One thing Oprah Winfrey knows for sure: her father, Vernon Winfrey, is an honorable man.
“I had a father who took responsibility for me, even though he knew I could have been somebody else’s child,” she tells PEOPLE.
“I wanted to turn the table on that narrative of Black fathers not being present in their children’s lives,” says Winfrey. “I remember the very first time I was doing a show on parenting, on single parents. And my way of showing or widening the screen at the time was just to include a Black father in that group of parents, but not make a big deal about it. We got a Latina parent and we got a Black parent and we got a gay parent. And I remember a woman standing up and later saying she had never seen a Black father reading to his children. That was not an image anybody had seen on screen. And so a lot of the white people who were watching the show were like, ‘That’s a foreign concept to me.'”
Winfrey continues, “It’s chipped away at the fabric of who we are as a society and a world. The images on the evening news or portrayals in films, gangsters, stories that show absentee fathers, or focus on men being in prison, away from their children and not caring about their children, that’s what you’ve heard, but that isn’t what we know and feel.”
The mogul details her own father’s story, which she has told before.
“My mother and father never married,” she says. “They had sex one time. He gets a letter after I’m born saying, ‘Send money. You have a daughter.’ And the reason he did, he said, is because it could have been him. And the responsibility that he took for me, not just a responsibility but care and love and direction and support as a young teenage girl, is the thing that made the difference in me being who I am now or somebody you would have never, ever heard of.”
“I saw that over and over again in my father’s barbershop. Men would come in, hardworking men, doing everything they could in their lives to support their families, working sometimes two and three jobs to do that,” she adds. “So that’s the story I know of Black fathers – the ones I grew up with and the man I know. The narrative of the absentee father, it’s not accurate that that is the only picture. That’s what I want to say.”
Personal stories featured include single father Charles Johnson of Smyrna, Georgia, who is raising his two sons after his wife died following the birth of their youngest child. He gets a surprise from an A-lister.
Another, says Winfrey, is a “military dad who lost his son in Afghanistan and was going to jump off a bridge and decided not to jump when he heard his son’s voice saying ‘Dad, don’t do it. This isn’t the way.'”
Winfrey calls the special the “most important, meaningful, exciting show I’ve ever done for OWN.”
“I’m excited,” she says, “because I know that the feelings that I had, the goosebumps, the ‘ah-ha’s, the hair-raising moments that I experienced, the tears that I and Sterling K. Brown experienced while we were taping it, I know the rest of the audience is going to feel that.”
The celebration of Black fathers has been in the works for a while, she notes.
“I wanted it to be a big celebration, like a red carpet, bring in the fathers, their families, having celebrities honor them,” she says. “And because of COVID we had to scale the whole thing down. I mean, I really, I had this dream to do it in 2020, and, of course, after lockdown happened, we could not do that. But this is certainly just the beginning. Next year we’re going to blow it out.”
Honoring Our Kings, Celebrating Black Fatherhood premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on OWN.
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