I had the great pleasure of being in attendance at Spelman College’s Commencement on Sunday, May 20, 2012. Oprah Winfrey offered the Commencement Address and she also was the recipient of the Board of Trustees Community Service Award.
What crystallized for me during her address was the clear distinction between Winfrey as an interviewer, a journalist, and the woman who is the subject of her own views. Perhaps because she has become a personality who rivals anyone she interviews, she captures your attention and your imagination; you can’t push her aside. Thus, when she interviewed Joel Osteen and Bishop T.D. Jakes for Oprah’s Next Chapter I thought I heard her answers to the questions she asked as much as I heard those men when I wrote about it for my blog. Now what I realize is that I had not heard Winfrey’s own unique voice; instead, I heard her meeting them where she thought their answers were and confirming that what she heard was accurate. Thus, “I get that,” doesn’t mean, “that’s what I think, too,” but it means something closer to, “I understand what you are saying,” because what I know for sure is that the Oprah Winfrey who spoke at the 125th Commencement at Spelman College as the subject of her own views certainly has an interpretation of what it means to live a good life that offers “another model by which to live.”
Winfrey offered three charges to the graduates–an appropriate number given that three of her students from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa will be heading to Spelman in the Fall–that appear pretty straight forward: 1.) Know who you are. 2.) Find a way to serve. 3.) Always do the right thing. For Winfrey, who has been distinguished by the money, the power, and the acclaim that have come through her talk show, production credits, charitable gifts, magazine, and now her television network, it was significant that she made a very clear distinction between knowing who you are and knowing what you do for a living. (This was something that I have written about on this blog as a problem that I had with a scene from The Help when Skeeter asks Aibileen if she always knew she would be a maid and Aibileen replies “yes” as if she wouldn’t have made a distinction between working as a maid and being one.) Eschewing greatness through professional titles, Winfrey identified greatness with recognizing life forces beyond human control whose existence she encouraged everyone to accept as operating in their lives. Such forces as God, the Angels, and the Ancestors, who in the case of those black women whose lives were circumscribed in the United States and so may not have been able to realize higher visions of existence through the egregious and unholy acts of racist and sexist violence as it framed their own lives, Winfrey encouraged the graduates to see themselves and their matriculation as a stamp paid for by their ancestors. In citing Toni Morrison, Winfrey eloquently exclaimed, “your crown has been bought and paid for.”
For Winfrey, “your cup runneth over” was about being the recipient of all of the best intentions of the good life forces that preceded one’s singular existence. Being so wealthy in this way and giving generously to others, she said, would bring jealousy and animosity from others. Her advice was to find better friends. “When you have gallons of goodness to impart and to share with others, you cannot give your gallons to pint sized people,” she said.
Finding a way to serve makes for greatness and it is of the sort that is beyond fame. She cited Martin Luther King, Jr. Winfrey reflected on service as a common thread that connects legendary figures and encouraged the graduates to pursue this path. Winfrey discussed how in deciding to use television as a service through which she could try to improve people’s lives, she aligned herself with a greater civic purpose and mission.
“Always do the right thing” and you will know that it’s the right thing, Winfrey said, “because it will bring you peace.” She then imparted a story about a woman who was to be a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The woman was a Bible School teacher by day and a sex machine/stripper by night. When Winfrey interviewed the woman and asked her why she wanted to tell her story the woman told her that she wanted to help people. That woman, however, had a ten-year-old son. After the interview, Winfrey told the woman that that interview would never air because Winfrey had such great empathy and concern for the one child, the woman’s son, who would be forced to contend with his mother’s story that she thought it reckless to promote it for public consumption. “The rating point” that might have occurred through such titillation, Winfrey contends, was not worth the potential loss to that child. Winfrey knew she had done the right thing because she had met with peace in the face of it.
Ultimately, Winfrey concluded that these three things-knowing who you are, finding a way to serve, and doing the right thing-will not only lead you to a gifted and rewarded life, but a “sweet life.” The “sweetness,” is important, she said, “because when you have had it, it gives you the comfort of knowing that ‘this too shall pass’ and that grace and mercy will meet you with warmth” again in the aftermath.
It was a lyrical address that included references from Isaac Newton to the character Celie from The Color Purple. She cited Langton Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou casually and effortlessly; dropping heavy inspiration without any great, or even apparent, appeal to a printed script. She dramatized her address. It felt authentic; and people responded as though they were in church. You could hear people saying “Amen” and see them raising a hand in witness. She definitely preached a sermon, and it was a good one because of its authenticity. She didn’t adopt a voice unoriginal to her own and she told a story that seems very familiar to her public character. Thus, it was a story about how to live well in a world that makes that exceedingly difficult. For her, as a black woman with her story, to be the Commencement speaker at an historically Black college for women, it gave the much needed hope that “catching hell” might just have a terminus.
Update: Spelman College has made their recording of Oprah Winfrey’s Commencement Address available on their YouTube Chanel. Here is the video of her extraordinary address: