Countdown to the last 'Oprah Winfrey Show': The next-to-last episode!
Three-quarters of the way through the penultimate episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” after Oprah was honored by men she’s put through Morehouse College on scholarship and the poet Maya Angelou read an original work dedicated to Winfrey, but before Aretha Franklin sang “Amazing Grace” and Usher performed the pop-gospel “Oh Happy Day,” Oprah’s longtime boyfriend Steadman Graham took the stage to speak about his partner.
A speaking role for Steadman — usually a silent, often forgotten prop on Winfrey’s stage — was so startling that Winfrey herself hollered “What in the name of Jesus!?” when he appeared. Addressing Winfrey, seated next to her best friend, Gayle King, in the crowd, Steadman spoke about her specialness and her humility. Then he said, “I cannot, honey, believe that a colored girl from the backwoods of Mississippi has done all that you have done.”
Graham’s statement was arresting, and not just for its dated locution. Along with much of Tuesday’s A-list talent show in honor of Winfrey, it was a reminder of how truly extraordinary Winfrey’s rise has been, how her influential grip on the country and its culture is still an exception, an anomaly that, like Steadman himself, has always been there, even though we’ve often forgotten about it. In a country that still sets often insurmountable hurdles for African-American women, and especially for those born into poverty, the unlikelihood of Winfrey’s mega-success is worth remembering, as is exactly what we’re going to lose when Winfrey disappears from our daily media.
For the most part, Tuesday’s show followed Monday's template: big-name stars and some cringey musical tributes were interwoven with authentically moving stories of the effect Winfrey has had on people’s lives. Tuesday saw Michael Jordan proclaiming that “men also love 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' ” just before Jamie Foxx launched into a rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely”; he was joined by Stevie Wonder himself, who rose out of the floor playing the piano, singing tweaked lyrics, like “I can’t believe/ How much you’ve done/ Since the first day your show begun/ Miss Oprah Win-frey/ Made of love.”
Jerry Seinfeld showed up to do a brief bit about Oprah and marriage. Simon Cowell made an appearance, and the show hit a surrealist pinnacle with Rosie O’Donnell’s introduction of Winfrey’s coterie of gurus to the tune of “Fever” ( “Sitting on my couch for hours/ With only time to kill/ You saved me from depression/ When you gave us Dr. Phil”). The regulars, including Nate Berkus and Dr. Mehmet Oz, all gamely parodied their own catch phrases, the highlight of which was Dr. Oz saying “Always remember: the S-shaped poop!”
But there were a handful of powerful moments Tuesday. Carrie, a high school teacher from Broken Arrow, Okla., explained how she’d used the 1996 Oprah episode in which she interviewed seven of the nine students who integrated Little Rock’s school district in 1957 to teach about the civil rights movement; one of her students, a 17-year-old named Christian, appeared to say that after watching the Little Rock episode, he understood that “I have a better future because of them, that I have to be a bigger man and forgive people.”
The tribute from her 415 Morehouse scholarship graduates, who paraded onto the stage holding candles, was preceded by a segment about Oprah’s larger commitment to education. Gayle King and Maria Shriver — billed as “two of Oprah’s best girlfriends” — introduced videos of some of the 64,688 kids from around the world that Winfrey has reportedly educated, all saying “Because of Oprah I went to school”; “Because of Oprah, I went to school”; “Because of Oprah, I went to school.” The effect was hypnotically stirring.
There was also Shriver, who’s spent the past two weeks knee deep in scandalous headlines about her husband’s love child with a former household employee. As she said her written line to Oprah — “For more than 30 years, you have bestowed the most amazing friendship on me, love, support, wisdom” — she paused to dramatically emphasize “and most of all, the truth.” Oprah looked at Shriver with all the pain of a born interrogator dying to spirit this woman back to the Harpo studios and administer an hourlong interview. Instead, all she could do was clasp Shriver’s hand, thrust their fists in the air and shout “Here’s to the truth!” There it was, the ghost of the interview that will never be and that secretly lots of us would kill to watch. This is the practical part of what it means to lose Oprah.
But here’s the other part: When we lose Oprah from daytime network TV, we lose a figure who has been bringing issues of race, gender, body image, power and class to the American people daily for 25 years. And I wish that that were more commonplace, but it just isn’t.
When we lose a powerful black female presence from a landscape that, however much progress has been made, is still far too white (see: Congress, the Supreme Court, the Oscars, the news media, law firms and science departments, etc.) and too male (see: Congress, the Supreme Court, the Oscars, the news media, law firms and science departments, etc.) it’s not like we get 20 more — or even two more, or, uh, one more — to take her place.
Don’t believe me? Last week, a media publication ran a story about a new generation of magazine editors, all white men. Katie Couric stepped down from her history-making spot at the CBS anchor’s desk and was replaced by Scott Pelley, a white man. This week, the New York Times, which has just lost its only African-American columnist, Bob Herbert, announced that the newest addition to the op-ed pages is the white, male (though openly gay — a first for the Times) Frank Bruni.
And when the smoke clears from the current destruction of television’s longtime Oprah-and-soap-operas daytime lineup, we know we will have at least two shows hosted by famous white men Mario Batali and Tim Gunn. Don’t get me wrong: I love white men, and many of the above white men especially. They all are well qualified to hold their jobs. But we forget how standard a white male media universe is, and we forget how extraordinary it was to have had one ruled by Oprah Winfrey.
Which is not to say that Winfrey’s relationship to race and representation has been perfect. As with any individual, she has been unable to be all things that all people need her to be. Critics can jaw for another 25 years about how she did and did not serve the black community. What is indisputable is that Winfrey is a testament to what kind of an effect it has when people who are usually not offered a seat at the table finally gain a perch there.
It’s not just that Oprah herself has entered American living rooms every day, it’s that she’s brought other people, other perspectives, other stories with her.
Oprah has made blackness more visible, has helped familiarize a country’s daytime audiences — not always the most politically progressive — with people they might otherwise not have known. Thanks to her, viewers know Steadman and Gayle, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Her book club members have read "Song of Solomon," "Sula," and three books by Faulkner with race at their core.
She has talked audiences through the O.J. Simpson trial, the Rodney King riots and Hurricane Katrina; she has interviewed skinheads and then had them return, as they did a couple of weeks ago, to explain how their thoughts on race have changed. She has interviewed the Little Rock Nine, has brought together Thomas Jefferson's white descendants with the black descendants of his union with Sally Hemmings, and has argued with Jay-Z about his use of the n-word. She also familiarized America with a presidential candidate named Barack Obama; her campaigning for him helped him win the Iowa caucus, a victory without which he would likely not have secured the Democratic nomination.
Has she always been the teacher or historian or political commentator we might have chosen? No, of course not. But what seems important to acknowledge right now is that whatever we think of the pyrotechnic hokum and easily parodied self-regard of her blowout goodbye, whatever valid complaints we have about her mixed messages, her gurus, her wavy-gravy philosophies, when Oprah leaves our network airwaves after tomorrow, a chapter will close on one of American history’s most remarkable figures.
Thanks, Steadman, whom we so often forget, for not letting us forget.
— Rebecca Traister
Photo: Oprah gets hugged by Gayle King, left, and Maria Shriver. Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press.