Below is an excerpt from Soledad O'Brien's memoir "The Next Big Story," published November 2 by Penguin Books. 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 American 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.
Black in America was a clear assignment. Mark 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by doing a documentary. Answer the questions: How far have we come? Where are we not making progress? The goal was never to examine the whole black experience...
Yet suddenly I'm answering questions about me, just as I had much of my life. Was I black enough? No one was asking Christiane Amanpour, who was born in Iran, if she was Asian enough to cover China. I was neither surprised nor particularly annoyed. I got it. There was concern that if I wasn't from the community, I might not get it. One day Bud Bultman, my managing editor, quoted Michael Eric Dyson as finding the story of Black America depressing and sad. It's undoubtedly the case that some of the stories are depressing and sad but you can't only tell stories that are outlined by statistics. There is a way to nuance the story so that the community is fully represented. Michael Eric Dyson is extraordinarily smart and articulate and is also one of the happiest and funniest people I know. There has to be a way to present stories that is not simply either/or -- that can't be reduced to good news/bad news, happy and sad. These elements coexist. This was the perspective I was supposed to bring to the documentary. That's what made me black. It was important I reflect that in my work, convey that sensitivity to the viewers.
Michael Eric Dyson and his brother say their lives were separated by the shade of their skin. But Everett was dealing heroin in his own neighborhood. He wasn't sticking it to the man. He was peddling dope to black children. He is serving a life sentence for murder. Whether or not he killed a man, he certainly made bad choices. He said that to me when I pressed him. Yet there is no denying his skin color is an issue. Light skinned people get preference. I remember the photo store where the guy asked: "Excuse me for offending you, but are you black?" It was pretty clear then that skin color makes a difference in the way you are treated. He wanted to know if we were black before taking our picture. Ultimately I have had to learn to navigate this minefield and I believe there is value in my perspective that is different to what another reporter might bring. I did this piece because I love highlighting the story of Everett and Michael and their two paths to unveil one reality of black life. But I also know that prejudices over skin color are our reality, not our excuse.
The big surprise for me about skin color is that it matters so much to black people. I am not afraid to be criticized. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and wallowing in self-pity has never been my strategy. I learned back in San Francisco that people don't have to like you. You can be successful even if no one wants you to succeed. But I refuse to just dismiss people telling me that I'm unqualified to be black. I want to understand the anger. The President is mixed race, yet he gets to identify as black. Except for when someone makes a point of telling me he is biracial or "as much as white." I don't know if they're revealing his true colors or finding a conversation starter about my own.
I find it funny. I grew up with people who never thought of me as white. I was so different from everyone else. I had an Afro. It seemed as if I wasn't attractive to them. I didn't fit. Now here I am supposed to be proving I am black! But I was a teenager back then. Now I am a grownup. I get to have a clear view of who I am and where I'm from. I get to be more than just a skin color; I can be the sum total of my life experience. I can embrace the community where my soul lives. I report on Katrina. Does that make me any more black? I report Black in America, does that make me more Black?
Black is not a credential; it's not even a skin color. African American culture is so much more than that. I feel like it's important to say "I'm black." I'm proud of my roots. I am a bit Irish too, by way of Australia. Should I not say that? I am certainly Latina. Latino is an ethnicity, not a race. Latinos can be of any color from any place. I can be Latino and also black. So why can't I have a father from Australia but be black when my mother is black. People looked at me all my life and saw black. And, I am thoroughly proud of the black I am.
I host big screenings for the Black in America documentaries the summer before the president is inaugurated. I love the questions. The crowds love the stories. I get such hardy applause. But every now and then I am asked why I tell the sad stories. Why do I tell stories about poor people? Why the piece about the former drug addict? Why the guy who gets a degree in jail, then commits another crime after he is released? I recite the statistics on African Americans and crime, incarceration and poverty. I stress that good reporting is about showcasing the range of stories that make up the black experience. I point to all the stories in the documentary about successful black people. The family at the center of my documentary is firmly upper middle class. The people attending their black family reunion came from solid homes with children going off to school but bottom line is, I am a reporter not a public relations specialist. I can't do a documentary about a community facing so many obstacles and not report about struggle. People in the audience applaud when I say that.
I tell them that there is an implication in American society that black people don't share American values. I would never do anything to contribute to that myth. I want to show the face of a community where character counts. I know folks don't only want to hear sad stories, but there is much to learn from failure, there are many lessons in challenges.
I begin to report Black in America 2, focusing on African Americans finding solutions to pressing community problems. The conversations over the documentary have helped me understand why some people attack me for not being black enough. If I am black and I launch a discussion of social ills in the black community, then someone black has said we have a problem. If I am a white person, I am just the enemy once again putting people down. That is easy to ignore. There are some people who just need me to be white. That way what I'm saying won't count. I can be the enemy too.