10 Questions for Soledad O'Brien
5 months ago
The broadcaster dishes about her new CNN documentary, "Who is Black in America," airing Sunday
Soledad O'Brien this weekend will present the fifth installment in her acclaimed "Black in America" documentary series on CNN. The latest episode, "Who is Black in America," premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. EST with a focus on the issue of racial identity. O'Brien, while herself biracial, says that had no bearing on why she chose the topic. Instead, the veteran cable news broadcaster says she chose it out of curiosity about people who have struggled with or straddled the racial identity fence. Unlike the subjects of the hour-long documentary, O'Brien says she didn't grow up questioning that part of herself.
Loop 21: This is your fifth “In America” project. Can you talk a bit about where this idea came from? Is it personal, in that you are biracial yourself?
Soledad O'Brien: No, it’s not personal… Someone asked me today, “Could this have been the first Black in America [installment]?” And I said, “Oh, that’s so interesting, right?” Because this really is kind of the formative question. The first one, of course, was about Martin Luther King’s assassination and then kind of the “what’s next… where are we today? What’s next for African Americans in this country.” [Who is Black in America] isn’t autobiographical for me, mostly because it’s a team of people who are working on them. It really is about what’s a great idea, and we start off then looking at lots of different ideas. In this particular case, there was a woman whose name is Yaba Blay, who is a professor at [Drexel University in Philadelphia] and she’s working on a project called “(1)ne Drop,” which examines the stories of people who [have Black ancestry and can pass as another race]. She had interviewed me, having reached out to one of the producers on the project. And later we were thinking, she might be an interesting person to reach out to in terms of a story… Through her, we connected to a group of young poets who were searching for their identity.
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Loop 21: What is colorism, as you’ve come to understand it from reporting this project? Did you go into the project with an understanding?
S.O.: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And that’s mostly because I had a background in African American studies in college. Colorism is really just discrimination based on someone’s skin color. In this particular story, we take a look at two…girls on the cusp of womanhood. One is named Becca [Khalil], who is sort of disturbed because people don’t think she’s black. She’s a brown skinned girl, whose parents are from Africa. But they’re from Egypt. (Note: The U.S. Census designates any “person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa” as white.) That doesn’t make her count as African. The other young lady, who is her best friend, is a girl named Nayo [Jones], whose mother is black and father is white. Nayo says, although she looks like a brown-skinned black girl…she says she doesn’t feel black. She doesn’t know what blackness means to her. She feels that she has somehow missed out on black experience that seems to be an experience of authenticity for some people. She feels she can’t be black because she’s not feeling it, because she’s been raised by her white father…through them I think we ask the key and critical questions: What makes you count as black? Is it your skin color? Is it your “black experience?” Is it [who your parents are?] Is it good enough to say, “Well, I’m black.” And that makes you black? We do not solve the problem of colorism in this documentary, but we do grapple with some of these elements.
Loop 21: You’ve said that there are two hours of questions you have for President Barack Obama, arguably the most visible and politically powerful biracial person in the world. Is colorism something you might ask him about, albeit way down on a prioritized list of questions?