Let me get this right out front. I'm not a big Oprah fan. While I admire her success and generosity, I can't take her talk-show advice about how to live and what to read.
Gripes aside, I must confess that I was thrilled to attend the opening ceremonies of the National Civil Rights Museum's Freedom Awards, honoring not only Oprah but Rwandan hero Paul Rusesabagina and longtime civil rights activists Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. What will Oprah look like in person? I wondered. Will her notoriety overshadow the accomplishments of the other honorees?
From the start, the day was Oprah's, and her star power showed up blocks away from the Temple of Deliverance. More than 30 minutes before the forum began, there wasn't a parking space in sight. The church itself was alive with traffic police, television crews, school buses, and 9,000 people, many of whom arrived early.
Inside the cavernous sanctuary, the mood was excited but reverent, a sort of tent revival meets Broadway show with prayers and music and African dancing.
"Look around the room and marvel at the colors of the rainbow," said emcee Tracee Ellis Ross, a film and television actress on UPN's comedy Girlfriends.
By now, I had started to feel uncharacteristically peppy, so I was ready when a murmur of recognition exploded with applause. Oprah was in the house, stopping the program temporarily for a few hugs and photographs as she took a seat in the center of the first row.
But hold on. It still wasn't time for Oprah. First, Dee and her late husband were recognized with a video narrated by Sidney Poitier, which, I'm a little embarrassed to say, made me tear up. Then Dee took the microphone, frail in stature but strong in voice. "Today is ours, let's live it," she said, ringing out her words. "Today is ours, let's take it!"
Next on the podium was Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda who saved 1,200 people from genocide by Hutu extremists. "What is freedom?" he asked. "It is a feeling of independence ... but none of us are free until all voices are free."
Finally, it was Oprah's turn to be honored for her Angel Network, which has raised $35 million, and for her crusade to establish a national database of convicted child abusers.
"The only reason I said yes to this invitation was to meet Paul Rusesabagina," she said, lauding his courage. Then she issued an Oprah challenge to African-American families everywhere: "It is your duty to see Hotel Rwanda and to keep a copy of it next to your Bible and your photograph of Martin Luther King."
Shoot. She did it again, but this time Oprah's assertions didn't rub me so wrong. Maybe it was because she seemed sincere in her appreciation of Rosa Parks ("I owe it to you to succeed") and Ruby Dee ("You are a woman who has helped me be the woman I am") and Ross' mom ("When I was growing up, all I wanted to be was Diana Ross") or because Rusesabagina got a standing ovation too when he explained the meaning of his name: he who disperses his enemies.
Then again, maybe my criticisms softened because Oprah had plenty of self-deprecating charm, which was (dare I admit?) irresistible. "Anybody got some crackers?" Oprah asked a roomful of reporters. "I'm so hungry I ate all the lemons in my water glass."