When it comes to understanding black identity, acclaimed journalist and news anchor Soledad O'Brien doesn't claim to have answers. But what she does have are opinions and questions. Her mixed-race background (her mother is Afro-Cuban and her father is Irish-Australian) provides her with a perspective that's as open as it is real, and she's not afraid to address the issue of race in America; this is shown by CNN documentary series' like Black in America and Latino in America, the latter of which had a portion shot in Charlotte.
O'Brien, founder and CEO of Starfish Media Group and former anchor for both CNN and NBC News, revisits Charlotte on Feb. 18 for the Black in America Town Hall Tour at Knight Theater. The event — sponsored by PNC Bank as part of a 15-city program with various guest speakers and events planned around Black History Month — will feature a multimedia presentation which looks at O'Brien's Black in America series and issues of race, class, wealth, poverty and opportunity within the black community. There will also be a panel discussion with active members of the community, a Q&A with audience participation and a book signing for O'Brien's 2010 memoir, The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities.
"I'll feel like we've been successful if we end up really spurring a great conversation where people feel free," says O'Brien. "They don't have to agree; the goal is not to come to some sort of understanding about race in America today, I think that would be impossible. I think the goal is to have people feel that they are heard and that they are a part of a discussion and conversation that we've seen frankly happen online a lot. If you look just in the last couple of weeks, a great example would be the Richard Sherman conversation and the 'thug' word. That's really a conversation about how African-American men are perceived in society today and there's tons of research around that. My goal is to present some of the research, talk about some of the stories that we've worked on since 2008 when we launched the Black in America series and have people weigh in."
Often criticized as being a spokesperson for the black community without due warrant, O'Brien has learned to challenge the accusations with the one thing she does best: asking questions.
"When someone says 'Well, you're not really black," I find that fascinating. What does that mean to be really black? Who counts as black and African-American and what does it mean that we try to draw these lines very definitively?"
Growing up in a mostly white community along the north shore of Long Island, O'Brien believes her childhood experiences as an outsider play a role in shaping her journalistic view of the subject of race.
"I think there's a real value as a journalist in being an outsider because I think it allows you to question and push people aggressively and more freely and you don't feel like you're necessarily belonging in one category," she says. "I don't know that I felt that way as a kid, but certainly as I've gotten older, I feel that it was a plus to come from things from a different position so that you could both understand the issues but also be outside of the issues, so you could really authentically push and question people and try to get to the core of a story, which is really the job of a journalist."