The O'Briens in 1967. Back: Edward, Orestes, Soledad, and Estela. Front: Cecelia, Maria, Tony and Estela
The racial slurs she heard as a child fueled journalist Soledad O'Brien's drive to succeed. Here's an excerpt adapted from her new book,The Next Big Story.
I'm 11. My sister Estela is 14. We're at a photo studio in Smithtown, N.Y., not that far from where we live. The photographer says, "Forgive me if I'm offending you, but are you black?" I turn the comment over in my head. I'm trying to figure out why these nice-sounding words make me feel small and embarrassed. Estela, light years ahead of me, starts to shred the guy. "Offend us? Offend us? By asking if we are black?" 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.
Forgive me if I'm offending you… What is that supposed to mean? 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. 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. But Estela is totally on it. She 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. I was a middle-class girl in a middle-class Long Island suburb, but my life became like those games of dodge ball in the schoolyard. 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 science. An older kid, an eighth-grader, came up to me. "If you're a [n-word], why don't you have big lips?" he asked. It killed me that I could feel myself trying to formulate an answer, as if the question merited one. There was no hostility in his voice. He wasn't much bigger than me; he wasn't even scary. Today, almost 33 years later, I could pick him out of a lineup. That day, I just pursed my mouth and kept moving. I wouldn't dignify him with a response. I had to get to class.
I've been a journalist now for over 20 years. I sprint from story to story. I am a big version of that little girl in Smithtown, except now I'm walking toward something rather than away from it. In interviews, I force people to consider every word they say. I dig in to the awkward question. I revel in making people rethink their words. Nothing stops me. It's not that I'm propelled by unfounded optimism. I just see life as a series of victories, of wins.
I graduated with honors from a school where being half black and half white meant that I was the brunt of bad jokes. I went to Harvard, just like my sister Estela -- like all six of us siblings, in fact. I am by all objective measures a successful journalist. I've gone on to marry a great guy, have four healthy kids, anchor a network TV show, write books, give speeches, and produce award-winning documentaries about challenging subjects like race.
That eighth-grader didn't hinder my forward motion one bit. Whatever became of him, he was wrong about me. Whatever assumptions he made about me, I refuted them by succeeding. Encounters like that changed me for the better. I learned that I didn't need to stop and confront every injustice thrown my way. That anger could teach me. That my experiences could help me identify with people with whom I had little in common.
I knew that if I let anger take hold of me, every person who rubbed me the wrong way would be paying for that guy back at the photo studio in 1977. Forgive me if I'm offending you… I think life harbors the possibility that we can push forward and come out better on the other end. In this country, one thing that’s certain 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.
Friday, October 22, 2010