Oprah Winfrey was born into a poor family in Mississippi, but this didn’t stop her from winning a scholarship to Tennessee State University and becoming the first African American TV correspondent in the state at the age of 19.
In 1983, Winfrey moved to Chicago to work for an AM talk show that would later be called The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Today Winfrey’s net worth is in the billions.
We love these kind of stories, don’t we? These “rags to riches” stories, where some poor kid, through hard work and determination, rises to the top?
I’ve been thinking about that lately where Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is concerned. I’m not saying that he was a poor kid, but let’s allow that his worldview may have been impoverished by the circumstances of his early life.
Born in 1959, Northam and his older brother of two years, Thomas, were raised on a water-side farm, just outside Onancock, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The family grew a variety of crops and tended livestock on their seventy-five-acre property. As a teenager, Northam worked on a ferry to Tangier Island and as a deckhand on fishing charters; he also worked on a neighbor’s farm and as a “stock boy” at Meatland grocery store.
Humble beginnings, right? And can you imagine that on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the sixties and seventies, Northam’s appreciation for African Americans may have been stunted by his environment and experience?
In my own experience, growing up in rural West Virginia around the same time, I remember the hateful things that were said about homosexuals (we hadn’t learned the word “gay” yet).
I myself said things that I am ashamed to remember.
But when I moved to Washington, DC, in 2000 I became pastor of a Baptist church in DuPont Circle, home to a large portion of the city’s gay population. I got to know gay people, some of whom were brave enough to visit my church. I listened to their stories over coffee in the neighborhood, and many of the stories they told broke my heart. These days, when someone tells me, “I’m gay,” I remember those stories and feel a generosity of spirit that I didn’t have as a boy.
In its own way, it is a “rags to riches” story, and I’m wondering if Ralph Northam has a similar story where African Americans are concerned. Would he say that when he posed for a racist photograph in 1984 he was “poor” in terms of his love and understanding for African Americans? Would he say that now, because of his experience (and, I believe, a wife who keeps pushing him to grow, as my wife does), he is “rich”? And do we have enough generosity of spirit to allow him to change?
I’ll just bet that when Oprah Winfrey walks into the nice stores in Chicago these days they let her shop. Nobody says, “You’re poor!” because even though that was once true, it isn’t anymore.
To those who would call Ralph Northam a racist I say, “That may be true. He may have been a racist once, and he may still be a racist. I don’t know. But it may also be true that he used to be a racist in the way Oprah used to be poor. Maybe this is a rags to riches story.”
If that’s true, it gives me hope that all of us could become more generous in spirit, and learn to love those who are different from us as if love were money and we were all billionaires.