10 Questions for Soledad O'Brien
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?
S.O.: Oh gosh, yeah! You know, what’s so funny, it never even crossed my mind. I’m much interested in talking to people who are grappling with their identity. The president has a very good sense of who he is, and me too, so I don’t feel it’s something that I need to hash over with people, or in my own head. It’s so interesting when you talk to people who are trying to figure [out their racial identity.] Some people will say, “Well, race is a social construct…so that means that color doesn’t matter.” Well, everyone’s free to claim what they are. Really. So you could say you’re Chinese [if you aren’t] and we should all just be fine with that? … There are so many questions. And I’m always interested when there are people who are torn.
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Loop 21: As a mom of four young children, do you want your kids to grow up respecting the complexities of race in America? Can you see where they already do?
S.O.: You know, my kids watch every [Black In America] documentary. When we start looking at screeners, they sit down…we all sit down together…. It’s very interesting for me to get their reaction to what they’re seeing. They were really broken up…I mean, it was painful for them to watch Nayo’s struggle. They really had a hard time with it because I think they don’t see me struggle with [being biracial]. We’ve had conversations about race at home… and I’m sure I’ve completely bored them out of their minds talking about race. I think it was very disturbing for them to see a young woman tortured about something so essential to who she is.
Loop 21: Can you relate to someone like Becca Khalil, who said she feels and identifies black but most don’t see her that way? You’ve said before that people think you speak fluent Spanish because of your heritage.
S.O.: That’s so interesting. It’s never crossed my mind to identify with Becca. I identify a lot with Nayo because I think we have the same makeup. My mom’s black. Her mom’s black. My dad’s white. Her dad’s white. I would sit there and watch… I don’t know why [Nayo] is so tortured. I never cared what other people thought. When I was growing up, my mother used to always say, “Don’t let anybody tell you you aren’t black.” And “don’t let anybody tell you you aren’t Latina.” (O’Brien’s mother is Afro-Cuban.) I remember thinking – I [grew] up in a middle class neighborhood in Long Island, in an all white neighborhood – who is this “they?” [Laughs.] Who is this crazy person my mother is talking about? Who is the “they” that’s going to tell me anything? … I think Becca has a lot of angst about how people perceive her. I never did. And I think that’s because my parents gave me a very strong grounding… in my identity, my racial identity. And I have five brothers and sisters who looked exactly like me, so I think that helped a lot.
Loop 21: Last week in the Tweet Up with Loop 21, you mentioned that the Black and Latino In America projects involved a lot of argument about whose stories to tell and “that [it] wasn’t fun.” What do those arguments sound like?
S.O.: I think the question is, when you say “Black in America,” whose story are you telling? It’s not like we get to do 10 of these per year. We get to do one. And they’re a big deal. There is a certain amount of limit to the choices. You’re de facto saying that this story is worth less and [another] one is worth more… It’s hard because you’re making choices. And I think we all have this idea of what is black in America. My black experience is different than your black experience… that’s why it’s tough. Everyone is always advocating for the story they want to tell. Is it possible to do it in two hours, and then you need three hours? And, oh my gosh, we have to edit this! You know…you make tough choices. That’s good in a documentary. If there’s no tough choices, it usually means your topic is not that interesting. If you’re not crying over edits and nobody’s fighting you, that’s usually a bad sign.
Loop 21: Is there something you wanted to explore or include in previous In America projects that you didn’t in order to make them fly with executive producers?
S.O.: In our first Black In America, we didn’t have the opportunity to give historical context. And we were finally able to do that in our third [project] about the black church… We do new documentaries. I don’t want to do historical documentaries. So I can’t wedge in, “Let’s take a look back!” That’s not how it works. The only time we were able to do it really organically was in the documentary about finance. We tried in other ways with the first one. But, you know, it just depends. You really can’t get everything in that you want to tell. We’re still in the editing process [on Who is Black in America] even though it airs on Sunday.
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Loop 21: Did you imagine you’d have the career you have when you started out?
S.O.: I never really thought about it. I just like to work in broadcast news and I just wanted to have a job. I wanted to have a job that was interesting. And everything that I’ve gotten to do, every step I’ve had has always been very interesting and challenging. I’ve never had to sit there and twiddle my thumbs and be bored. I did know that I wanted to have a career that was interesting and challenging. But I flesh out in my head what it would look like. Certainly not that I’d be at CNN and that I’d do the amount of travel for documentaries and international stories.
Loop 21: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in the last year?
S.O.: I have a friend from New Orleans and his advice… He always just sort of says, “Baby, you can’t get disappointed in people. The key is not to disappoint yourself.” I laugh at it because it’s such a New Orleans way of thinking about life. You can’t run around being annoyed that someone hasn’t done what you wanted them to do. What other people do is sort of irrelevant. You have to be on your own path.
Loop 21: You’re a busy lady, sometimes doing Starting Point in the morning and filling in for Anderson Cooper in the evening. What does Soledad do when she wants to treat herself or get away from the “fiscal cliff” commentary or the combative show guests?
S.O.: What I’ve discovered is the best thing for not talking about the fiscal cliff is horseback riding. You’ve got to really focus. You can’t multitask. I adopted a horse from a rescue organization about five months ago. She was basically free. They rescue horses from slaughter and I got this 4-year-old racehorse that was set to be slaughtered. Now I’m training her and she’s fantastic. She’s young and she’s a lot of work. It’s nice to be working on another project that has nothing to do with the fiscal cliff or with politicians arguing with you or trying not to answer a question.
Soledad O’Brien (@Soledad_OBrien) will be live tweeting during the premiere of “Who is Black in America?” using the hashtag, “#BlackInAmerica.”
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