Below is an excerpt from Soledad O'Brien's memoir "The Next Big Story," published November 2 by Penguin Books. This excerpt is from the first chapter of the memoir. Read another exerpt from the book.
I'm eleven. My sister Estela is fourteen. We're at a photographer's studio to get a picture taken to give to our parents. The studio is on the main street in Smithtown, Long Island, not that far from where we live. The photographer says, "Forgive me if I'm offending you, but are you black?" For a moment, I'm speechless. I turn the comment over in my head. I can't figure out what he means. My sister is light-years ahead of me. She starts to shred the guy. "Offend us? Offend us? By asking if we are black?" He is maybe thirty but he seems old to us. He has dark brown hair and he's tall. He's white and we're two mixed-race girls trying to get our picture taken as an anniversary present for our parents. It's 1977. I'm this cheery, optimistic kid who suddenly feels quite sunk.
I just stand there in my big sister's shadow. I'm trying to figure out why the nice-sounding words make me feel small and embarrassed. The photographer is being exceedingly polite but he's crushing my girlish self-confidence. "Forgive me if I'm offending you . . ." What is that supposed to mean? Why would it be offensive if he were to call me black? I am black. I am also Latina, and half white through my Australian father. That isn't typical in Smithtown, but there is nothing wrong with me. My name is sort of long. I'm Maria de la Soledad Teresa O'Brien. I am fast becoming "Solie" to my friends. I'm a kid so I draw a little heart over the "i" when I write it. My hair's combed back in a bun and my clothes are what an eleven-year-old would wear. His tone makes it sound like something about me is off, especially the part about not offending me by assuming I'm black. I just don't understand how it could possibly be offensive to be black.
This is the first time I remember feeling like I might be disliked for who I am. My mind does leaps on this theme. But Estela is totally on it. I am very impressed that she can articulate her anger so well at fourteen. She is already able to take apart a grown man. She's so much more on top of it than me. "Forgive me if I'm offending you . . ." We don't have to take this crap. And from a photographer? Estela gives me the universal body language for "we're taking a walk" and off we go.
I think this was the day it began, my life of perpetual motion. There was a time when I was always walking away from comments or stares. There was the store where someone explained that I couldn't be black because black people were thieves and killers. Um, gonna put down this jacket and leave now. I didn't feel rejected; I felt annoyed and confused. I was proud of my identity. I thought I fit in comfortably in my suburban town. It was off-putting when someone came out with something nasty, something that signaled that not everyone saw me the way I saw myself. I always expected the best from folks so it came as a surprise. It would take me a moment to figure out if that's what they really meant to say. Then I would refuse to let it get to me. I was a middle-class girl in a middle-class Long Island suburb, but my young life became like those games of dodge ball we played in the school yard. When you move, you can't get hit. You survive to play again. By doing that you come out the winner.
There was the day I was walking down the hall to sixth-period science class. An older kid, eighth grade, came right up to me. "If you're a nigger why don't you have big lips?" he asked. It killed me that not only could I hear him, I actually could feel myself trying to formulate an answer, as if the question necessitated a response. There was no hostility in his voice. It was just this question he hurled at me in the rush to change class. He wasn't much bigger than me; he wasn't even scary. Just a guy with long sandy brown bangs swinging past his eyes like windshield wipers. I rushed past him, recording for some reason the colors on his short-sleeve shirt. I could pick him out of a lineup today, almost thirty-three years later. That day, I just pursed my mouth and kept moving, walking away. I wouldn't dignify him. I had to get to class.
I've been a journalist now for more than twenty years. I go sprinting from story to story. My life moves fast. I am a big version of the little girl in Smithtown except now I'm walking toward something rather than away from it. I force people to consider every word they've said in interviews. I dig in to the awkward question. I revel in making people rethink their words. Nothing stops me. I am not the type to dwell on bad things. I have no patience for people who do. I am the glass half full, the one who insists there must be a way to fix things. It's not that I'm propelled by unfounded optimism. I just can't suffer the small stuff or the bad stuff or the meanness we encounter in the world. I think better of life, that it harbors the possibility we can get past things and come out better on the other end. I see life as a series of victories, of wins. I live to capture that feeling when your chest cracks the ribbon at the finish line and tiny triangular flags flutter high above the track.
I graduated with honors from the school where being half black and half white meant I was the brunt of bad jokes. I went on to Harvard, just like my sister Estela, like all six of us, in fact. I am by all accounts a successful journalist. I produce award-winning documentaries about challenging subjects like race. I went on to write books, give speeches, marry a great guy, have four healthy kids, and anchor a network TV show. That eighth-grader in the hallway didn't hinder my forward motion one bit. Whatever became of him and his life, he was wrong about me. Whatever assumptions he made about me, I proved him wrong by succeeding.
I won not just because I charged on. I won because experiences like that changed me for the better, not for the worse. I learned that I didn't need to stop and confront every injustice thrown my way. That I could win just by moving along. That feeling angry was healthy, if I used it as a motivation and didn't let it fester. That anger could teach me. That my experiences would help my work as a journalist because I could identify with people with whom I had little in common. I refused to let anger find an ugly place to grow deep inside my gut. I refused to let it lie fallow inside of me, waiting for some new idiot to make it grow like a desert weed in a flash flood. I knew that if I let anger take hold of me, every person who rubbed me the wrong way would be paying for the guy back at the photo store in 1977. "Forgive me if I'm offending you . . ."
