A little backstory on how we got to the point where this is even a thing: On Nov. 17, 2016, I wrote a piece called “Queen Sugar Hits This Dad Right in the Feels.” By the end of that day, life was different; anything was possible. The piece published first thing in the morning that day. By 2 p.m., I received a call from Oprah Winfrey—you’ve probably heard of her—telling me that she’d read and loved the piece and even teared up reading about my reaction to the scene at the heart of the article. I documented that experience here.
Listen, life is different once stuff like that happens to you. It just is. Especially because those are the types of experiences you get to share with people. I didn’t answer the call because of the “Unknown” caller-ID tag, and it allowed me to have a voicemail that I can still play for folks. Oprah called me, but she really called everybody I know that day.
I have played that voicemail for classes of students. I’ve played it for people I see on the street who recognize me and ask me to hear it. That was a win for everybody who tries to do anything creative and wonders if anybody notices. Turns out, yes, people can and do notice. And sometimes people is even Oprah.
In April of this year, the HBO original movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks starring Oprah Winfrey was released. I had the fortune of attending a screening at the Blacksonian, and Oprah was there. I got really close to her, too—close enough to try to stop her and tell her that she called me and take a picture with her, but it didn’t seem like the right time to do that, so I let it ride. I figured, life has been semicharmed to this point, and God seems to be looking out more than I might deserve—I’ll probably see her again and get a chance to tell her and take a picture with her. Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus.
Queen Sugar was then and remains one of my favorite shows, so on occasion I write about it. I recently wrote about how Queen Sugar was coming for all of the feelings that This Is Us typically draws out of me. The piece published in the morning, and in the afternoon I got an email from OWN saying that they loved the piece and oh, by the way, they’re taping a season-finale postshow discussion in Hollywood on Nov. 7 moderated by Oprah featuring Ava DuVernay and the cast, and would I like to come because they’ll cover everything?
Bruh. Here’s where the shit gets beautiful. Damon and I were already going to be in the Bay Area for a speaking engagement at Stanford University on Nov. 6. It’s a quick flight to Los Angeles for Nov. 7! Perfecto. Siiiiiiign me up. The postshow taping was great, and the OWN building is awesome. I love L.A., and I love being on studio lots. It feels so Hollywood and I love everything about it. We got to see how the sausage gets made, and the convo was cute and fun. Oprah said one thing that had the entire audience’s mind blown—check that out on Nov. 15 after the season finale.
Where the fun happens is the postshow after-party, which was at Soho House. I’m guessing this is an exclusive-ass place because just to get to the “garden,” we had to walk through a long hallway that looked like some Prohibition-era get-to-the-booze-and-gambling entryway. Shit was glamorous, b. I felt glamorous. Me and you, your mama and your cousin, too, felt glamorous.
We (les journos) got there first, which gave us the opportunity to take a bunch of pictures of places famous folks hang. I think the first celeb from Queen Sugar to show up was Bianca Lawson (Darla), and she started taking pictures with folks immediately. She was very sweet.
That’s one thing I’ll say about the cast members that we met—everybody was super cool, willing to talk to you and mad down to earth. It’s always amazing to me how small folks are in real life compared with how they look on camera. Rutina Wesley (Nova) is an itty-bitty thang. She’s adorbs. Also, Kofi Siriboe is a good-looking man. Like, I’m not sure how else to say that. He just is a good-looking dude. Even in the picture I took with him, I was like, “Well, this is the picture NOBODY will care that I’m in.” He laughed.
I also talked to his mother for a bit, seeing as she’s Ghanaian and my woman is Ghanaian, and I have a son also called Kofi (one of his middle names, anyway). She’s a super-sweet woman, and she had such a great spirit and vibe. I love black mamas.
Of course, when Oprah walks into the room, she has this gravity about her. She comes in just as cool as a cucumber and starts talking to people. Now, when you’re LOOKING to meet and talk to somebody, especially not quite as famous as Jesus but, like, No. 4 or 5 on that list, you try to figure out the approach. Me? I had nothing. I don’t think any of us did, honestly. Then she went to the one place where I’m always at home and can find a reason to talk to anybody: the bar.
And NOBODY was standing next to her on her right. Like, there goes Oprah just being Oprah and her whole right side is free? So I did what any self-respecting person would do ... I sidled up to her and prepared to launch into a “Hey, I noticed you noticing me, and I wanted to put you on notice that I noticed you, too.” Then I realized that she was ordering a drink, and my soul was like, “Dog, you HAVE to know what Oprah is drinking.” So I just asked, “And what exactly are YOU drinking?”
Do you know this turned into an entire convo about tequila? Oprah is a tequila drinker. We had an entire convo about her palate for tequila and how she has a favorite, Casa Dragones, and how she’s traveled the world in search of just the right taste for her. She told us how smooth it is and mentioned George Clooney’s tequila. I had just ordered my standard Bulleit and ginger ale (all drinks were free, bee tee dubs) so I just tasted it while everyone else ordered what she was having. Oprah then proceeded to toast with us all, because Oprah apparently is about that celebrating-life life.
But because she’s Oprah, she ALSO proceeded to listen to us talk about finding passion in life and doing what you love. She actually had real inspirational conversations with my fellow journos about them deciding to write and be creatives for a living and how God puts those options in your life or puts the word there until you can’t deny it. That woman spoke of how you have to follow your heart—you know, the kind of stuff we all need to hear, but it carries weight coming from somebody who made it to the top.
I stepped in and asked for a picture with her. Before we took the picture, I told her that I was Panama Jackson from VSB and that she called and left me a voicemail after I wrote an article about the show and how I sent it to all my family and friends and how it lit up so many folks’ day and we were so excited and thankful for that and that she’s awesome. And she looked me dead in my face and said: “THAT WAS YOU! It was such a good piece, and I loved the way you captured exactly what we were trying to convey. Thank you so much! It was such a good and well-written piece!”
Then she high-fived me and pulled me in for a picture, and I’m pretty sure my heart sang a song of sixpence. My face touched her face, and then I smiled the biggest smile ever as the camera snapped. She was so nice about it and so pleasant and sweet. Oprah invited me (sure, it was folks from OWN, but she owns OWN, so I’m looking at it like Oprah invited me, dammit) to hang out with her and Ava and the cast of Queen Sugar, and told me she remembered the piece I wrote and toasted with the homies all of the free drinks we could drink. I got to say, that day was a good day. She was handing out hugs, words, tequila and good vibes. She’s good with me, b. Always.
Events like this and being invited to go to stuff like this with famous people who are paying attention to what we’re doing is humbling and still inspires me at times. There’s nothing like being yourself and finding out that other people can appreciate it. Some of those people can change everything for you or give you enough of an energy boost to keep going. Again, you never know who that will be.
For all of you folks who are out there trying to find your next idea or creative endeavor, please, please, please keep on keeping on. You really have no idea where any of this can take you. Everybody ain’t gonna get to the top—this is fact. But why can’t that person who does make it be you? Never forget that. Seriously.
Enjoy the ride and realize that inspiration and success—whatever that looks like for you—don’t have to miss you. Figure out what your success is, and then prepare for your actual success to look way different than you thought. Just don’t stop, fam. At all. Oprah (or whoever matters to you) might be paying attention.
One last thing: We met Oprah, y’all. Because without VSB and the folks who come here and read and keep us inspired, I’d never be in the position to write about something I enjoy that could end up in front of Oprah. From my mind to Oprah’s eyes has been a long journey, but I’m glad I got to take it. Thank y’all for that.