Today, the mighty Ms. O will be visiting the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University for the opening of our new studio and innovation center. I will be attending the luncheon where she will be the featured speaker. In honor of breathing the same air, I would like to share publicly the role that Oprah Winfrey has played in my own personal trajectory from spending hours in front of the television every day to an Assistant Professor at one of the most prestigious communications schools in the country.
Growing up as an only child of a single mother, television was my daily companion. My mother was simultaneously teaching at Medgar Evers College, building her own business, and keeping on top of my school work, so we rarely went to the movies; television was our medium of choice, and understanding the experiences of these developmental years has driven my research and my career.
I was a latchkey kid; I would come home at 3 in the afternoon, call my mother immediately to let her know that I was home, and spend the next six hours in front of the television, on the phone, and doing schoolwork. I had a strict viewing regimen, including The Cosby Show, Saved by the Bell, and The Oprah Winfrey Show, which launched when I was 5. I do not remember an afternoon without Oprah, and I have followed her career ever since. Over the years, I have been enamored with her ability to continuously mesh the mundane entertainment of classic syndicated afternoon talk show with important sociopolitical conversations. I show a clip of her episode with the Little Rock Nine in COM107 (Communications and Society).
I watched my mother look up to Oprah. She battled her own weight issues, and often commented on how Oprah “looked good despite gaining a pound or two.” Oprah was an icon in our home, affecting the way I think about the American Dream, the social, economic, and personal stress of “alternative” families, and what it means to be a career-oriented woman.
In college, I had the opportunity to study the social phenomenon of Oprah. I learned how she built a media empire through a unique dance of femininity and dominance, while retaining and displaying everything that made Oprah, Oprah. During this time, I was coping my own issues regarding an absent father, the intersection of gender and race, and a college environment where sexual assault was normalized. I internalized Oprah’s story and drew strength from her past, present, and future. I wanted to be Oprah so bad.
I happened across this quote attributed to Oprah during this time, and although I have been unable to verify it in the years since, it still sticks with me and is essential to my research and my self…
Everything I learned about love I learned from watching television.
My research seeks to understand how media affects the way we think about ourselves, and how our self-perceptions affect the media we consume and create. Oprah, the person, the show, the business, and the brand, has given me an example to respect, adore, and aspire to. She has helped me, and millions of others, be a stronger woman in every sense of the word. Furthermore, this personal strength has given me the foundation on which to learn, and teach, about the importance of media and the role it has in our lives.
After my first year at Newhouse, one of my COM346 (Race, Gender, and the Media) students sent me an email after being accepted to a high-ranked law school.
I feel confident about being among top tier students despite their race or social status. Your class has helped me feel more grounded in who I am as a woman, but also as a Black woman.
In an environment where 42% of Black college students never have a Black professor, this quote made me excited about my ability to affect students. It also highlighted my solid sense of self, which, in no small part, is thanks to all that is Oprah.