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
"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. …