MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, making resolutions at this time of the year is as popular as popping the cork on some champagne. But how helpful are resolutions really? We have two different views.
But first, we've been talking with experts and friends about the people we think were the most fascinating in 2007. Here is one name that everybody knows - Oprah, Oprah Winfrey that is. By any standard, 2007 was a big one for her. She opened up a school for girls in South Africa and went through the pain of having a staff member accused of abusing some of the very people she sought to help. And she stepped into politics for the first time, endorsing and campaigning for her senator, Barack Obama of Illinois, who, of course, running for president.
Juliet Walker is a professor of history at the University of Texas. She also heads an institute there that studies the history of black business, and she taught a course on Oprah Winfrey at the University of Illinois. Professor Walker joins us now from member station KUT in Austin.
Thanks for being with us.
Professor JULIET WALKER (History, University of Texas): Thank you.
MARTIN: Now, professor, we mentioned philanthropy and politics - we're going to get those in a moment - but I understand that there was another big milestone for Oprah. She's already one of the richest women in the world. But as I understand it, she saw her network increase rather dramatically over the last year?
Prof. WALKER: It was absolutely incredible. In 2006, Forbes 400 had her wealth estimated at $1.5 billion. And then in 2007, September when the issue comes out, her wealth was estimated at 2.6 billion. The additional wealth came from other areas in which Oprah has several, several various kinds of business enterprises.
MARTIN: So I assume she didn't invest in subprime mortgages.
Prof. WALKER: I don't think so. I don't think so.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: What's the source of the money? Is it syndication? Is it - where does the…
Prof. WALKER: Well, syndication would, of course, provide a substantial amount of upper income. But then, of course, she has O, the Oprah magazine, as an example. And then she has the other Oprah magazine. In addition…
MARTIN: Oprah Living.
Prof. WALKER: Yes. Yes. It's just absolutely astounding. It's stupendous that this kind of profit can be generated. But what is so interesting is that most of our wealthy blacks are those who are in entertainment or in the sports world, and they're selling aspects of African-American culture.
MARTIN: Do you think there's anybody comparable to Oprah in the history of - I want to say - first African-American business and in general - in business in general?
Prof. WALKER: No. No. The only person who has made a billion dollars or became a billionaire as a result of business enterprise would be Bob Johnson of BET. And he sold out, of course, to Viacom. But what is so interesting about Bob Johnson is that Bob Johnson was not an entertainer. Bob Johnson did not present himself as an individual who was attempting to develop a brand, but Oprah did.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the Oprah-Barack connection for a minute. This is a big deal for her. This is the first time that she's, you know, dipped her toe into the waters of electoral politics. I don't know whether she's made campaign contributions privately in the past. But she's never campaigned for anybody before.
Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (TV Personality): For the first time, I'm stepping out of my pew because I've been inspired. I've been inspired to believe that a new vision is possible for America.
MARTIN: Do you think that this was a risky move for her? Does it risk the brand, as you put it?
Prof. WALKER: Yeah, in a way. And let me, before answering that, let me point out that Oprah has had few business failures. One was the movie, "Beloved." It was a very painful movie to be reminded of slavery. Now fast-forward to 2007, in reference to your question, do you think it would have an impact on the Oprah brand, and some people have gotten angry, and interestingly their anger is criticizing Oprah, a black woman, for providing support for a black man.
MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. You can go to her message board and see that. Some of these people are toasting her up. I mean, it's quite fascinating that some of the women…
Prof. WALKER: Yeah.
MARTIN: …are saying, well, she sold out the women.
Prof. WALKER: Yes.
MARTIN: Which is - I don't know what does means but…
Prof. WALKER: Well, let's just put it…
MARTIN: What do you make of it?
Prof. WALKER: Well, let me tell you other things. When Oprah first started, you know, with the talk show locally in Chicago and then it went national, initially you could literally say Oprah introduced sensationalism. But later, she decided that she wanted to do something more productive. And so she turned to live your best life, TV. But at the same time, Oprah began emphasizing that the purpose of her show was the empowerment of women.
