Q&A with journalist Soledad O’Brien
The Towerlight sat down with Soledad O’Brien, American broadcast journalist and documentarian, about her upcoming “Black in America Tour,” which will stop at Towson Feb. 19. The tour will include a panel discussion about race and is based on O’Brien’s series of CNN documentaries of the same name.
The “Black in America Tour” encourages communities to “Be a Part of the Conversation.” What conversation is this?
I think the conversation is already happening. If you look at conversations about race, class and opportunity and lack of opportunity, those are happening all the time on Twitter and social media. A great example would be the Super Bowl. Coca-Cola runs an ad where people are singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages. And it sets off a complete storm about, the ultimate question – what is America? Is it great and honoring America to do that or is it disrespectful to America to do that? People are taking these very polarized positions. That to me is great fodder for a conversation about who we are and what we believe. There are some people in that conversation for example who talk about, ‘How dare Coca-Cola desecrate the national anthem?’ with people who are not singing in English, which of course, “America the Beautiful” is not our national anthem. And so I think these conversations deserve information and understanding and moderating and I think we can do the same thing. We can have conversations and explore what we believe as Americans. What do we hold true? What do we want to be in five years, in 20 years, in 50 years? What does America stand for and represent? I think that’s always a really fascinating conversation for the “Black in America Tour,” we talk about a lot of issues that we really researched and reported in our Black in America documentaries over the last seven years, but really even issues that we see existing today. Trayvon Martin’s aftermath of the trial, Richard Sherman and what he said in his game-winning play that brought the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. All these are conversations about race and they’re happening around us every day and we wanted to bring that conversation to a wide audience where people feel like they can be heard and participate and contribute.
Why is it important to have this conversation on college campuses?
I think college students are really in a great time in their lives to try and figure it out. They’re not necessarily set. They’re open to discussion. And I don’t think there’s a right answer and I don’t think that there’s one right answer to come to at the end of the night. I think it’s about hearing other people’s perspectives and understanding where other people are coming from. That’s ultimately the goal. I’ve talked to a lot of college students and I’ve always liked that age group because they are very open to talking about what they believe and their experiences and also to listening to other people talk about their experiences.
How can we as a campus overcome the division that has plagued us in the past?
A lot of what I read was that you’re in the process of overcoming it. Because overcoming it is not solving it. Overcoming it is talking about it. I mean I actually thought the kid who wanted to start the White Student Union, which he is certainly not the first, that story’s been around a lot on different campuses. So I think that what they were really saying was, ‘I want to understand why some of these groups are available to people of color and not available to white people.’ So that’s a really interesting conversation, that’s a conversation that requires you to understand the history of race and opportunity in this country. So when I hear about that I don’t think ‘oh my gosh, this is terrible.’ I think, ‘this is great.’ This is an opportunity for a conversation. He’s just raising it in a format that is probably somewhat unpleasant to people. I think it’s about discussing who is getting what. And the affirmative action conversation is about that. We used to have a joke when I was first starting in TV News, I was named the minority trainer writer and I said to the producer who was in charge of me, ‘what is this position called for someone who is white?’ He said, ‘it’s called weekend producer.’ And so in some ways, what students didn’t understand was that the majority culture already has a white student union, that exists. But I think ultimately those things are great for conversation. All people, regardless of what side they were on in that issue want to be part of that discussion, I think that’s really critical that their point can be heard.
What do you want Towson students to take away from the “Black in America Tour?”
I think ultimately it’s about understanding that race plays a huge role in this country, in the roots of where we came from and even today and even in light of having a black president and that the only way to move forward when you’re talking about things that are sometimes uncomfortable, like race, is to have that conversation, to be brave enough to walk through that conversation. Because that’s really the only way to move forward. You don’t have to agree with somebody else’s perspective, but I think there’s a lot of value in just hearing it.
–Compiled by Daryllee Hale