The institute of family is defined as the oldest societal entity, generally consisting of blood relatives such as parents and their children. In the American tradition, the extended family can be defined as the relatives of an individual, both by blood and by marriage, other than its immediate family, such as aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. However, African Americans know that the definition of extended family is actually inclusive of their definition of family. Helming from a rich heritage wherein families had to stick together, there has been no regard for a differentiation between family and extended family. Many times, aunts and uncles have had to step in as mothers and fathers; grandparents have become parents; and cousins have become sisters and brothers. The ties that bind are priceless, yet they can be as sharp as a two-edged sword, causing just as much joy as pain.
Such is the case in the life of Shakeeta Winfrey, which is candidly chronicled in her autobiography, The Other Winfrey: Life in the Shadow of O. Born to a single mother who was dually diagnosed with schizophrenia and borderline personality, she immediately was taken into the loving arms and home of her grandparents, James and Millie Winfrey. Devout Christians, the Winfreys provided Shakeeta with everything that a two-parent household could offer a child: a safe environment, a roof over her head, food and clothing, but most importantly love. Yet, there was still something missing. The pain of being raised by one’s grandparents was ever present, although greatly appreciated. Shakeeta longed for the mother-daughter relationships that she had to sit by and helplessly and hopelessly watch as her friends enjoyed them with their own mothers. Although she knew who her mother was, her mother’s mental disability prevented her from really knowing her intimately. She wondered what it would be like if she would have had her own mother with her during her upbringing.
To add to this feeling of emptiness, Shakeeta struggled with the pain of never knowing who her father was. Her mother’s illness created a puzzle that is still left unsolved. In fact, Shakeeta’s grandmother didn’t even realize Pat (Shakeeta’s mother) was pregnant with her. Just the day before Shakeeta was born, her mother was outside riding a bike and playing basketball. Grandma Millie had some speculation of who the father might be, but there were never any confirmations. Before Grandpa James passed away, Shakeeta remembers that he always encouraged her to make an attempt to find her father.
Shakeeta’s parental challenges were only one part of her dilemma. As she grew older, she found that the name “Winfrey” itself would serve dually as a curse and a blessing. Because of the fame of Oprah Winfrey, Shakeeta’s cousin (her grandfather and Oprah’s father are first cousins), Shakeeta found herself being perceived to be just as rich as Oprah. She became a magnet for people to befriend her with subliminal intentions. Because of the void in her life with her family, Shakeeta longed for the extra attention the Winfrey name gave her.
However, the attention, coupled with her own inner struggles, became more of a problem than a privilege. In The Other Winfrey, Shakeeta shares her journey of life, disclosing personal family issues such as crime, drugs, incest and infighting. Shakeeta’s journey has taken her on a path that included promiscuity, stripping, and failed marriages. An emphasis is placed on the enormous pain, guilt, sorrow and regret plagued by the entire family, especially her. A key part of her pain lies within the fact that she so longed to get just a glimpse of the mighty woman who is her cousin. Yet, it never happened.
Travel with Shakeeta as she takes you on a journey of what it is like to live “in the shadow of O.”
I believe my living in Oprah’s shadow really began by the time Iwas 14. It was then that I got my very first car, a red Geo Storm. For some reason, everyone thought that Oprah bought it for me. Truthfully, I really did want everyone to think that I had the things that I had because of the fact that I was related to Oprah, and as such, I tried to buy my friends that way. To my dismay, though, my little strategy created a disaster. My friends started to use me for whatever free rides they could get. As the years passed, I felt that I needed to uphold the ideology ofbeing a “Winfrey.” Not only was I expected to be a person with money,and a person of power and influence, but I also found myself being caught in the fad of being thin and hip by the time I got to high school.
Oprah’s dad, Vernon, blamed my grandfather for all that they didfor me. Unfortunately, the things they did for me not only put them in debt, but it made them a spectacle around the church as well. This was the case when my grandmother borrowed money from the church forsomething I wanted her to purchase for me. Because she was thechurch’s treasurer, no one even knew that the money was gone. I didn’t find out about her “loan” until years later. When I did make thediscovery, it was painfully clear that I put them through so much pain and destruction.
I became sexually active when I was 15. The onset of my sexualactivity began with the fascination I had with the older guys that wouldhang out at my middle school. During this time, I started dating a guywho was 27, although he lied and said he was 19. Little did I know that this same guy would later rape me.