Thursday, November 04, 2010

Soledad O'Brien's "The Next Big Story"

Soledad O'Brien's memoir - "The Next Big Story" - went on sale Tuesday. has published an excerpt from book.

The story begins in 2006, just after she has obtained exclusive access to Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers and has reported on them for CNN's America Morning.

On this American Morning, I have an exclusive look at a man at least half the world admires. I feel like what he is saying speaks to me. I am energized, a new member of the quarter million people who joined him on the mall, and a new recipient of the grace he handed out in Selma.

Then, out of nowhere, The Reverend Jesse Jackson calls with an invitation to meet and talk and it brings my reverie to a halt. We greet warmly and sit. A young, clean-cut security guy hovers near by. He stays close enough to be summoned for a quick question but not close enough to overhear. I notice the china is clinking, like real good china. I have four small kids so I never hear that particular sound. The restaurant is on the first floor of a famous hotel and the place is nice. The Reverend Jackson begins talking in his strong Southern accent. His voice is very low. He says "call me Jesse but that's something I feel like I cannot do." I am confident he doesn't remember the first time we met. It was my job in 1989 to escort him through his live shots at WBZ TV around Boston Nelson Mandela's historic visit to the U.S. I was his "babysitter," the one making sure no other media plucked him away. He was our contributor. He whispers something. He is speaking so low I can barely hear him. I strain to get closer.

Even though I am not sure what he is saying, I can tell he is angry. Today he is angry because CNN doesn't have enough black anchors. It is political season. There are billboards up sporting Paula Zahn and Anderson Cooper. He asks after the black reporters. Why are they not up there? I share his concern and make a mental note to take it back to my bosses. But then he begins to rage that there are no black anchors on the network at all. Does he mean covering the campaign, I wonder to myself? The man has been a guest on my show. He knows me, even if he doesn't recall how we met. I brought him on at MSNBC, then again at Weekend Today. I interrupt to remind him I'm the anchor of American Morning. He knows that. He looks me in the eye and reaches his fingers over to tap a spot of skin on my right had. He shakes his head. "You don't count," he says. I wasn't sure what that meant. I don't count -- what? I'm not black? I'm not black enough? Or my show doesn't count?

I was both angry and embarrassed, which rarely happens at the same time for me. Jesse Jackson managed to make me ashamed of my skin color which even white people had never been able to do. Not the kids in the hallways at Smithtown or the guys who wouldn't date me in high school. I remember the marchers behind me at the trial about the black youth/kid who beat the Latino baby. The folks that chanted "biracial whore for the white man's media," even they didn't even make feel this way. I would just laugh. Biracial, sure, whore, not exactly, white man's media, totally! Whatever. But Reverend Jesse Jackson says, "I don't count?"

I am immediately upset and annoyed and the even more annoyed that I am upset and pissed off. If Reverend Jesse Jackson didn't think I was black enough, then what was I? My parents had so banged racial identity into my head that the thoughts of racial doubt never crossed my mind. I'd suffered an Afro through the heat of elementary school. I'd certainly never felt white. I thought my version of black was as valid as anybody else's. I was a product of my parents (black woman, white man) my town (mostly white), multiracial to be sure, but not black? I felt like the foundation I'd built my life on was being denied, as if someone was telling me my parents aren't my parents. "You know those people you've been calling mom and dad -- they aren't really your parents. What?" The arbiter of blackness had weighed in. I had been measured and found wanting.

It knocked me off my equilibrium for a bit, the first time that had happened to me since that guy in a bar back on the West Coast pinched my butt during my first live shot.

After two weeks of stewing, I sat upright one day and made a decision. This man is wrong. I am a product of my own life. That's one of the wonders of America, you have the right to define yourself regardless of what little box someone wants to shove you in. He is certainly right that CNN doesn't have enough people of color on the air, even the bosses say that and spend their time trying to fix it. But "you don't count"? Screw that. Of course I count. Who is he to say that? My experience is not universal -- no one's is -- but it is legitimate. I get to be whom I am outside and in. But I was embarrassed that I didn't call him back and ask what he meant. I (like my mother) like a good fight. So I should have called him up and said, "What the heck does that mean"? But I didn't. I slunk away. Annoyed. And more annoyed that I never forgot his words. I look at other mixed race people now and wonder. Did their parents slam their identity into their head as mine did? Or do they get to drift around in some amorphous category. Jesse Jackson caught me off balance.

It wasn't until recently that I called him and reminded him of what he'd said to me that day. I had done 4 documentaries on race in between the two conversations. He was totally surprised and barely remembered the details. He had not known I was black! He said he honestly did not know, that when he said I didn't count he was alluding to the fact that he thought I was a dark-skinned someone else. That is how precise the game of race is played in our country, that we are so easily reduced to our skin tone. That even someone as prominent in African American society as Rev. Jackson has a box to check for black and one for white. No one gets to be in between. I thanked him for his candor.

But that day I couldn't say a word to Rev. Jackson. I run into the man all the time. We are invited to the same events. We kiss at functions but still I say nothing. I see how deeply people respect him. Al Sharpton tells me Jackson taught him civil disobedience. Roland Martin credits him with paving the way for Obama. Jackson sat at lunch with me telling me how he hates always being asked to talk only about black issues, hates to be tagged as only the black expert, never the guy negotiating peace or brokering deals with Wall Street. He lashes out at people who define him by the color of his skin. It matters that they don't see inside him. It mattered to me that he didn't see outside me.

You can read the second part of the excerpt on here.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home