By Patricia Wilson-Smith
The last thing I wanted to do on a cozy Sunday evening here at home with my son staring over my shoulder is write an article that I’m certain some will view as a pot-shot at one of the most beloved women of the modern age, but I just can’t help myself. By now, it is common knowledge that just recently the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened its doors to 450 deserving South African girls who were hand-selected by Oprah herself. The new luxury facility which boasts a beauty salon, computer and science labs, and modern dorm rooms, is situated on 52 acres in a remote community south of Johannesburg South Africa.
It was only just now that I discovered what Oprah said in a recent Newsweek article, in which she explained why she chose to build the state-of the art campus for the children of South Africa rather than for needy school kids here in the United States:
“I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there,” she says. “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”
Source: http://www.Racialicious.com, 01/03/07
As a middle-aged black woman who grew up in the inner-cities of the Midwest, my sensibilities are offended by Oprah’s assessment on so many levels that it’s hard to put it into words; however, despite my discomfort at questioning the actions of a woman who is so beloved, and who has clearly done so much for so many, I have to try, because this time Oprah’s sincere but misguided evaluation of the wants and desires of inner-city youths proves once and for all that being rich and influential does not always translate to being socially or even culturally responsible.
First a point of clarification – I have been and will likely always be a huge fan of Oprah Winfrey’s. Her philanthropic activities throughout the United States and the world are legendary, and I for one believe that history will one day portray her as a modern day saint not at all unlike the late Mother Theresa. Her rags to riches story, the ultimate self-made woman tale is an ever-present inspiration to me as a black woman, and I would defend her right to spend the money that she has worked so hard to make in any forum. No – the problem here is not how she has chosen to spend her money, but how in doing so she has irresponsibly cast an unfair light on a population of defenseless and in most cases underprivileged children.
Here’s the thing: if children in inner-city schools are not getting the message that their educations should be the most important thing in their lives, there are many reasons why. Conversely, if there is a sense that education is more important than iPods and sneakers in South African schools, there are also reasons why, and it is these reasons that Ms. Winfrey seems to have completely disregarded in making her very careless remark.
Firstly, and most obviously, children in inner-city schools, even in areas where the tax base cannot even ensure decent plumbing in their school buildings all have access to one thing – the almighty-fantasy-generator we call television. That purveyor of all things pleasurable and lofty, that ‘spewer’ of dream images, chocked full of beautiful and flawless people – men, women, boys and girls with perfect hair, bodies, and teeth seemingly all carrying brand spanking new iPods as they run effortlessly through some picturesque suburban neighborhood somewhere in the latest high-fashion (and high-priced) sneakers without breaking a sweat. That television. Most inner-city kids have these images force fed to them day in and day out. Is it any wonder that our children would come off as mindless iPod or Air Jordan zombies when asked by the richest woman in the world what their fondest wish might be? Can they honestly be blamed if they can’t resist the constant barrage of instant gratification messages targeted at them on a daily basis by the media? To add more fuel to the ridiculousness of Oprah’s statement, the fact simply can’t be ignored that many of the mind-numbing, glossy, you-gotta-have-this now ads that permeate the free-viewing airwaves are coming from some of the very corporations who produce some of the products whose colossal advertising budgets have made a great portion of Oprah Winfrey’s immense fortune possible.
Secondly, Oprah’s is an absolutely unfair comparison. In a nation where the black children are only a generation removed from the ravages of the Apartheid struggle, and where as recently as the early 1990’s the entire nation of blacks was routinely suppressed from participating in the national economy, it seems polly-anna to believe that the day to day wants of the nation’s children would have yet evolved beyond an equal education and the bare necessities that so many of the girls selected to go to the school have to do without on a regular basis. Oprah, of course they don’t aspire to fancy shoes and iPods – do they even have computers? Internet access? I admit I don’t know the answer, but it’s a good bet that Apple’s market penetration into the outer provinces of South Africa probably leaves a bit to be desired.
Finally, it is patently irresponsible for a woman of her broad influence to make such a sweeping statement in the media about a population of children that are so in need of everyone’s help. The sad fact of reality is that when anyone in the media says inner-city, most Americans hear minorities, and the low-income minorities in this country are having a difficult enough time as it is keeping the money flowing into their public schools, and can at this point still only expect to get a second-rate education for their children at best. I literally cringe at the thought of the legion of middle and upper-class soccer mom’s who comprise Oprah’s core audience, who upon reading her comments will all be out there clicking their tongues at ‘those poor misguided inner-city youths, who don’t even have enough sense to value education over material things’ as if rich kids are any different. Putting that notion out there at a time when some seem to be working overtime to widen racial divides is just plain reckless.
The icing on the cake? The new Leadership Academy’s website (http://www.oprahwinfreyleadershipacademy.org) asks you to make a donation to continue to support the school. What?!? Now don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with wanting to help these children at all, and again, I acknowledge with all the respect in the world the great work that Oprah Winfrey has done with her Angel Network charity and so many others, but I’m not going to send one thin dime to South Africa to make sure that those students have hair gel in their new luxury salon when I know there are students here in the United States using text books that were written in the nineteen-sixties.
But – I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Oprah erected a website called SupportAmericasSchools.com to solicit donations for our public schools, complete with a gorgeous photo of her surrounded by the many children who live in areas where their schools have been abandoned, forgotten, and left to fall into disrepair. I’m guessing that without writing a single check herself, if she wanted to, she could start a flow of money into America’s public school systems that could make a real difference for those communities in need, and perhaps go a long way towards the goal of providing equal education for all children here at home, because Oprah wields just that much influence here. And I say, if there is a chance that she could make a difference here then she should, because I’ve always been told that to whom much is given, much is expected. I’ve also always been taught that charity begins at home. If the most powerful black woman in the world can’t see the problems inherent in America’s education system, how we got here, and why our children might need a little help with their perspectives and setting priorities, well, then as a society, we’re in big trouble.
Ms. Winfrey, with all due respect, it is okay to acknowledge that our kids have issues and need our help, but it’s not okay to ‘stop going’ as you put it. If our kids don’t have the sense that they need to learn, then it is the job of every adult in this nation to give it to them, including yours. But it is also not Oprah’s job to do alone. By not doing the work ourselves to build a solid foundation for our children’s futures here at home, we’re all ensuring that a nation that has always been generous to a fault with giving to those in need abroad might one day not be as well equipped to do so.
If you want to help even in a small way, contact a local public school in your area and make a donation to their PTA, or volunteer. Do something. Do anything. But don’t give up on our children, because we just can’t afford to.