Oâ€™Brien in South Africa as part of the cultural exchange program, â€œJourney for Change.â€
Photo by Jeff Hutchens/ Reportage for CNN
CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad Oâ€™Brien reports from the field for Black in America 2.
Photo by Christopher Martin/CNN
Oâ€™Brien reports from CNN for Black in America 2.
Photo by CNN
Soledad O’Brien The “CNN Presents: Black in America 2” Interview
Born on September 19, 1966 in Saint James, NY, Maria de la Soledad Teresa O’Brien is the fifth of sixth children born to Edward and Estrella, immigrants from Australia and Cuba, respectively. She and her siblings excelled academically, and all attended Harvard University. But while her brothers and sisters pursued postgraduate degrees in either medicine or the law, Soledad settled on a career in journalism.
Ms. O’Brien bounced around the television dial for a few years, enjoying stints on The Today Show, NBC Nightly News and at MS-NBC before finally finding a home at CNN where she co-anchored American Morning from 2003 to 2007, often going on location to report such disasters as Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Thailand.
Last year, she anchored Black in America, a groundbreaking, two-part series focusing on the state of black society which was watched by over 13 million viewers. In 2008, she was also a member of CNN’s self-professed “Best Political Team on Television” covering the 2008 presidential campaign.
Among Soledad’s many accolades are an Emmy, the NAACP’s President’s Award, the Hispanic Heritage Vision Award, and even the Soledad O’Brien Freedom’s Voice Award which was established in her honor by Morehouse College. Furthermore, the fetching freckle-faced (that’s right, freckle-faced) mother of four has been named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World by People Magazine and one of the “Top 100 Irish Americans” by Irish American Magazine.
Here, the perky, peripatetic journalist took a break from her very hectic schedule to talk about all of the above and about Black in America 2 which is set to premiere on CNN on Wednesday July 22nd and Thursday July 23rd at 8 PM ET/PT.
Sentinel: Hi Soledad, I’m honored for the opportunity to speak with you.
Soledad O’Brien (SO): Not at all. How are you?
Sentinel: Fine, thanks. I have a lot of ground to try to cover, because my readers sent in so many questions for me to ask you.
SO: Blast away!
Sentinel: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks what originally interested you in making Black in America?
SO: The first time around, we wanted to take a look at where we were 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, because the Black in America series actually started with a two-hour documentary on his assassination. This time around, we were really trying to answer a question that was put to us many, many times by people who said, “I loved the documentary, but what are we supposed to do?” So, really, Black in America 2 was an effort to answer the question “Now what?” by taking a look at what some people are doing very successfully and in ways that can be replicated.
Sentinel: Are you bringing back that rapper introducing each segment with a poem?
SO: He will not be back this time because we’re doing something different. Did you like him or not?
Sentinel: I hated him.
SO: Really? That’s interesting. I knew the guy personally and was fine with it. But it seems that people either loved or hated it. My mother loved it, my father hated it. My brother loved it, my sister and best friend hated it. And I mean hated. Hated! [Laughs] And they asked, “What were you trying to say with that?” or “Why is he rapping?” or “Why didn’t you have classical musicians playing?” I found it funny because it was something that I’d put very little thought into since I was so focused on the documentary itself. I just thought that as a nice, spoken-word poet he’d make an interesting artist to have introducing the segments. Here’s what was interesting to me about that, actually. With this entire project, people have a very personal attachment to the story in a way that other communities don’t. For instance, my own mother complained to me at the end of the first Black in America, saying “Oh, so no Afro-Latinos. Why none of your own people?” And I was like, “Give me a break, mom!” But I get it, everybody wants their story in there and a personal connection to the material.
Sentinel: Speaking of your mother, was she accepted by your father’s family when they were married back in the Fifties? After all, she was a black, he was white, and interracial marriages were very rare and still illegal in most Southern states.
SO: I’ve asked them a lot about that for a book that I’m working on. They both had left their families to come to the United States. My mother’s from Cuba and Australians didn’t have any particular hostility towards black Cubans. Plus, Australians have very stiff upper lips, meaning, if there were a problem, no one would know. So, my mom says she felt very accepted by my father’s family.
Sentinel: Were blacks even allowed to enter Australia at the time they were married?
SO: That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer to that. I know that when I asked them why they didn’t go back during that period, the answer was that my dad was working on his Ph.D. But they did eventually take the entire family at the first opportunity. In fact, my little brother was born there.
Sentinel: It is very impressive that all six of you attended Harvard. What was your parents’ formula for raising geniuses who realized their potential?
SO: It’s less about the O’Briens are geniuses who all went to Harvard, and more about the importance of role modeling. I truly believe the reason we went to Harvard was because my sister, Maria, who was a great student, demystified it for the rest of us, and made it feel readily achievable. I didn’t see her as a genius, but as my sister who was a very hard worker. I could look at her and think, if she could go to Harvard and do well, I certainly could go there and do well. That has made me realize that you are at a giant disadvantage, if you don’t have role models in your life.
Sentinel: Each of your five siblings is either a doctor or a lawyer. Does that make you the black sheep of the family?
SO: [Chuckles] Yeah, I’m the black sheep of the family, although I think they’d love to get on TV.
Sentinel: When I think of you, I think of the Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Thailand. Do you specialize in covering natural disasters?
SO: When I was a morning anchor, a story had to be big for us to do the show on location. And disasters kind of fit that bill, whether it might be the Virginia Tech shooting, Hurricane Katrina or something else. But it was less about disasters than a place from which you could anchor the show for a week. We traveled for many different types of stories. Sadly, the disasters just happen to be the more memorable ones.
