Magazine article Essence

Into the Light

Magazine article Essence

Into the Light

Article excerpt

If you are ever in a position to meet a celebrity-to have any exchange longer than the time it takes to shoot a selfie-your friends are going to ask you the inevitable question: "What's she like?"

The more exalted the star, the more breathless the question. (And the more it seems people want to hear some tea.) And so when you sit on a couch with Oprah Winfrey for 54 minutes-plus the extra time she takes after she tells you to turn off the tape recorder so she could share some wisdom off the record-you know you'd better have a good answer.

Mine is this: Imagine that you started life a dirt-poor Black girl shuffled around Mississippi, Wisconsin and Tennessee, where neither your dirt-poorness nor the abuses you experience can stifle your gifts or your talent for speaking. Imagine you get into newscasting, and despite being Black, a woman and a big girl to boot, you end up becoming an award-winning TV talk-show host. You spin that success into a media enterprise, producing magazines, movies, TV shows, stage plays and so on. 6You even get nomied for an Ofcar in the first movie u make.) Even your infrequent stumbles turn into experiences you parlay into life lessons that you can share with your audiences. Now you have so much money that a $43 million investment in, say, a weight loss company, represents just over 1 percent of your net worth. Imagine that you keep having good ideas and the energy and wherewithal to make them happen-and all objective evidence seems to prove that nothing you do will fail. And you are 63 years old-well past caring about peopie's opinions of you-and rooted in a belief that you are, first and forever, a child of God and that you're here for one purpose: to inspire people.

If that were your story, what would you be like? Well, you hope you'd be like Oprah: A homegirl with a golden touch, a powerhouse who knows where her power comes from.

"When I wake up every morning, my first thought is, Thank you," Oprah says. Her next thought: Whoa, still here? Okay. Let's do it.

Today "it" includes promoting her latest project-the HBO film adaptation of Rebecca Skloot's nonfiction best-seller, The Immortal Ufe of Henrietta Lacks, premiering April 22. She's here with her costar, Broadway and television phenom Renée Elise Goldsberry, who plays the film's title character.

Sitting together, Winfrey and Goldsberry glam up the room in a way that seems in sharp contrast to their characters. Henrietta Lacks was a poor, uneducated woman who grew up in Clover, Virginia, during Jim Crow. Winfrey plays her adult daughter, Deborah, who's desperately looking for answers about the living cells of a mother who died before most of her children could memorize her face.

Winfrey, Goldsberry and director George C. Wolfe agree that it's a celebration of the women's unbreakable spirits. "We are really, really focused on what is empowering about this story," Goldsberry says. That's not hard to do when you consider that Henrietta Lacks's cells are something of a miracle.

Raised in a tiny tobacco town, Lacks was a sweet 14-year-old with a sixth-grade education when she had her first baby with her cousin, Day. They'd eventually marry and migrate to Baltimore to work in the steel yards. There she doted on her babies and took care of family, but she wasn't above painting her nails red and slipping out with her friends for an innocent swirl at the local joint. Her man was tipping out, too, but Henrietta was quiet about the syphilis and gonorrhea he brought home. She was quiet, too, about the knot she had felt on her womb.

But something wasn't right and she knew it, so she went to the public clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital-the only one for miles that would take a colored woman in 1951. The diagnosis: epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. Cancer.

Unlike so many impoverished Black folks in the 1950's, she was treated aggressively. But the cancer outpaced the radiation and overtook her body. When the doctors performed her autopsy, author Skloot writes, "her organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls. …

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