To say that Oprah Winfrey is a force is not to overstate the obvious.
Known simply as, Oprah, she is, among other things, an actress, producer, talk-show host, business woman, and philanthropist. But she has become much more than that. Actually, that is precisely where Oprah’s particular excellence lies: inspiring others to become more in their own lives. In fact, the logline in the Google listing for her Web is “Live Your Best Life.” That is not only her Web site’s identity, it is Oprah’s integrity.
Her commencement address to Harvard University’s Class of 2013 is many things you would expect from an Oprah speech, but …. so much more. It is a rhetorical battle between faith and fear; between the seemingly impossible and the infinitely possible; a fight pitting the forces of cynicism against the angles of hope… and guess who wins?
“President Swygert, trustees, distinguished guests, my fellow honorees, my she-ro, Dr. Dorothy Height, graduates, parents, friends, what a deep honor to be here today for me. …
“I get to witness and welcome you all to the beginning of your new and fantastic life ahead, if you choose it to be so. I know that it is there for the choosing because there is nobody more nurtured and prepared to lead us into an exemplary future than the Howard University graduating class of 2007.
“I can say that nobody knows for sure where you will go in your life, what impact you will have on others but each one of us may have a better chance than most because you all have spent four years responding to the nurturing, which is the truest meaning of teaching. You sat in your different classes. You have tested. You have done your reports. You have turned in your exams and you deserve to be here today. Congratulations.
“After all of the partying is over, and I know there will be some partying up in here, the anxiety may start to creep in. What do you now do with all of this education? I’m here to tell you today, don’t worry. Don’t worry about it. Relax. Take a breath. You are in really good hands, because God has got your back.
“All you need to do is know who you are and I know you know who you are because I have, as a part of my Harpo production team, two former graduates of Howard, 1991 and ’94, Terry Mitchelland Jackie Taylor, who came with me today and all the way here they were telling me that when you leave Howard, one thing you know for sure is who you are because Howard teaches you to define yourself by your own terms and not by somebody else’s definition.
“So here are a few things I want you to know that I know for sure. Don’t be afraid. All you have to know is who you are because there is no such thing as failure. There is no such thing as failure. What other people label or might try to call failure, I have learned is just God’s way of pointing you in a new direction.
“So it’s true. You may take several paths that end up on what might be a dead end for you at the moment but this is what I also know for sure. You must trust in the words of my favorite Bible verse that say: ‘And know the lord will lead to you a rock that is higher than thou.’
“Every one of us has a calling. There is a reason why you are here. I know this for sure and that reason is greater than any degree. It’s greater than any paycheck and it’s greater than anything anybody can tell you that are you supposed to do. Your real job is to find out what the reason is and get about the business of doing it.
“Your calling isn’t something that somebody can tell you about. It’s what you feel. It is a part of your life force. It is the thing that gives you juice, the thing that are you supposed to do and nobody can tell you what that is. You know it inside yourself.
“You know, I come from good stock. Dr. Swygert was mentioning my grandmother who had a dream for me. Her dream was not a big dream. Her dream was that one day I could grow up, she used to say, “I want you to grow up and get yourself some good white folks.” because my grandmother was a maid and she worked for white folks her whole life and her idea of having a big dream was to have white folks who at least treated her with some dignity, who showed her a little bit respect. She used to say, “I want you to, I hope you get some good white folks that are kind to you.” I regret that she didn’t live past 1963 to see that I did grow up and get some really good white folks working for me.
“So have no fear. Have no fear. God has got your back and sometimes you find out what you are supposed to be doing by doing the things you are not supposed to do. So don’t expect the perfect job that defines your life’s work to come along next week. If that happens, take the blessing and run with it but if not, be grateful to be on the path where you eventually want to live.
“Abide in the space of gratitude because this is what I know for sure. That only through being grateful for how far you’ve come in your path can you leave room for more blessings to flow. Blessings flow in the space of gratitude. Everything in your life is happening to teach you more about yourself so even in a crisis, be grateful. When disappointed, be grateful. When things aren’t going the way you want them to, be grateful that you have sense enough to turn it around.
“I spent eight years in Baltimore. I knew in those years in Baltimore that I was unhappy being a television news reporter but the voice of my father, who thought he knew what I was supposed to do was in my head. He said don’t you give up that job, girl. You’re never going to $25,000 in one year. That’s my father’s dream for me but God could dream a bigger dream than you can dream for yourself. So I tried to live in the space of God’s dream and the television executives told me when I was in Baltimore that I was just, it was too much. I was too big, and I was too black.
“They told me that I was too engaged, that I was too emotional, I was too, too much for the news and so they put me on a talk show one day just to run out my contract. That was the beginning of my story. So I say, even when things are difficult, be grateful. Honor your calling. Don’t worry about how successful you will be. Don’t worry about it. Focus on how significant you can be in service and the success will take care of itself. Always take a stand for yourself, your values, you are defined by what you stand for. Your integrity is not for sale.
“From the very beginning of my career in Baltimore, and I walked in the room and all of the men in the room said to me, ‘You need to change your name, because nobody is going to remember your name. You need to change your name.’ and I said, ‘What do you want me to change it to?’ They said, ‘We think Susie is a good name. Susie is a friendly name. Susie is a name that people will remember. People can relate to Susie.’ I said, ‘I think I’m going to keep my name if people remember it or not. It is my name.’ You have to be willing to stand up for what you believe in. If I could count the number of times I have been asked to compromise and sell out myself for one reason or another, I would be a billionaire 10 times over. My integrity is not for sale and neither is yours.”