It happened close to 12 years ago. One of my dearest friends advocated for me to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show as part of a story dedicated to youth who had aged out of foster care. Although this opportunity never occurred, my friend instead arranged for my picture to be featured on a show celebrating “Superwomen” from all walks of life. Alicia Keys performed her then hit song, “Superwoman” on a glorious grand piano as photographs of real-life superwomen appeared on a large screen behind her. It made perfect sense that my photo was selected. Overcoming an insidious blend of social ills to achieve unthinkable feats had seemingly become my sport. From homelessness, to foster care, to single parenthood — my history was splattered with adversities plowing right toward success. As a law student, I had then learned the art of using my story for advocacy. My audiences included judges, educators, politicians and fellow survivors of comparable traumas.
When my picture finally aired, I received several congratulatory phone calls as many were shocked to see our vivid faces grace their television screens. The selected picture captured me gleefully smiling and embracing my son. The caption “Single Mother, Attorney, Advocate for the Homeless” elicited such pride and glory. Yet shortly thereafter, I continued to work at a large law firm as a junior attorney, and my life as a public speaker slowly faded away. I then transitioned into my current career as a law professor within the two years following the show, where I have increasingly found my voice. As part of this journey, here are some of the things that I learned since my photo appeared on Oprah:
When Black women feel obligated to ascend into superwoman status as a shield to fend off racism, by being effortlessly “resilient, driven to succeed, [and] devoted to those around her,” it can lead to dire health consequences such as heart disease and high blood pressure. I unfortunately had to learn the hard way that delaying rest and healing is a dangerous game that can lead to irreversible harm. I urge women to rest before you break into scattered pieces. Putting them back together can be a backbreaking task fraught with additional setbacks. After all, prioritizing yourself is the greatest accomplishment of all.
Although my picture was featured to celebrate superwomen, I slowly discovered in the years following this show that my definition of superwoman was too narrow. This term seems to universally embody women who possess an extraordinary work ethic, and who have defied great odds to accomplish remarkable achievements. However, learning how to rest and fully commit to healing has been one of my greatest challenges in the face of this superhuman status that is often thrust upon me.
I have since expanded what a superwoman exemplifies. It now includes women who regularly engage in the revolutionary act of prioritizing self-care in a meaningful way. We should not have to be infallible superwomen just for the sake of enjoying what we are entitled to — lasting stability, contentment, and the freedom to optimize our gifts. As we continue to blaze paths forward, we should also focus on making such paths easier for other women. This will undoubtedly lead to a better world for generations to come.
In addition, I had mastered the art of tailoring my story to the needs of others as a public speaker. Using it as a tool to reach various audiences had become one of my most prized skillsets. However, in the years following this show, I realized that I had not fully considered how to tailor the many aspects of my story in a way that best reflects the beautiful intricacies of myself. Losing speaking opportunities following my submersion into law firm life gave me a much needed break to reassess how to further own and control my narrative.
Embracing ownership entailed clearly identifying the specific people I wanted to reach, while being more thoughtful about the precise lessons that I wanted to impart. Increasing control likewise entailed having boundaries about the extent of my transparency to enhance my ability to reject exploitive encounters. It further made me focus on what I wanted my story to become going forward. Re-shifting my mindset in this manner caused me to expand beyond survival mode into a state of thriving within my excellence.
I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be within any proximity to Oprah Winfrey. Her transparency about the traumas of her past have given me the freedom to exist in my own truth. Her creations of beauty have made my reflection glow with pride. During many of my darkest moments, her gallant journey has motivated me to fight my way forward. Being celebrated by Alicia Keys was an added treat that made me beam with delight. I must have listened to her debut album “Songs in A Minor” countless of times during my tumultuous years in college. Her beautiful artistry awakened dormant feelings of freedom and love.
Having this astounding opportunity to be featured alongside these women forced me to dream beyond the bounds of self-sufficiency. Learning how to dream at all was the pivotal first step. It required that I move closer to my true identity by understanding the immense value and scope of my gifts. Dreaming big was step two, which pushed me to elevate my initial dreams to new heights. I had originally thought that these kinds of dreams were out of reach for people like me. Aiming even higher, to places and sights that my vision cannot even fathom, has launched me on a spiritual journey that requires bold faith and untainted determination.
Overall, seeing my picture featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show, behind one of my all-time favorite artists, sent me on a quest that has enhanced my self-awareness. Thank you, Oprah, for making me feel seen and for making me see myself.
Cary Martin Shelby is a business law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law. She is also the founder and operator of the "Daughters Mosaic Blog," which includes periodic postings related to the ways in which her experiences as a former foster youth have shaped her career trajectory, research and other related topics.