In her new book, Soledad O’Brien talks about her struggles with her racial identity growing up, and how Rev. Jesse Jackson once questioned her “blackness.”
Below is an excerpt from her book “The Next Big Story.”
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.