And you can rest assured that in 1986, 1988, 1990 if Oprah had said the purpose of the "Oprah Winfrey Show" is the empowerment of black people, the show would have been off the air the next year. But Oprah focused on the empowerment of women. So with an audience consisting of 75 percent women, a substantial number of the women being white, maybe they feel it's a sense of betrayal.
MARTIN: I take your point. Your point is that her success is so identified with the sort of girl power that there are some members of the audience who are distressed.
If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking to Professor Juliet Walker about Oprah Winfrey, one of our choices for the most fascinating people of 2007.
Speaking of girls, another big move for her this year was opening the school for girls in South Africa.
Prof. WALKER: Oh, yes.
MARTIN: And again, this was controversial, for some people said she spent too much and, you know - or why didn't she do something comparable in the U.S. even though she's obviously been a very big donor to educational institutions in the U.S. But I'm fascinated by that, as to why anybody feels that they have anything to say about it, but what do you make of that and all the heat surrounding that decision to open that school?
Prof. WALKER: Well, it's Oprah's money. And considering that she is the largest black philanthropist in the United States; she's one of the top 40 American philanthropists. If she wanted to go global in her philanthropy, I think that's tremendous. On the other hand, the criticism was we don't have any girls' leadership schools here in the United States where black girls, white girls, Asians, Hispanics, why go to South Africa to do that?
Oprah has a particular affinity to South Africa. Initially, she said she was a Zulu. And eventually, she found out last year that - they started the DNA tests that her paternal ancestors came from an ethnic group in Liberia. Now, this is my personal opinion, I saw that show and Oprah, when they announced her origin, Oprah looked like - what? I'm not an Ashanti, I'm not (unintelligible), you know. Maybe that was me reading something into it. But I would think that considering that may be Oprah could donate some funds to Liberia. And especially considering that Liberia was founded for the purpose of former African-Americans back in 1821.
MARTIN: I want to go back to the whole question of Oprah and her support for Barack Obama. It's a long running joke that, you know, Oprah is even more powerful than the president now, and Obama even, you know, made a joke to that effect. She's given couple of inteviews and she says that, you know, this is the first candidate whom she feel she has known well enough personally to feel comfortable endorsing. But what do you think - and forgive for being crass, I don't mean this question to come across this as crass. What do you think - what do she get out of this. I mean, she could easily have sat on the sidelines. I mean, she could've offered campaign contributions. She didn't need to go out and campaign, associate herself so strongly and personally with the campaign.
Prof. WALKER: He was supposed whose ideas for improving America resonates with those of Oprah's.
MARTIN: But what's…
Ms. WALKER: That's the only way I could explain. She believes in it.
As Oprah said, she has this much like to endorse someone as any other American. And she also said, and other people have made the same comment, no one has said anything about white celebrities endorsing white political candidates.
MARTIN: They're like Chuck Norris who's endorsed Mike Huckabee.
Prof. WALKER: There's no case…
MARTIN: Like Tim Robbins has endorsed John Edwards. That's true. So finally, where does Oprah go next? You're writing a book about her business success. Do you know if she's got anything up personally? What other mountains does she have to climb?
Prof. WALKER: For the year 2008, I think Oprah is going to be more involved in social-welfare issues. And I thought about this that people - that Oprah brand is so powerful that when Oprah says, buy a book, everyone rushes out to buy a book. When Oprah has her favorite things, everyone rushes out to buy these favorite things. And I just wonder, if Oprah told her audience, we need to get out and demonstrate against educational inequities in the public school systems, would her audience be as anxious to run out to do that? So perhaps Oprah has reached the point where she feels that she has the power to make change.
MARTIN: Finally, who is your most fascinating person of 2007? You can't pick Oprah because we already called it. So who else besides Oprah would you pick?
Prof. WALKER: Who else beside Oprah? I guess I would have to say Barack Obama.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WALKER: How can I ignore that? I mean, the first African-American who is considered, you know, a serious presidential candidate.
MARTIN: Juliet Walker is professor of history and director of the Center for Black Business, History, Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of Texas. She's also writing a book about Oprah Winfrey's business success. Thank you so much for joining us and happy New Year to you.
Prof. WALKER: Same to you. You're quite welcome.