Born on September 19, 1966 in Saint James, NY, Maria de la Soledad Teresa O'Brien is the fifth of sixth children born to Edward and Estrella, immigrants from Australia and Cuba, respectively. She and her siblings excelled academically, and all attended Harvard University. But while her brothers and sisters pursued postgraduate degrees in either medicine or the law, Soledad settled on a career in journalism.
Ms. O'Brien bounced around the television dial for a few years, enjoying stints on The Today Show, NBC Nightly News and at MS-NBC before finally finding a home at CNN where she co-anchored American Morning from 2003 to 2007, often going on location to report such disasters as Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Thailand.
Last year, she anchored Black in America, a groundbreaking, two-part series focusing on the state of black society which was watched by over 13 million viewers. In 2008, she was also a member of CNN's self-professed "Best Political Team on Television" covering the 2008 presidential campaign.
Among Soledad's many accolades are an Emmy, the NAACP's President's Award, the Hispanic Heritage Vision Award, and even the Soledad O'Brien Freedom's Voice Award which was established in her honor by Morehouse College. Furthermore, the fetching freckle-faced (that's right, freckle-faced) mother of four has been named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World by People Magazine and one of the Top 100 Irish Americans' by Irish American Magazine.
Here, the perky, peripatetic journalist took a break from her very hectic schedule to talk about all of the above and about Black in America 2.
Presents: Black in America
Soledad O'Brien - The "CNN Presents: Black in America 2"
Kam Williams (KW): Hi Soledad, I'm honored for the opportunity to speak with you.
Soledad O'Brien (SO): Not at all. How are you?
KW: Fine, thanks. I have a lot of ground to try to cover, because my readers sent in so many questions for me to ask you.
SO: Blast away!
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks what originally interested you in making Black in America?
SO: The first time around, we wanted to take a look at where we were 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, because the Black in America series actually started with a two-hour documentary on his assassination. This time around, we were really trying to answer a question that was put to us many, many times by people who said, 'I loved the documentary, but what are we supposed to do?' So, really, Black in America 2 was an effort to answer the question 'Now what?' by taking a look at what some people are doing very successfully and in ways that can be replicated.
KW: Are you bringing back that rapper introducing each segment with a poem?
SO: He will not be back this time because we're doing something different. Did you like him or not?
KW: I hated him.
SO: Really? That's interesting. I knew the guy personally and was fine with it. But it seems that people either loved or hated it. My mother loved it, my father hated it. My brother loved it, my sister and best friend hated it. And I mean hated. Hated! [Laughs] And they asked, 'What were you trying to say with that?' or 'Why is he rapping?' or 'Why didn't you have classical musicians playing?' I found it funny because it was something that I'd put very little thought into since I was so focused on the documentary itself. I just thought that as a nice, spoken-word poet he'd make an interesting artist to have introducing the segments. Here's what was interesting to me about that, actually. With this entire project, people have a very personal attachment to the story in a way that other communities don't. For instance, my own mother complained to me at the end of the first Black in America, saying 'Oh, so no Afro-Latinos. Why none of your own people?' And I was like, 'Give me a break, mom!' But I get it, everybody wants their story in there and a personal connection to the material.
KW: Speaking of your mother, was she accepted by your father's family when they were married back in the Fifties? After all, she was a black, he was white, and interracial marriages were very rare and still illegal in most Southern states.
SO: I've asked them a lot about that for a book that I'm working on. They both had left their families to come to the United States. My mother's from Cuba and Australians didn't have any particular hostility towards black Cubans. Plus, Australians have very stiff upper lips, meaning, if there were a problem, no one would know. So, my mom says she felt very accepted by my father's family.
KW: Were blacks even allowed to enter Australia at the time they were married?
SO: That's a good question, and I don't know the answer to that. I know that when I asked them why they didn't go back during that period, the answer was that my dad was working on his Ph.D. But they did eventually take the entire family at the first opportunity. In fact, my little brother was born there.
KW: It is very impressive that all six of you attended Harvard. What was your parents' formula for raising geniuses who realized their potential?
SO: It's less about the O'Briens are geniuses who all went to Harvard, and more about the importance of role modeling. I truly believe the reason we went to Harvard was because my sister, Maria, who was a great student, demystified it for the rest of us, and made it feel readily achievable. I didn't see her as a genius, but as my sister who was a very hard worker. I could look at her and think, if she could go to Harvard and do well, I certainly could go there and do well. That has made me realize that you are at a giant disadvantage, if you don't have role models in your life.
