On a sweltering afternoon in August 2009, I was sitting on a friend’s bed debating whether or not to take a job working for Oprah. The proposed gig was an internship at O, The Oprah Magazine. It paid minimum wage. Meanwhile, my boss at a New York newspaper had just decided to turn my current internship into a full-time role. It paid well, by struggling New Yorker standards. And yet, I was conflicted.
I had grown up watching The Oprah Winfrey Show with my mum. She liked to tell people that when I was a kid, I would tell anyone who would listen that I wanted to be like Oprah one day. I had no idea where the internship would lead or how I’d survive on that pay in New York City. But that wasn't what was holding me back. Rather, it was a sneaky little voice in my head that was asking if I had what it took to work for a woman like Oprah. Was I good enough? Was I smart enough?
And then the power went out in my friend’s apartment. The moment the lights flashed back on, the first thing I saw were the words “You’re Stronger Than You Know” on the cover of the O that I’d been studying for my interviews. Obviously, I took it as a sign from O herself. (After all, she's often said, "You are what you believe.") I threw all my fears out the window and made the call to accept the Oprah internship first thing in the morning.
That kind of marvellous story involving Oprah isn’t rare; so many people have touching, moving, or even borderline otherworldly tales involving the mogul or some way she’s inspired them, even if from afar. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that, eight years later, I found myself invited to Oprah’s home. That internship had led to a job assisting the magazine’s editor at large and CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King (the best boss a girl could ever hope for), as well as honing my craft as a writer and editor. Now, as a senior features writer at Refinery29, I’d been invited to a gospel brunch launching Oprah's latest project, The Wisdom of Sundays, a book packed with the most poignant pieces of advice from dozens of Super Soul Sunday episodes that have aired on OWN and a corresponding podcast. On this particular Sunday, about 300 people were at her home to celebrate the book — myself included, to cover the event for R29.
Full-circle moment doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt when I received the invitation. But as a golf cart drove me through the front gates of the Promised Land (the moniker of Oprah's majestic Santa Barbara estate), I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect, how this would go, and how in the world I was even “important” enough to be there. Impostor syndrome was hitting me hard. That same sneaky voice was back in my brain. Had it just been luck that had gotten me this far? Would my questions be smart enough compared to the other journalists? What if I messed it all up?
And then, beyond those wrought iron gates, dozens of thick, towering palm trees seemed to reach down to welcome me. Everything was suddenly quiet. The only sound was the crunch of gravel beneath the golf cart; squirrels skipped happily between trees. Sceptics will roll their eyes, but I'm telling you, there was a notable change in energy. In the air was a stillness, a peacefulness that I swore I could reach out and touch, something intangible that I wished I could bottle up and bring with me when it was time to leave and return to the craziness of the real world. (Oprah would later joke that at times her property is so quiet, it’s almost like she’s back in Mississippi, only there, the frogs sound like down South fraaawgs, whereas the Santa Barbara frogs shrill daintily like fro-o-ohhhgs!)
My golf cart tour guide and I kept driving, rolling past blooming gardens and multiple cottage-style guest houses, including a conservatory-like teahouse full of books, which Oprah had built just for Sunday reading. (Goals, indeed.) I had never in my entire life seen a place so purely green; everywhere I looked around Promised Land, there were more leaves, more trees, and more tiny beings sprouting from beneath the ground. And then, there they were. The Twelve Apostles, the famed dozen oaks that line the main lawn of Oprah’s estate, which leads the way to a casita-style house at the top of a hill. In front of it all loomed a stunning fountain, leaping up toward the sky.
I knew exactly why I was there: Because both of our ancestors had prayed for this moment.
I was in awe. But what surprised me most about this view was my immediate awareness of its significance. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I, once a little black girl myself, and a bookworm, and the descendant of slaves — all like Oprah — was now drinking in this beautiful land. Nearly 65 acres built intentionally to echo a Southern plantation, by the most powerful black woman in the world. Maya Angelou once wrote, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” Suddenly, the question of why I was there seemed ridiculous. I knew exactly why I was there: Because both of our ancestors had prayed for this moment. The golf cart kept going, and more green grass and green trees blurred as I wiped away tears.
Oprah's team then led me and a group of seven other writers to a nook they called the Secret Garden, an outdoor hideaway straight out of the pages of a storybook. We gathered around a wooden, circular table under sparkling green eaves, anxiously awaiting the Super Souler In Chief. Her signature booming voice announced her arrival before the rest of her; she had the kind of bouncing, anticipatory energy familiar to anyone who’s ever hosted a party, though for most people, it’s not a gathering of hundreds of people on their 60-plus acres of land. But the reason she was so excited, Oprah told us as she clapped her hands together, was because of Super Soul Sunday. She’d only ever hosted two other gospel brunches at her home: The 2005 Legends Ball (which I can still clearly remember watching with my mum as a senior in high school, tissues in hand), and a 2014 Legends event for Civil Rights leaders in conjunction with the movie Selma.
