Monday, January 8, 2007 at 11:28 AM

Criticisms of Oprah’s school for African girls are unwarranted!

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

It should come as no surprise that – after years of building her up as a Saint – tabloid editors are now planting stories to remind Oprah that she’s still all too human. But the criticisms they’re hurling at her for founding an elite school for poor African girls are unfair, uninformed and unwarranted.

It must be admitted, however, that, in recent years, Oprah herself has provided fodder for the most sensational scandals of her storied career. For example, many people were stupefied when she called in to Larry King Live to defend the literary integrity of incorrigible fraudster James Frey – even after his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was exposed as nothing more than a book of lies. Oprah insisted that his lies were:

…much ado about nothing….What is relevant is that he was a drug addict . . . and stepped out of that history to be the man he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves. [Besides, she affirmed,] the book’s message of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction still resonates with me.

Alas, I suspect she must have been terribly surprised that her defense of Frey did not resonate with too many people. Because – after a few high-profile publishers complained that it was bringing their profession into disrepute – Oprah hurried to redeem herself by not only apologizing for defending him but also inviting Frey on her own talk show to condemn him to his face as a “talented liar”. Unfortunately, the damage to her saintly reputation was done.

Then, of course, there was the international consternation she incited when she used a special feature in her O Magazine to deny that she and her best friend Gayle – who accompanied her to South Africa to personally interview girls for a place in her new school – are gay.

But even her erstwhile devoted white female fans have joined the chorus of those criticizing Oprah’s saintly deeds. Because, just at they criticized Madonna and Angelina Jolie for going to Africa to adopt children, these women have taken the lead in questioning why Oprah decided to fund a $40 million school for poor girls in Africa instead of funding such a school in America.

Moreover, Oprah did not endear herself with black Americans – many of whom have always regarded her with ambivalent admiration (perhaps you’ve read about Ice Cube, Ludacris and 50 Cent adding rap to the chorus of Oprah critics by publicly dissing her as an Oreo who treats fellow blacks more with noblesse oblige than racial camaraderie) – when she explained her decision, in part, as follows:

I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools [in America]…If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.

Nonetheless, just as I was in the vanguard of those criticizing Oprah for her Frey and “I’m not gay” faux pas (as Related Articles below will attest), I hasten now to defend her in this case. Because even though this part of her explanation is specious, if not ignorant, I think her decision is beyond reproach.

Her critics argue that because Americans made Oprah a billionaire she should be directing her philanthropy towards helping the inner-city (black) kids she dissed – no matter how much they frustrate her. Of course, to follow their logic, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should not be giving billions of dollars in aid annually to poor countries in Africa and around the world. And, more to the point, other rich Americans like Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates should not be donating tens of billions of dollars to help fund the health care and education of children in these same countries.

But never mind the absurdity of their criticism, I think it’s just as presumptuous for these people to be criticizing what Oprah does with her money as it would be for them to criticize what you or I do with ours. In fact, I applaud Oprah for founding this school for the same reason I applauded Madonna for adopting that African boy: She is fulfilling a need which honors our shared humanity in a way that few of us can afford, or are even conscientious enough, to do.

Now, in her own defense, here’s the other – more enlightened – way Oprah explained her decision to build The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in Henly-on-Klip, Johannesburg, South Africa; which will provide secondary academic and health education (complete with HIV tests and counseling, if necessary) as well as lifestyle training (no doubt emulating what rich girls get at the best finishing schools in America), ultimately, to as many as 500 girls every year:

I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light.

NOTE: It would not surprise me to learn that Oprah donates more cash to charitable causes for poor blacks in America than all of her critics combined (including those disgruntled and impudent rappers).

That said, I appreciate that many blacks would resent the fact that she gave $1 million to the almost all-white Miss Porter’s finishing school in Farmington, Connecticut, which was rated the “preppiest” place in the United States according to bestselling Official Preppy Handbook. Although, this donation was probably the cover charge Oprah had to pay to get her nieces admitted to this $38,000.00 per annum institution where Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and girls from the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller families were all trained to affect the Yankee elegance of America’s landed gentry.

ENDNOTE: Angelina Jolie created quite a stir in the UK yesterday by criticizing Madonna in an interview with the Daily Mail for adopting her African child. Here’s a little of what she purred:

Madonna knew the situation in Malawi, where he was born….It’s a country where there is no real legal framework for adoption….Personally, I prefer to stay on the right side of the law. I would never take a child away from a place where adoption is illegal.

But her Johnny-come-lately criticism is not only uninformed; it’s demonstrably hypocritical – as my commentary, cited below, on her trip to Namibia to give birth to her fist biological child will attest.

Related Articles:
< a href="">Oprah’s apologizes for A Million Little Pieces book scandal
Oprah protests: “I’m not gay!”
Gates and Buffet endow the richest foundation in history to help the world’s poor
Madonna’s adoption of African boy stirs controversy
To Jolie-Pitt a child is born…to save Namibia?


  1. Jeana January 8, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article. The criticisms of this philanthropic gesture by Oprah have been absurd to say the least. Why should anyone tell her how to spend her money, where, and how much? It’s great that these poor girls in Africa are getting an opportunity they otherwise would not have had to get an education. You can’t put a price on that. The $40 million is more than well spent. Shame on all the critics, even the South African government for pulling out of the project.

  2. Archana January 9, 2007 at 3:35 am

    Why shouldn’t she be able to create a premier school of excellence? Because it is in a developing country? Because the students are poor? The argument is lame – Oprah is doing something great – creating the Exeter, Andover, or Choate of Africa.

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