KW: Each of your five siblings is either a doctor or a lawyer. Does that make you the black sheep of the family?
SO: [Chuckles] Yeah, I'm the black sheep of the family, although I think they'd love to get on TV.
KW: When I think of you, I think of the Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Thailand. Do you specialize in covering natural disasters?
SO: When I was a morning anchor, a story had to be big for us to do the show on location. And disasters kind of fit that bill, whether it might be the Virginia Tech shooting, Hurricane Katrina or something else. But it was less about disasters than a place from which you could anchor the show for a week. We traveled for many different types of stories. Sadly, the disasters just happen to be the more memorable ones.
KW: How do you feel about the fact that so many ethnic groups are trying to claim you as theirs? I'm on the NAACP Image Award's nominating committee, and we gave you the President's Award. You were also named one of the Top 100 Irish Americans and received the Hispanic Heritage Vision Award.
SO: My dad's brother saw a photo of me receiving the NAACP Award and he said, [impersonating an Australian accent] 'Oh, Solly, you look so Australian!' That was so funny. I think it's great because I'm multi-cultural in a lot of ways. I invest a lot of my personal time and energy in different communities. Also, as a journalist, I think there's a big benefit in being both an insider and an outsider on an assignment. There's value being an insider in terms of compassion and credibility, whether the community you're covering is women, working moms, black people or Latinos. And then, as an outsider, you have the freedom too ask the tough questions with credibility. So, I find myself to be comfortable in many situations which might be uncomfortable for most journalists. I kind of fit in everywhere and yet don't precisely fit in anywhere. And that's a really nice thing for me not only as a journalist, but as a human being.
KW: To what extent do you embrace your Irish heritage? And is it easier because of your last name?
SO: Funny, I never really think about my Irish heritage unless someone brings it up to me. It's the same way when someone asks me if I'm black. I don't have the time to think about it day in and day out. I just see myself as an overworked, crazed mother of four. But then I might meet someone who wants to know where in Ireland my father's family is from.
KW: Like me. Which county were they from?
SO: I have an aunt who has traced our genealogy back to County Cork.
KW: Australia was settled as a penal colony. Were your ancestors criminals?
SO: Sadly, no. Down Under, having a convict in your family tree is the equivalent of coming over on the Mayflower in America. My relatives were just poor people who migrated there during the Potato Famine.
KW: How did it feel to make People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World list? Did you feel any pressure, since most of the women on it are starlets and pop divas?
SO: No, I agree with you. I'm not a starlet, so there was no pressure to live up to anything on that front. The greatest irony is that I was pregnant with my first daughter and threw up the entire time during People Magazine's shoot for that article. I think it was God's way of telling me not to get a big head. But it was certainly a very nice thing for People to pick me.
KW: How did you come to get the Soledad O'Brien Freedom's Voice Award? Is that Lou Gehrig getting Lou Gehrig's Disease?
SO: That's a terrible analogy! I was actually floored. It was such a surprise and an amazing honor for Morehouse's School of Medicine to recognize my body of work and to establish an award in my name, mid-career, and hopefully not end of career, although I have been in the business for 22 years. I ran into Dave Chappelle at the Four Seasons the other day and he asked me how I was doing. When I complained about all the traveling and he said, 'Don't quit! Don't quit!' I can't tell you how many people tell me that.
KW: Dave told you that even though he quit his own show?
SO: That's what I said to him. And he just smiled and said, 'I should know, right?' It's so incredibly helpful when I'm feeling spent from traveling to have someone say your work matters and we need you around.
KW: What's it like raising four your children and being on the road so much?
SO: It's really hard. I've been traveling as much as six days a week for this project. That's impossible to maintain. That's non-viable. So, we won't do that again, because I'm a hands-on mommy. It's really hard on the kids. Even though they understand what I'm doing, someone needs to be there to kind of run the ship at home, which is me. So, we will do things a little bit differently logistically, because I can't work non-stop and then be off for three months. I have to create a more sane schedule. And that should be very doable.
KW: Reverend Florine Thompson wants to know what you think of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court.
