November 20th, 2009
01:59 PM ET
It seems ironic to me that it was this time of the year more than 30 years ago that I had my first “encounter” with Oprah Winfrey.
I was a little girl whose legs dangled off the pew when Winfrey appeared as a featured speaker on Sunday at my grandmother’s church in West Baltimore, Maryland. I immediately recognized her as an anchor on the local news station, WJZ, and I couldn’t believe that such a star would be standing in the pulpit of Whitestone Baptist Church.
Ordinarily church meant suffering through a sermon I didn’t understand and staring in awe at the women who – in their exuberance at being in the presence of the Holy Spirit – seemed to shout, sweat and dance the walls down.
But this Sunday I was mesmerized by Oprah.
Like any good storyteller, she started out slow, sharing tales of growing up first in Mississippi, then in Milwaukee and Tennessee. Like me, she loved to read and I felt like she was walking up and down my street when she recounted the many church plays and programs in which she had been called to perform.
I literally slid to the edge of the pew as Oprah told the tragic story of a slave woman who upon being revived from a vicious beating from her master thought she was seeing stars, only to realize it was salt on the ground which had been thrown on her lacerated back. The congregation moaned their pain and understanding of the hardships of life.
Then, just as smoothly as she had plunged us into the depths of despair, she raised us up again with the words of an ex-slave, Sojourner Truth, who at a Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 asked “Ain’t I a woman?”
"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again. And now that they are asking to do it, the men better let them,” Oprah said, reciting Truth’s words. It was the mid 1970s, and with the civil rights and women’s rights movements so fresh in everyone’s minds, the words seemed to ring with poignancy.
She encouraged us all to never let hardship sway us from our paths. I left the church that day amazed by what I had heard - and by Winfrey who, even then, seemed larger than life. My 8-year-old mind desired to further the connection I felt with the woman who was now my new hero.
I got it into my head that with her being so far away from her home in Tennessee, surely she would want to join my family for Thanksgiving dinner. So I waited until my grandmother drifted off to sleep one afternoon, and I looked up the phone number for WJZ-TV in the phone book.
Trying to sound as grown up as possible, I asked the station’s operator to connect me with Oprah Winfrey, planning to offer the invitation to the secretary such a celebrity must surely have working for her.
I was shocked when Oprah answered the phone.
My prepared words failed me and I instead stuttered out how much I had enjoyed her speech at Whitestone. “Awww, thank you honey,” Oprah replied, before I promptly hung up on her in my nervousness.
Years later, as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, I shared that story with a colleague who was interviewing Oprah about her film “Beloved.” I explained how much the now hugely influential talk show host had inspired me as both a woman of color and a journalist.
When my friend later told me she had shared the story with Oprah during the interview and that Ms. Winfrey had expressed her delight at my words, I felt like I was once again that little girl, basking in the glow of my idol.
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