As of Friday, Oprah Winfrey, the queen of daytime television and everyone’s auntie (or at least mine in my mind) was honored with her own exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Oprah is easily one of the most influential women of our time and continues to be. The “Watching Oprah” exhibit is a modern time capsule that guides you through her life to very present day, but it is also about so much more. It’s about the power of television.
While the exhibit is filled with all the relics you could possibly fan-girl over – like her actual desk with photos of Stedman on it, her costume from The Color Purple, her Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk/Service Show Host from her collection of 49, her Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama, and her signature red dress from the “You get a car and you get a car” giveaway episode among so many other treasures – the awe-inspiring time capsule takes a deep dive into America’s divisive past highlighting the influence of African Americans in the media industry all the while in the face of adversity.
“America Shapes Oprah,” is the first room in the exhibition. It is marked by artifacts and photos from the first movements to desegregate schools. Being born in Mississippi in 1954, Oprah was directly impacted by the social, political, and cultural changes at the time and these artifacts spoke volumes to her, but seeing these in real-life but inches from a glass case will also speak volumes to you. The high school diploma earned by Carlotta Walls, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in Arkansas in 1957 is pinned to the wall near a pennant carried by Edith Lee Payne, a 12-year-old girl from Detroit, at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, alongside images of women activists. These small, yet powerful items are a reminder of just how much oppression and injustices our ancestors faced in trying to build a future that was fair and more so, one in which future generations could seek the same opportunities and jobs that are fueled by their passions, be it educator, actor, or television host.
This room continues to expand on the importance of representation with photos and bios of other prominent black figures in television. Nichelle Nichols’ photo and her iconic space-garb from the 60s are on display in the center. Nichols’ groundbreaking role as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek was one of the first roles that did not portray an African American woman on TV as a servant. Jayne Kennedy, the first black women to host a network sports show, is also on the wall alongside entertainment host Della Reese from the late 1960s, CBS’s Vietnam war correspondent Ed Bradley, ABC World News Tonight anchor Max Robinson and others. These men and women not only represented African Americans on the local, regional, and world stage, but they brought African American’s issues to the forefront of news subsequently changing the game.
Like those before her, Oprah is a game-changer. Her understanding of where she came from paired with her ability to connect with diverse audiences is what made her a success and a living legend. “Many of the values [Oprah] espoused on her show — including empowerment, education, spirituality and philanthropy — were rooted in her African American identity and upbringing,” explain curators Rhea L. Combs and Kathleen M. Kendrick.
A further walk through America Shapes Oprah, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Oprah Shapes America continue to highlight her talent and drive, but shines a brighter light on what we can accomplish when we remember where we’ve come from and where we’d like to go. Oprah never lost sight of where she grew up, what she endured, and what our ancestors dealt with and that’s what truly makes this exhibit special. The opportunity to see Oprah’s studio set, microphone, and clothing is enough to make me wake up at 6:30am in the morning on a weekend to reserve tickets, but the ability to come within inches of the objects that defined American history and made Oprah a national treasure makes this experience priceless and a must-see.
“Watching Oprah” will remain on exhibition through June 7, 2019.