SO: I think the fact that you're looking at a Latino nominee is an indication of a demographic shift that's actually been going on for a long time. Despite the hoopla around it, if you study the demographics, it's really no surprise. That being said, her addition to the Court will be historic, although who knows what kind of a justice she'll be. My sister has argued a case before her, and said that she's very thoughtful and runs a tight ship. By all accounts she's bright, smart and hard-working. To me, those things are more important than her being Puerto Rican. But from a history-making perspective, the fact that she's Latino is obviously critical.
KW: Reverend Thompson was also wondering if you think her struggle with type1 diabetes should be taken into consideration.
SO: No, her diabetes shouldn't be an issue at all, period.
KW: Laz Lyles asks, if the election of President Obama makes will Black in America 2 more relevant or less relevant, and what impact the show will have on the country?
SO: I don't think Obama's being President doesn't affect the relevance of the show one way or another. When you examine the breakdown of viewers, the audience is not overwhelmingly black. It's a mix. I didn't create the show for anyone or to have an impact on the country. My job was to tell really good stories in a way which would stick with people.
KW: Do you see a declining significance of color in the Age of Obama?
SO: I talk to teenagers and they'll just sort of roll your eyes when you talk about race, as if they don't get it and as if race doesn't matter. They look at me the same way I looked at my parents when they reminisced about saving up for their first mortgage. It's as if I'm talking about something that's completely irrelevant to their lives.
KW: Are they colorblind?
SO: They're not colorblind, they see the differences, but they don't matter. They just don't see race the same way we see race. And in some ways I think that's good in that race has become completely demystified the way Harvard was for me watching my sister go off to college. So, I have a lot of hope for my kids' generation. My daughter looks black but is as blonde as could be. And so many of the children at my daughter's school are just as diverse-looking.
KW: How do people react to your identifying yourself as black, given your appearance and Spanish and Irish names?
SO: Occasionally, someone will thank me, saying, 'You don't have to admit you're black.' And I'll go, 'Really? Because I often travel with that beautiful black woman with an afro who's my mother. What do I do about her?'
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
SO: That's a really good question' No, but I'm going to have to think about that though.
KW: I'll consider that a compliment coming from the consummate interviewer. The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
SO: I'm rarely afraid physically, because I don't do stories that are dangerous. The only fear I have is of being inaccurate, of making an error or of getting the story wrong. Any journalist worth their salt should be afraid of that.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
SO: God, I'm so happy, and I don't know why, because I literally have not slept in two days. But I'm a nauseatingly-optimistic and naturally-happy human being. I enjoy the company of others and feel very, very blessed. My kids are healthy and hilarious' I have a husband [investment banker Bradley Raymond] who is the most-amazing human being.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good belly laugh?
SO: I have a good laugh all the time. Half of it is so silly it would make no sense to you. I'm here in New Orleans to get an award from McDonalds, and I'm sitting next to my best friend Kim Bondy, my executive producer, who moved back here after Katrina to rebuild her home. And we were just laughing about the fact that I haven't been to sleep for two days. I flew in from California in on the red eye, arrived at 5 in the morning and never went to bed. So, we laughed about the fact that my life is so chaotic and spinning out of control. Still, I have the best job in television news. I'm not bragging and I don't mean to sound arrogant. It is such a luxury to be able to do stories that matter. Every day, literally, strangers come up to me and thank me for the work that I do. To hear people say that is so amazing. It's a great gig!
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
SO: Oh my gosh! I'm in the middle of reading The Soloist by Steve Lopez. It's fantastic! I didn't see the movie. A better question would be, what movie did I see last?
KW: I interviewed Jamie Foxx for the film, but I didn't read the book yet, because I had to review the movie. And whenever I read the book first, I end up hating the movie. The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to nowadays?
SO: Anybody who knows me, knows I love Luther Vandross. That's what I love to listen to. He's my hero. I love him. He was supposed to be on my show, but canceled, just before he died. It was the saddest thing, because after he died I knew I'd never get to meet the person I was so in love with. I also listen to India.Arie and John Legend who I think I scared when I interviewed because I told him, 'I love you so much, you're the greatest!'
KW: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
SO: What an interesting question! I don't know. I'm not a big blamer of things on anything but myself. So, if there have been any failings in what I've done, it's been in my not working hard enough.
KW: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?
