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Oprah, Rihanna, and What Young Black Girls Need

Oprah Winfrey always said she had wanted to be a teacher. She wanted to be the Teacher of the Year, in fact. She pursued a career in journalism instead and went on to become a multi-millionaire media mogul.

As a black girl growing up in Chicago, I wanted to be just like Oprah. I had moments in elementary school when I wanted to be a teacher, but I mostly wanted to be a famous writer. Like Oprah I pursued a career in journalism, but choose to concentrate on print media instead of television broadcast. Too many black journalists told me that if I wanted to do TV I'd have to perm my kinky hair (or get a weave) and put aside my Afrocentric flare until the cameras were off. It was a sacrifice I wasn't willing to make.

Sadly, I still haven't met Oprah. I tried to get hired on her set, but nothing ever panned out. Obviously, I never made it to her level of worldly success, either. Even as a dedicated teacher, I doubt I'll ever reach Oprah's unmet goal of being named Teacher of the Year.

I'm wondering, who do young black girls look up to now? Most would say their mothers, but who else? If I took a poll, I imagine R&B singer Rihanna would rank high on the list. Her platinum-selling songs are catchy but often sexually provocative, which may explain why taking nude pictures is no big deal for the 24-year-old Barbados native. When Rihanna recently made it public that she and her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown were back together —despite the fact that he had once beat her up—my middle school students came running to tell me. Some thought it was her fault they broke up in the first place and others were disgusted that she took him back.

There is no shortage of naughty-girl entertainers from which my female students could choose. But where are the intellectual black female superstars? I admire Gwen Ifill for her powerful role on PBS News Hour, but I doubt that many of my students even know her or that show. I'm also a huge fan of Robin Robinson for her grace and strength on Good Morning America. First Lady Michelle Obama is an obvious choice, as well.

Still, there's a huge generational gap. Plus the idea of television providing intellectual inspiration, especially for young black thinkers, is a fading hope. Social media is now all the rage. Fame is only a lucky-hit-on-YouTube away. Everybody can be a micro-celebrity, and morally conscious, socially responsible mega-celebrities are few.

Some of my readers have expressed dislike when I talk about race. They are usually white readers. They told me that they don't understand why race still matters in America and why black people tend to see everything through that lens. It's hard to describe color to a blind person, and it's hard to describe the impact of racism to a person who never interacted with black people until they left college.

Oprah was just a face on a TV screen, but she made my life better. She put skin on my dreams, and her image was proof that black girls with big hips and full lips were just as valuable as skinny black girls who looked almost white. I convinced myself that Oprah looked just like my Aunt Rose, who at the time worked in a candy factory. Oprah didn't have to sing or dance or shake her behind with no clothes on. Everybody loved Oprah. She was just one smart black girl like me. She was a gift to my generation of girlhood.

Interestingly, Oprah did a big TV feature on Rihanna's career and her restored relationship with Chris Brown this summer. As the two women conversed on the coach, I wondered if—I feared that—I was watching an iconic generational pass of the baton. The show, after all, was called Oprah's Next Chapter.

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