“Whenever I really, really, really believe that something is going to be impactful, I try to put everything I have into making that possible,” she explained about the book — which, for the record, she says she personally will not take any profits from, but will instead use the money toward educating girls around the world.
And so we started talking about the book. There are endless meaningful conversations on Super Soul Sunday, which now live in its pages, so I asked her how, in today’s dissonant world, we can all learn to have similar conversations with people who have a different viewpoint than we do — without it turning angry or spiteful.
It’s not my journey, it’s yours. That’s my goal, to get people to see that for themselves. It’s miraculous when you can do it.
“Mark Nepo said something in the book…” she began before directing us to page 114. We each followed her instructions like dutiful Super Soul students. “He says, ‘Every experience we have reveals to us a word in the language of our own wisdom, which only we can start to learn.’ It means that every experience speaks to you exactly where you are. So you and I can have the same experience, and it doesn’t mean the same thing because I’m not where you are, so we’re not tracking it the same. What I’m feeling about this time we’re in right now in this country, is that this is a critical moment. We’re at a crossroads in our human culture. Everybody talks about staying woke, well: This is how you get woke. You gotta wake up yourself first. I believe this is a moment for us all to think ‘What do I need to do differently?' And then we can start as a collective conscious thinking about what we all need to do differently, before we even start having these conversations.”
But my own aha moment, as Oprah likes to call it, came when she explained the reason she hasn't stopped with The Oprah Winfrey Show, or with launching a magazine, or a network, or even now with a new role as a correspondent on 60 Minutes. After all, it would be pretty easy to just retire on that big, fancy property of hers.
“I know part of why I came to this planet is to deliver this message: You are enough, and as you delve deeper into the you that is enough, you will have and lead the richest, most open, fulfilled life for yourself,” she said. And then, she looked at me. Deep into my eyes and straight into my soul, I swear. “It’s not my journey, it’s yours. That’s my goal, to get people to see that for themselves. It’s miraculous when you can do it.”
There I had been, worrying about whether or not I was good enough or smart enough for a moment like this, and Oprah herself, as if sensing my doubt, told me exactly what I needed to hear.
Next we were off to an outdoor amphitheatre, with stone-step seating that felt like a B.C. arena straight out of the centre of Rome. As BeBe Winans, Yolanda Adams, Erica Campbell, Andra Day, and Common performed, my goosebumps and tears wouldn’t stop coming. A rendition of one of my personal church favourites “I Am Healed” ended with the writer next to me uncomfortably searching for tissues to help me with my sobs and snot. After we’d all rejoiced so hard we’d worked up an appetite, it was time for the actual brunch, a never-ending sea of umbrella-shaded tables brimming with multicoloured peony centrepieces and Southern delights from Chef Art Smith like crispy fried chicken, fluffy kale salad, and baked mac-and-cheese, which the staff sprinkled with freshly shaved white truffles. (Did I mention I had entered a magical land very closely resembling heaven?)
And then the drinking of the cocktails and the mingling commenced. As I made my way around the room, I found myself in meaningful conversations about everything from how to get your creative juices flowing to peace in the Middle East (yes, actually) as I rubbed elbows with guests like Alicia Keys, Kerry Washington, and This Is Us’s Chrissy Metz and Sterling K. Brown. (Obviously, I made sure to tell him just how much I cried over that ducks episode.) I remember looking up at the clear blue sky, squinting my eyes at the sun, and realising I felt gloriously, deliriously happy.
At one point, I put my drink down next to one of the various napkins that were floating around with different quotes from Super Soul Sunday printed on them. Mine read: “When your personality comes to serve the energy of the soul, that is authentic power. — Gary Zukav.” Okay, okay. First the moment in front of the apostle trees, then the words from Oprah, now this. Message received. This was why I felt so happy. Not because I was surrounded by celebrities (though that helped) or eating white truffle-covered mac-and-cheese in Oprah’s backyard (though that helped, too) but because I was just being me, exploring a new environment, meeting new people, picking their brains and exchanging stories like the curious journalist that I am, finding power at the meeting point of my personality and energy. On my way to this event, I’d felt so nervous, worried that I’d need to pretend to be something that I wasn’t in order to fit in. But only when I actually let my guard down and was completely myself did I feel at home.
So when a long day of interviewing and schmoozing came to an end and I reluctantly began the journey away from this enchanted place, I packed up a few copies of The Wisdom of Sundays and the lesson that I’d learned: I am enough, and there is no point in ever doubting myself, because the greatest gift I can offer to both myself and the rest of the world is...well, me. And as I drove away from Promised Land that night, I smiled as I imagined looking back at my 22-year-old self to tell her: Girl, you gon’ be okay.