SO: You know, you have some really fascinating questions. What I really appreciate is helpful feedback sharing what specifically moved or irked them about a story. I'm a student. I like to learn from what people have to say. And I'll often write back to a fan and get a good correspondence going.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
SO: [Giggles] That's so funny. When I look in the mirror, I'm always surprised that I have this face full of freckles. I'm 43 years-old, but feel the same as when I was 26 and just getting some traction as a reporter. So, I look like a mom, but I don't feel like a mom. I look in the mirror and see a light-skinned black girl with a face full of freckles. And I go, 'Oh my God! I'm middle-aged now! That's crazy!'
KW: How do you feel about the passing of Michael Jackson?
SO: It's interesting to me how many people of all ages and from all walks of life have been telling me how saddened they are by his death. Not many an icon's passing would profoundly affect so many different subsets of people? That's really an indication that he was truly a world pop star.
KW: We also lost Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays and Karl Malden.
SO: It's been so sad, that's a lot of loss in one week.
KW: Marcia Evans said that she found Black in America 1 'painful because it put us in a negative light.' Did you get a lot of feedback like that?
SO: I had some people say that, but I don't think that that's true. My job was to answer the question we had posed, namely, 'Where are we today?' For instance, someone asked me why I had to talk about the black male dropout rate. My response was, why aren't you screaming bloody murder about the low graduate rate? That's insanity! You can't have a successful country with a 29% black male graduation rate. And I was curious about why someone would find my pointing that out would reflect on them personally.
KW: How is Black in America 2 different?
SO: My approach this go-round was to focus on the anatomy of success.
KW: Did you ever make a faux pas on an open microphone like your colleague Kyra Phillips? Do you have a sister-in-law like her who's a real control freak?
SO: [LOL] No, my sister-in-law is fabulous. She's a dermatologist and she recently helped out when my son had a terrible rash. I emailed her a photo from my Blackberry and she diagnosed it for me. I get along great with all my siblings. We are a very tight-knit family, and my parents are alive and happy and well! I haven't made a lot of open mic faux pas, but I am the same person on and off camera. So, you kind of get what you get with me.
KW: Vanessa Goldstein asks, what did you think of ' PBS series African-American Lives?
SO: I loved it. You know, Skip Gates was a professor of mine at Harvard, and I'm a big fan of his, both personally and professionally.
KW: Marcia Evans has a suggestion for Black in America 3. She asks, why don't you cover what black America was robbed of and what America owes blacks?
SO: That's an interesting suggestion. Certainly, the entire structure of economic disparity is built on generations and generations of people whose work went uncompensated. But I don't see us doing that in the near future, because I want to cover current-day stories which are unfolding in front of us.
KW: What is your favorite meal to cook?
SO: [Chuckles] I don't cook. I microwave. My mother will drop off food for us. She makes the best black beans and rice. I can make pasta sauce and tacos, but I really do not enjoy the cooking process, and I don't do it very often.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
SO: My advice would be: stick it out! We're see some great movement in terms of diversity, and a bunch of different voices are beginning to get heard. It's been a battle to get those stories done. I would love to have someone say, 'Soledad, you've done a great job, but you can retire because I've come to take over.' Those words would be music to my ears.
KW: And when you retire, how do you want to be remembered?
SO: As a really good mother who tried to include her children in her work, because she thought her work was important.
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who's at the top of your hero list?
SO: My mom's at the top of that list. She used to say to me when I was younger, 'Don't let anybody tell you you're not black. And don't let anybody tell you you're not Cuban.' And she never cared what other people thought about her. Another thing I inherited from her is the idea that you 'Do what you want to do, and don't worry what other people are going to say about it.' When my parents were getting married in 1958, it was so controversial the ACLU contacted them to see if they wanted to be the couple that would test the ban on interracial marriage. But they were low-key and didn't care about the crazy stuff or the fact that people would yell things at them when they walked down the street together.
KW: Where did they marry?
SO: They were living in Baltimore, and they had to go to Washington, D.C. to get hitched. Another hero of mine is Malaak Compton-Rock [Chris Rock's wife] whose charity work is highlighted in Black in America 2.
KW: Well, thanks again, Soledad, and best of luck with Black in America 2
SO: My pleasure.
KW: If you're inclined, maybe we can chat again after it airs, and I can come armed with a set of questions based on my readers' reactions to the series.
SO: Absolutely! I'd love that. Perfect!
Soledad's Follow-Up Report about
the Haitian Relief Effort
Soledad's Eyewitness Report on the Haitian Relief
Black In America 1 - Over-Hyped CNN
Special Fails to Measure-Up to the Buzz