Nov 7, 2010

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In her new memoir, The Next Big Story, Soledad O'Brien recalls a moment where the Jesse Jackson questioned her 'blackness'.  Here is how she recalls the encounter:

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 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.

Not that I'm trying to excus Rev. Jackson or anything, but I can completely understand where he is coming from.  A lot of us did not know Soledad O'Brien was a black woman until she said something.  I don't think her ethnicity has anything to do with whether or not she can report on a story, but the truth of the matter is a lot of us just didn't know.  Black people come in all shades of the rainbow this we all know, but there are some that it's very hard to tell just by looking at them.  We can't pretend that we're shocked by this.  I have people in my own family that had I not known their parents it would be hard for me to tell.  Everybody has their own definition of blackness.  But the truth of matter is that all of us are black, some of us just left Africa earlier than others.  There is a reason why Africa is called the 'Motherland' for she is the mother of all people.

Now, I do question why this excerpt is the one she chose to come out with in other to promote her book. Granted, controversy do sell, but what exactly does she hope to gain? Jesse Jackson might not be the best person in world, but what was the point of throwing him under the bus?


  1. Soledad may have been hurt momentarily by Rev Jackson's "assessment" of her, but I don't believe that she's still hurt and broken as she alludes.
    It's just the same ole politricks as usually at CNN, using others' thoughtness words to build oneself on. Soledad is no different from anyone else at that network. I'm sure she was told to use Rev's words because they are just titilating enough to create a bit of a buzz for her book!
    Come on now! The entire thing is completely disingenuous! Even sleazy! Jesse made her "ashamed" of her skin color, where no one else ever did in her life?
    If she was that strong with all that her parents instill within her, that white racists couldn't break through, then how on earth could Jesse Jackson do it?

    I don't believe you, Soledad! And I'm not buying your book just because Jesse said you don't count. Maybe he meant that her color doesn't speak to the black fight for inclusion, not the SHE as a person doesn't count!! We know that very light skinned black people are able to pass--so that doesn't speak to the black fight for inclusion. That's probably what Jesse meant, and I bet she knows that.

    Again, whatever angle is available to use to sell her book.

  2. You better say it Anna Renee! Those were my thoughts exactly. Something in the milk ain't right! I feel like we're being conned once again.

  3. I don't doubt that this excerpt was shared to promote the book. As for not knowing she was black...I knew she was biracial with black and some other race when she worked at NBC before working at CNN. That I could tell by looking at her.

    The idea that lighter-skinned blacks usually pass is probably the point that he was trying to make. At the same time, I can understand her frustration.

    I don't think it's that deep for us to make a big fuss about it. She was expressing how she felt when he said that.