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Oprah Winfrey's
recommended reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Oprah Winfrey also appears in the video:
You Can Do Anything

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Oprah Winfrey in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Talent and Vision

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Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey
Profile of Oprah Winfrey Biography of Oprah Winfrey Interview with Oprah Winfrey Oprah Winfrey Photo Gallery

Oprah Winfrey Interview

Entertainment Executive

February 21, 1991
Chicago, Illinois

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  Oprah Winfrey

As a young child, did you have any idea, any vision, of what you wanted to accomplish?

Oprah Winfrey: As a young child, I had a vision, not of what I wanted to accomplish, but I knew that my current circumstances would change.

I was raised on a farm with my grandmother for the first six years of my life -- I knew somehow that my life would be different and it would be better. I never had a clear cut vision of what it was I would be doing. I remember absolutely physically feeling it at around four years old. I remember standing on the back porch -- it was a screened-in porch -- and my grandmother was boiling clothes because, you know, at that time, we didn't have washing machines, and so people would, you know, physically boil clothes in a great big iron pot. She was boiling clothes and poking them down. And I was watching her from the back porch, and I was four years old and I remember thinking, "My life won't be like this. My life won't be like this, it will be better." And it wasn't from a place of arrogance, it was just a place of knowing that things could be different for me somehow. I don't know what made me think that.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Did you ever consider any other career besides talking, broadcasting, acting?

Oprah Winfrey: I always wanted to be an actress for most of my adolescent and adult life. My father didn't want me to be, because his idea of what "an actress" was, was one of these "lewd women," and "How are you going to take care of your life?" So I always wanted to be an actress and have taken, I think, a roundabout way to get there because I still don't feel fulfilled as an actress. I still feel like, "Okay, once I own my own studio..." but I'm thinking, "I did all of this just to be an actress. I just want to be able to act."

For a while, I wanted to be a school teacher. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Duncan was my greatest inspiration.

In the fourth grade was when I first, I think, began to believe in myself. For the first time believed that I could do almost anything. I felt I was the queen bee. I felt I could control the world. I was going to be a missionary. I was going to Costa Rica. I used to collect money on the playground to take to church on Sundays from all the other kids. At the time, in school we had devotions, and I would sit and I would listen to everything the preacher said on Sunday and go back to school on Monday morning and beg Mrs. Duncan to please let me do devotions, just sort of repeat the sermon. So, in the fourth grade, I was called "preacher." The kids used to poke fun at me all the time. It didn't bother me because I was so inspired at the time.

And a lot of it was because of Mrs. Duncan, Mrs. Duncan, Mrs. Duncan. We did a show not too long ago, and I had favorite teachers on, I just broke down. First of all, it was the first time that I realized that Mrs. Duncan had a name other than Mrs. Duncan. You know, your teachers never have names. I said, sobbing, "Her name's Mary!" I couldn't believe it.

I understand that it's kind of a fluke that your series is not called "The Orpah Winfrey Show." Maybe you could just tell us the story of your name.

Oprah Winfrey: I was born, as I said, in rural Mississippi in 1954. I was born at home. There were not a lot of educated people around and my name had been chosen from the Bible. My Aunt Ida had chosen the name, but nobody really knew how to spell it, so it went down as "Orpah" on my birth certificate, but people didn't know how to pronounce it, so they put the "P" before the "R" in every place else other than the birth certificate. On the birth certificate it is Orpah, but then it got translated to Oprah, so here we are. But that's great because Oprah spells Harpo backwards. I don't know what Orpah spells.

How did you come to live with your grandmother?

Oprah Winfrey: I came to live with my grandmother because I was a child born out of wedlock, and my mother moved to the North. She's a part of that great migration to the North in the late 1950s, and I was left with my grandmother, like so many other black youngsters who were left to be taken care of by their grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles and I was one of those children. It actually probably saved my life. It is the reason why I am where I am today because my grandmother gave me the foundation for success that I was allowed to continue to build upon. My grandmother taught me to read, and that opened the door to all kinds of possibilities for me. And had I not been with my grandmother and been with my mother struggling in the North, you know, moving from apartment to apartment, I probably would not have had the foundation that I had.

So I was allowed to grow up in Mississippi for the first six years of my life and allowed to feel somewhat special because I was a precocious child; I guess by any standards now.

I was taught to read at an early age. By the time I was three, I was reciting speeches in the church. And they'd put me up on the program, and they would say, "and Little Mistress Winfrey will render a recitation," and I would do "Jesus rose on Easter Day, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, all the angels did proclaim." And all the sisters sitting in the front row would fan themselves and turn to my grandmother and say, "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted." And I heard that enough that I started to believe it. Maybe I am. I didn't even know what "gifted" meant, but I just thought it meant I was special. So anytime people came over, I'd recite. I'd recite Bible verses and poetry. By the time I was seven, I was doing "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley: "Out of the night that covers me, black as a pit from pole to pole. I thank whatever gods there be for my unconquerable soul." And at the time, I was saying it, I didn't know what I was talking about, but I'd do all the motions, "O-u-t of the night that covers me," and people would say, "Whew, that child can speak!" And so that's, you know, whatever you do a lot of, you get good at doing it. And that's just about how this whole broadcasting career started for me.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Oprah Winfrey Interview Photo
You hear about child prodigies on the violin, but you definitely were a prodigy as a speaker. That's very unusual.

Oprah Winfrey: I was an orator for a long time. I've been an orator really, basically, all of my life. Since I was three and a half, I've been coming up in the church speaking. I did all of James Weldon Johnson's sermons. He has a series of seven sermons, beginning with "The Creation" and ending with "Judgment." I used to do them for churches all over the city of Nashville. I've spoken at every church in Nashville at some point in my life. You sort of get known for that. Other people were known for singing; I was known for talking. By the time I entered college, what I really wanted to do was be an actress, but I got hired in television, and so I was never able to make any of the play rehearsals. Story of my life.

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