Sentinel: How do you feel about the fact that so many ethnic groups are trying to claim you as theirs? I’m on the NAACP Image Award’s nominating committee, and we gave you the President’s Award. You were also named one of the Top 100 Irish Americans and received the Hispanic Heritage Vision Award.
SO: My dad’s brother saw a photo of me receiving the NAACP Award and he said, [impersonating an Australian accent] “Oh, Solly, you look so Australian!” That was so funny. I think it’s great because I’m multi-cultural in a lot of ways. I invest a lot of my personal time and energy in different communities. Also, as a journalist, I think there’s a big benefit in being both an insider and an outsider on an assignment. There’s value being an insider in terms of compassion and credibility, whether the community you’re covering is women, working moms, black people or Latinos. And then, as an outsider, you have the freedom too ask the tough questions with credibility. So, I find myself to be comfortable in many situations which might be uncomfortable for most journalists. I kind of fit in everywhere and yet don’t precisely fit in anywhere. And that’s a really nice thing for me not only as a journalist, but as a human being.
Sentinel: How did it feel to make People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in the World list? Did you feel any pressure, since most of the women on it are starlets and pop divas?
SO: No, I agree with you. I’m not a starlet, so there was no pressure to live up to anything on that front. The greatest irony is that I was pregnant with my first daughter and threw up the entire time during People Magazine’s shoot for that article. I think it was God’s way of telling me not to get a big head. But it was certainly a very nice thing for People to pick me.
Sentinel: What’s it like raising four your children and being on the road so much?
SO: It’s really hard. I’ve been traveling as much as six days a week for this project. That’s impossible to maintain. That’s non-viable. So, we won’t do that again, because I’m a hands-on mommy. It’s really hard on the kids. Even though they understand what I’m doing, someone needs to be there to kind of run the ship at home, which is me. So, we will do things a little bit differently logistically, because I can’t work non-stop and then be off for three months. I have to create a more sane schedule. And that should be very doable.
Sentinel: Reverend Florine Thompson wants to know what you think of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court.
SO: I think the fact that you’re looking at a Latino nominee is an indication of a demographic shift that’s actually been going on for a long time. Despite the hoopla around it, if you study the demographics, it’s really no surprise. That being said, her addition to the Court will be historic, although who knows what kind of a justice she’ll be. My sister has argued a case before her, and said that she’s very thoughtful and runs a tight ship. By all accounts she’s bright, smart and hard-working. To me, those things are more important than her being Puerto Rican. But from a history-making perspective, the fact that she’s Latino is obviously critical.
Sentinel: Laz Lyles asks, if the election of President Obama makes will Black in America 2 more relevant or less relevant, and what impact the show will have on the country?
SO: I don’t think Obama’s being President doesn’t affect the relevance of the show one way or another. When you examine the breakdown of viewers, the audience is not overwhelmingly black. It’s a mix. I didn’t create the show for anyone or to have an impact on the country. My job was to tell really good stories in a way which would stick with people.
Sentinel: Do you see a declining significance of color in the Age of Obama?
SO: I talk to teenagers and they’ll just sort of roll your eyes when you talk about race, as if they don’t get it and as if race doesn’t matter. They look at me the same way I looked at my parents when they reminisced about saving up for their first mortgage. It’s as if I’m talking about something that’s completely irrelevant to their lives.
Sentinel: Are they colorblind?
SO: They’re not colorblind, they see the differences, but they don’t matter. They just don’t see race the same way we see race. And in some ways I think that’s good in that race has become completely demystified the way Harvard was for me watching my sister go off to college. So, I have a lot of hope for my kids’ generation. My daughter looks black but is as blonde as could be. And so many of the children at my daughter’s school are just as diverse-looking.
Sentinel: How do people react to your identifying yourself as black, given your appearance and Spanish and Irish names?
SO: Occasionally, someone will thank me, saying, “You don’t have to admit you’re black.” And I’ll go, “Really? Because I often travel with that beautiful black woman with an afro who’s my mother. What do I do about her?”
Sentinel: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
SO: That’s a really good question… No, but I’m going to have to think about that though.
Sentinel: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
SO: What an interesting question! I don’t know. I’m not a big blamer of things on anything but myself. So, if there have been any failings in what I’ve done, it’s been in my not working hard enough.
Sentinel: How do you feel about the passing of Michael Jackson?
SO: It’s interesting to me how many people of all ages and from all walks of life have been telling me how saddened they are by his death. Not many an icon’s passing would profoundly affect so many different subsets of people? That’s really an indication that he was truly a world pop star.
Sentinel: We also lost Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays and Karl Malden.
SO: It’s been so sad, that’s a lot of loss in one week.
Sentinel: Marcia Evans said that she found Black in America 1 “painful because it put us in a negative light.” Did you get a lot of feedback like that?
SO: I had some people say that, but I don’t think that that’s true. My job was to answer the question we had posed, namely, “Where are we today?” For instance, someone asked me why I had to talk about the black male dropout rate. My response was, why aren’t you screaming bloody murder about the low graduate rate? That’s insanity! You can’t have a successful country with a 29% black male graduation rate. And I was curious about why someone would find my pointing that out would reflect on them personally.
Sentinel: How is Black in America 2 different?
SO: My approach this go-round was to focus on the anatomy of success.
Sentinel: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
SO: My advice would be: stick it out! We’re see some great movement in terms of diversity, and a bunch of different voices are beginning to get heard. It’s been a battle to get those stories done. I would love to have someone say, “Soledad, you’ve done a great job, but you can retire because I’ve come to take over.” Those words would be music to my ears.
Sentinel: And when you retire, how do you want to be remembered?
SO: As a really good mother who tried to include her children in her work, because she thought her work was important.