For black business history, study - who else? - Oprah

She is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, a highly successful TV host who practically invented her own daytime talk show genre, an Oscar-nominated actress, a studio owner and magazine publisher, one of the 400 richest people in America, and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

But now Oprah Winfrey has earned perhaps the ultimate accolade: a full-credit business history course dedicated to the study of her and her accomplishments. This spring the University of Illinois is offering "History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon," believed to be the only class of its kind in the country.

While a few people have arched an eyebrow at the idea, including at least one trustee, the course is an outgrowth of the academic career of Juliet Walker, who teaches the class. She has shaped the sub-discipline of African-American business history, about which she has written several books and an encyclopedia.

Oprah's Horatio Alger story has particular resonance for Dr. Walker. The professor's great-great-grandfather, a slave, convinced his owner to let him go into the business of producing saltpeter. He was so successful that he managed to buy the freedom of his wife, himself, and 14 others, and remained free in South Carolina until he moved to Illinois in 1830.

Winfrey herself was born into poverty in Mississippi to unmarried parents and raised in her early years in a home with no plumbing. Her flagship talk show, begun in Chicago in 1986, was the first designed to titillate (an early show featured a panel of porn stars). She quickly bought the rights to the show and became her own producer, sending her salary soaring from $300,000 one year to $30 million the next.

Sixteen years later the show - turned somewhat tame - is as popular as ever. Moreover, the daily show is now the foundation of a business empire that includes a highly successful monthly magazine and a book club that turns remainders into bestsellers in the flash of a dust jacket.

Using Oprah as her headliner, Walker engages in a bit of scholarly bait-and-switch, stretching course content to explore the ways in which Winfrey has affected vast swaths of the culture.

"Oprah provides a prism that allows us to examine various aspects of American commerce and culture with greater clarity," Walker says. "She lives her life and does her show at the intersection of race, class, and gender - as well as entertainment and business. She is critical to understanding the position of black people in America today and the position of women in America today."

Only the scholarly need apply

Of the 15 students in the class, five are men and five are black. Walker was hoping for such racial and gender diversity when she proposed the course. Many of the white students, who are seniors, have never taken a black-history class.

One of them is James Creed, a senior history major with bleached-blond hair, a three-day-old beard, and a primary interest in military courses.

"I saw this Oprah thing and thought - are you serious? But I'm glad I took it," he says, explaining his choice. "We're supposed to relate her to what we like about history. I see Oprah as General George Washington. I'm not sure why, I just do."

One of the trustees of the university called the history department, concerned that the course might be little more than watching Oprah's show and then - what else? - talking about it. But the specter of couch potatoes was quickly dispelled by Walker's dense course outline.

Students are given a load of academic readings that would make a Talmudic scholar break into a sweat. They must critique the show as well as Oprah's magazine and website.

And they write - critical essays and a long research paper. Students get their share of exercise in the library as they seek out sources that range from scholarly texts to the National Enquirer.

"Anybody who tries to tell me you don't get work in this course - forget it," Mr. Creed says. "I have two folders that are ripping apart they're so full of articles. The research paper is the most serious one I've ever done. I'm putting heart, body, and soul into it. I've gone outside of Professor Walker's stuff and read other stuff on her. I've never done that before."

Studying why she's a hit in Kenya

It's not surprising the course is being given at the University of Illinois. With only a 100-odd miles of cornfields separating the school from Chicago, this is clearly Oprah country. But then, that could also be said of some far reaches of the globe.

During a recent class, the results of an informal survey about Oprah were presented, and out of some 400 respondents, the only one who had never heard of the talk-show host was an international student from rural Morocco.

Notwithstanding her low profile in the Sahara, an intriguing aspect of Winfrey's success and something under study in Walker's class is her phenomenal appeal overseas. Her show is broadcast in 119 countries.

A student in the class, Joy Williams-Black, is doing her research paper on Oprah's appeal to Kenyan women, and has befriended a number of international students from the East African country.

While the class poll found US male students are generally negative about Oprah's show (a "messiah for stay-at-home moms"), and US female students are usually positive about her (though they have little time to watch the show and say the topics are geared toward older women), the Kenyan students are absolutely wild about Oprah.

Ms. Williams-Black speculates that the seductive cultural appeal of America and the subordinate role of women in some third-world countries, combined with Oprah's female-empowerment theme, African heritage, and striking success, make her a singular icon of America's promise to these women. "You wouldn't believe how much they're into Oprah, they just love her," Williams-Black says. "I don't know why. I really want to find out."

Walker, who has not been in touch with Oprah about the course, has yet to decide if she will offer the class again. But that doesn't mean she won't have Oprah on her mind. She's currently working on a book about the star.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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