Oprah Winfrey donated $21 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She has also served on its board from the museum’s earliest days. Its theater bears her name. This is a passion project for Winfrey, who feels deeply connected to history. She spoke by phone to The Washington Post Magazine. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
After greetings, Winfrey jumped right into the conversation:
I haven’t been more excited about anything, ever, since “The Color Purple.” ...
Everybody will get to hear how there’s a shared story we, as African Americans, all have. And we’ll get to see ourselves rooted in that story in such a way that it can do nothing but lift us to be better and to do better. That is my hope for the museum. ...
You cannot continue to move forward in your life as a person and as a people unless you understand the value and power from which you have come. ...
My generation failed — capital F — for not passing on to the children a sense of knowing from whence we’ve come. They only pay lip service to it, and it’s not honored and valued and treasured.
So I said yes to this museum because forever we will have the record of an institution created to say: This is our contribution, and this you need to know in order to know yourself, to know your country. ... There wouldn’t be the America we have today without our contributions. Period. Full stop. ...
When we were doing “Selma,” so many corporate business people generously offered to make tickets available to thousands of young people around the country. The response over and over from a lot of these young people, black and white, was, “Did that really happen?” So the museum will stand as a living, ongoing, evolving testimony that, yes, that did happen and how important it was that we acknowledge the fact.
You spoke very eloquently about the importance of the museum to African Americans, and I’d like to explore a little bit about the museum and its place in the country.
What this museum allows is to see the thread. It allows you to walk through and experience how it’s all connected. How what happened on the slave ship and what happened in the slave cabins ... how you’re working the fields and you come back and your family is gone. And how when that happens to you over and over again, there is a sense of primal abandonment. And how if you are not allowed to get a job and to rise to the fullness of your abilities as a man, how you feel emasculated and the toll that emasculation takes on your relationships with your wife, with your children. ... It’s hard to get people to see that. And that’s what this museum will do. It will thread the needle.
The idea of racism is entrenched. And a lack of understanding is entrenched. But do you think the country has matured?
Everything in life is on a spectrum, and to deny there has been progress in order to express our current frustration with the lack of progress is a false notion. Because of course there’s been progress.
How does the power of memory shape us, as individuals, as a nation?
I am as grounded in my history and my ancestry as anybody I know. I walk with them. I live with them. I embody the line from Maya Angelou’s poem “Our Grandmothers,” where she says, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.”...
When I have challenging circumstances, I have gone into my office closet and said, “Okay, y’all, here we go.” Called them up. I walk with that and I move with that. My ancestry is embodied in my moving forward. ... The price that was paid, the challenges and day-to-day humiliations that had to be repressed that allowed for little Oprah to exist, I owe them. ... I find nothing but power and strength in the memory.
The conversation around the African American experience rooted in slavery ...
But it’s not just slavery. The museum starts with being brought here and how we dealt with slavery and came out of it to make major contributions to the world. So it’s not just focused on slavery, otherwise it would be the slavery museum. [Laughs.]
No, you’re right.
For years, I may have talked to more people than anybody, thousands of interviews with people who had dysfunctional families, black and white and Asian and brown, and every walk of life and experience. And in every single family, the real chaos and spiraling down occurs when there isn’t an acknowledgment of the truth. ... When people in a family are living in denial and looking the other way and burying their shame and pretending things that are going on in the household are not happening, you have major chaos and destruction. And often violence and betrayal and all kinds of stuff in that family dynamic.
The family is a microcosm of what we are as a nation and as a culture.
So, if there is no acknowledgment that, yes, you’ve been hurt, you were broken and I helped to create that brokenness and I am sorry I did that and I didn’t even know I was doing that to you — unless there is an acknowledgment to that, there’s no healing. ... You keep walking around and saying, “Look at what you did to me,” and then the other person says, “I didn’t do anything. You did that to yourself. Why can’t you just fix that?” ...
People are afraid to have the conversation. … In my audiences I would see over and over the fear of the conversation is that you are afraid that I’m going to blame you and that you are going to have to do something. That you are going to be made to feel bad about it.
We should all feel bad about it. And then say, “This happened, and now what are we willing to do to move forward? What are we willing to do?” ...
That’s why I love the museum. It’s a way of embracing the history and the legacy that has caused such shame in a way that you can see it all. It allows you to have a conversation. ... So when you go to the museum, if you are not an African American, not a person of color, and you say, “Wow, I never knew that before” — that’s what the museum does. It allows a full range of, “Wow, I never thought of it that way before. I never saw it through those eyes before.”
One of the things that’s fascinated me about the museum is the whole idea of objects and how objects are used to deal with memory and to open conversations. ... Is there anything for you that is a favorite?
Harriet Tubman’s shawl and Nat Turner’s Bible. ...
[In] my living room right now is a painting. It is the center of my house. … The painting is called “To the Highest Bidder,” and it is a painting by Harry Roseland and it is about 6 feet tall and it is a slave woman on the auction block holding her daughter’s hand. ...
I have a list of slaves from various plantations, their names and prices. I pass them every day. They serve as a grounding mechanism. ... Often I will just stop and speak their names, and their ages, and their prices, particularly before I am going to go into something, you know, like making a deal for a network or a big decision about one of my companies.
When you think about your own family history, are there mementos that you have?
I have two pictures [of my grandmother] in her maid’s uniform. For years, the only picture I had of my grandmother she was holding a little white baby. ... My grandmother talked about those children and seemed to love those children with a tenderness I wish she could have shown to me. I resented that picture for the longest time because I wish that was me. I wish she hugged me that way.
Do you think about your legacy and this museum?
Hmm. Hadn’t thought about that. There’s a line in a poem: I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I often feel that, that I am more than the seed of the free. I get to be the blossom for that.
I really hope for African American people who come, they will see the same thing: You can be the blossom for all the seeds that were planted.
There’s a wonderful line that Maya Angelou used to say to me, that Jimmy Baldwin used to say to her: “Baby, your crown has been paid for. Put it on your head and wear it.”
So when you come to that museum you get to see how the crowns were laid out for us. That’s what I hope people really feel ... that sense of connection to the past that allows you to step out of it, into a future that is brighter than any of those people could have ever imagined. And that’s everybody. You’re just building on the legacy.
I saw the theater that’s in your name.
Oh, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? What’s great about it is that it seats — it just worked out that way — like 350 people. That was my audience every day. It feels just roomy enough but also intimate enough to have a real conversation. And I know there will be some powerful dialogue going on there ... because the experience of being in the museum, surrounded by all that greatness, in material and in spiritual energy, will stimulate you to want to open up. I’m excited.
Are you planning to stay with the museum board?
I will continue to serve however I’m needed. ... We were high-fiving ourselves at the last meeting. We were all there when there was no hole in the ground. And then we were trying to figure out which ground would the hole go in. The word “journey” is so overused, but it really has been remarkable to see this come to fruition. It’s going to be worth putting on a ballgown for. I can tell you that.
Marcia Davis is an articles editor for the magazine.
More from The Washington Post Magazine’s commemorative Museum issue
I am as grounded in my history and my ancestry as anybody I know. I walk with them. I live with them.