The most pervasive feeling I remember from my own childhood is loneliness. My mother and father were together only once, underneath an old oak tree not far from the house where my mother, Vernita, was raised in Kosciusko, Mississippi. My father, Vernon, used to tell me I would never have been born if he hadn’t been curious about what was underneath my mother’s pink poodle skirt. Nine months after that singular encounter, I arrived. From the moment I could make sense of it, I knew I was unwanted. My father didn’t even know about me until my mother sent him a birth announcement and asked for money to buy baby clothes.
“My grandmother Hattie Mae’s home was a place where children were seen and not heard. I have distinct memories of my grandfather shooing me away with his cane—yet no memory of him speaking directly to me. After my grandmother passed away, I was shuttled between my mother, who had moved to Milwaukee, and my father, in Nashville. Because I didn’t know either one, I struggled to develop strong roots or connections with my parents. My mother worked as a maid for fifty dollars a week in Fox Point, on the North Shore of Milwaukee, doing what she could to care for three young children. There was no time for nurturing. I was always trying not to bother her or worry her. My mother felt distant, cold to the needs of this little girl. All of the energy went to keeping her head above water, surviving. I always felt like a burden, an ‘extra mouth to feed.’ I rarely remember feeling loved. From as early as I can remember, I knew I was on my own.
“What I’ve learned from talking to so many victims of traumatic events, abuse, or neglect is that after absorbing these painful experiences, the child begins to ache. A deep longing to feel needed, validated, and valued begins to take hold. As these children grow, they lack the ability to set a standard for what they deserve. And if that lack is not addressed, what often follows is a complicated, frustrating pattern of self-sabotage, violence, promiscuity, or addiction. This is where the work begins—the work to excavate the roots that were put down long before we had the words to articulate what was happening to us.”
Oprah will deliver the opening keynote on Tuesday, May 25 10:45–11 a.m. ET.