as a joke, and left with a job offer in hand. Fast-forward 15 years later, The Oprah Winfrey Show was born.
Oprah's story is undoubtedly one of rags to riches. She has taken television, and the whole world, by storm, but moreover, has built and continuously encouraged a culture of vulnerability, courage, and connection. She is unafraid of exposing her own dark past, but she has also wielded these experiences to express an incredible amount of compassion and empathy and to give others a platform to share their own stories. In a 60 Minutes special, Oprah even returned to Milwaukee to investigate childhood trauma and the ways that we are working to address it.
Oprah's story is one of triumph. She has taken her terrible childhood experiences and used them not only to better herself, but to better others on a global-scale. She has addressed intergenerational trauma in one of the most powerful ways possible, by encouraging people to just talk about it. These horrors should no longer stay hidden behind closed doors; it's time that we heal as a community, and Oprah's story and legacy shows just that.
Written By: Prishni