So I've figured out a strategy of pushing forward. And I think it's a good choice to make. One thing that's certain in this country is that not far around the corner from every ugly thing there's something really beautiful. And if you stop at every bitter comment you will never reach your destination.
My mom and dad initiated this life strategy long before I arrived. They lived their lives in flight. My father, Edward Ephram O'Brien, or "Ted," took off from a rural town called Toowoomba in Queensland, Australia. His family had a mill and wanted him to work there as a chemical engineer. He disliked the strictures of working for the family business, so he took off for the United States instead. He studied at Purdue in Indiana, then at Johns Hopkins near Baltimore.
My mother, Estela Lucrecia Marquetti y Mendieta, began her journey at the age of fourteen. Her family was poor and black and living in Cuba. She wanted to study and escape the sweltering heat, racism, and isolation of pre-Castro Cuba. She connected with the Oblate Sisters, a Roman Catholic order of women of African descent. She went to study with their counterparts in Baltimore, who raised her to adulthood. She was working in a science lab at Johns Hopkins University when she met Dad.
My dad had the build of a rugby player, which he was, and which he still has at seventy-seven. He had a firm, almost mischievous smile and ivory skin. There are old photos of my dad with his rugby T-shirt. Although he's one face among seventy, I can always pick him out by his smile. I think I look like him. His hair thinned young but he was always handsome.
Mom's skin was the color of a coconut shell. Her eyes were wide and bright. Her black hair was shiny and combed back. In those days a press and curl was in vogue and she was very fashionable. She had these full cheeks as a young woman, smiling cheeks. My mother was a natural beauty. My parents looked and spoke like immigrants making their way to a different life. Their accents faded with time but they were always present. The two of them were making their way separately to mass when Dad offered Mom a ride. She said no. My mother is the kind of woman who goes to mass every day. Yet she turns down a ride if it's offered by a man she doesn't know. That pretty much describes her. But my dad just kept asking, and I can imagine him tossing his funny little jokes through the car window, working his charming Australian accent and his easy smile. One day she finally said yes.
Dating for them was something like my experience in school, a game of avoiding issues with race. They traveled from place to place looking for someone willing to serve a young white man on a date with a black woman. It was Baltimore in 1958, so there were many places where eyes would follow them as they came to sit, places where folks would get up and leave or come over and say something offensive. But most places just wouldn't have them at all. It didn't faze them. My mother cooks great Cuban food. She had to bring my dad home when no one would serve them on their first date. She always advised us to learn to cook.
When they decided to get married their church said no. It wasn't legal in Maryland in 1959 for someone black to marry someone white. A lawyer asked them if they were willing to become a test case to challenge the ban on interracial marriage. They declined. They didn't want to be part of a legal case that would stop their forward motion. They drove to Washington, D.C., where it was legal for them to get married, got hitched, and came back to Baltimore.
My mother and father took no small risk when they decided to live outside D.C. back in Maryland. Just a year earlier, Mildred Jeter, a black Virginia woman, and Richard Loving, her white husband, had traveled to Washington, D.C., to get married, just like my parents. They went back to Virginia to live until police stormed into their bedroom one night and arrested them. They became the test case. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ban against interracial marriage in the 1967 case Loving vs. Virginia. By then, my parents had been married for nearly ten years, had moved to Smithtown, Long Island, and were raising six kids.
My mom doesn't like to talk much about that period of her life. "You have to keep going in life, live every day and then the next day and then the next," she likes to say. So she did and we went with her. She got pregnant with my sister Maria within a year of getting married and then had a second daughter, my sister Cecilia, before leaving Baltimore. My oldest brother, Tony, then Estela, and then I were born in Long Island. My youngest brother, Orestes, was born when we went to visit my dad's family in Australia during a sabbatical. "With life, everything has to look forward," Mom says.
Forward to them was Smithtown, one of Long Island's classic suburbs, well-off and white, sitting along the North Shore, part of storybook America. On the surface, Smithtown is the living, breathing embodiment of why immigrants come to this country, the kind of place much of America aspires to become. The schools are good. The town is rich with history. One of the great things about this country is that we get to have a cumulative past. It doesn't matter when or how you come here, the past of this country and its principles belong to you, good and bad. It's what makes America special. It doesn't matter how you look or speak, you get to be an American because you're here. And I'm as much of an American as the eighth-grader or the photo store guy or anyone like them. I adopt their history and there's nothing they can do about it.
There is a large blue-green statue of a bull at a key intersection in Smithtown celebrating the town's founding. I've driven past it a thousand times and more, but I only recently found out he's named Whisper. Legend goes that Whisper belonged to an early settler named Richard Smith, who won land from the Native Americans by betting he could ride on the back of a bull across a piece of land big enough to build a whole town. He did it and today there is a town named for him, and a statue of his bull charges mightily at its center.
The schools are named for those Native American tribes like Nesaquake, my junior high, where I was asked about having thick lips. The Nesaquake were among the tribes who scoured the waters off Long Island looking for clams to eat and to bead together to make wampum. Then Smith and the Dutch came along and the natives all but vanished. But the names of their ancestors have been emblazoned on towns from Montauk to Manhattan. And, of course, they lived on in our public schools, where we learn to memorialize our collective roots. It didn't matter that the O'Briens were late arrivals to this history. My parents chose Smithtown as their outpost in this land of possibilities and opportunities. Smith and the Dutch and the natives that plied the Sound, even Whisper the muscular bull, now belonged to us, too.