For Black Business History, Study - Who Else? - Oprah

By Savoye, Craig | The Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

For Black Business History, Study - Who Else? - Oprah


Savoye, Craig, The Christian Science Monitor


She is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, a highly successful TV host who practically invented her own daytime talk show genre, an Oscar-nominated actress, a studio owner and magazine publisher, one of the 400 richest people in America, and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

But now Oprah Winfrey has earned perhaps the ultimate accolade: a full-credit business history course dedicated to the study of her and her accomplishments. This spring the University of Illinois is offering "History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon," believed to be the only class of its kind in the country.

While a few people have arched an eyebrow at the idea, including at least one trustee, the course is an outgrowth of the academic career of Juliet Walker, who teaches the class. She has shaped the sub-discipline of African-American business history, about which she has written several books and an encyclopedia.

Oprah's Horatio Alger story has particular resonance for Dr. Walker. The professor's great-great-grandfather, a slave, convinced his owner to let him go into the business of producing saltpeter. He was so successful that he managed to buy the freedom of his wife, himself, and 14 others, and remained free in South Carolina until he moved to Illinois in 1830.

Winfrey herself was born into poverty in Mississippi to unmarried parents and raised in her early years in a home with no plumbing. Her flagship talk show, begun in Chicago in 1986, was the first designed to titillate (an early show featured a panel of porn stars). She quickly bought the rights to the show and became her own producer, sending her salary soaring from $300,000 one year to $30 million the next.

Sixteen years later the show - turned somewhat tame - is as popular as ever. Moreover, the daily show is now the foundation of a business empire that includes a highly successful monthly magazine and a book club that turns remainders into bestsellers in the flash of a dust jacket.

Using Oprah as her headliner, Walker engages in a bit of scholarly bait-and-switch, stretching course content to explore the ways in which Winfrey has affected vast swaths of the culture.

"Oprah provides a prism that allows us to examine various aspects of American commerce and culture with greater clarity," Walker says. "She lives her life and does her show at the intersection of race, class, and gender - as well as entertainment and business. She is critical to understanding the position of black people in America today and the position of women in America today."

Only the scholarly need apply

Of the 15 students in the class, five are men and five are black. Walker was hoping for such racial and gender diversity when she proposed the course. Many of the white students, who are seniors, have never taken a black-history class.

One of them is James Creed, a senior history major with bleached- blond hair, a three-day-old beard, and a primary interest in military courses.

"I saw this Oprah thing and thought - are you serious? But I'm glad I took it," he says, explaining his choice. "We're supposed to relate her to what we like about history.

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