Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon

By Kathryn Lofton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Missionary Gift
The Globalization of Inspiration

Since the first deported Africans arrived enslaved on New World shores, African Americans hatched plans to return to their native homes and tribal communities. An optimistic sense of individual transformation drove these “back to Africa” colonization efforts. Their African American and Anglo-American organizers believed that through removal from their enslaved geography they could rid themselves of the brutalizing consequences of that past while also establishing new all-black nations. Like these repatriating dreamers, Oprah Winfrey perceived in Africa the possibility of a fresh start for eventual race redemption. In South Africa, she claimed to have found needy students who wanted something more than iPods. These students desired something only she could provide: a perfectly produced individual reformation. The plotline was clear. She would return to the continent of her ancestors to establish her own mission field, a place where personal electronics would be secondary to uniforms, textbooks, and self-esteem. Her postulated Africa did not have a political past or interventionist precedents. It hosted no messianic rivals. Most of all, this designated mission field lacked her.

In the realm of missionary labor, exploitation is perhaps a relative term, since whatever transaction occurs is premised on inequality. For scholars of religion, a missionary is defined as an individual participating in a ministry commissioned by a religious organization to propagate its faith or carry on humanitarian work. Missionaries usually regulate their enterprise through a careful course of sermons and services given

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