Soledad O’Brien remembers walking out of her high school one day with her mother, when an administrator stopped an African American teenager in the hallway. “Now there were no black kids in this school. I went to a very nondiverse school, so clearly he didn’t belong.”
O’Brien’s mother, a teacher at the school, paused to watch the confrontation. When the dean and principal came along, they—her bosses—told her to move along. She remained.
“It just was unclear what was going to happen,” O’Brien recalled. “And I just remember my mom, weirdly, in that hallway in that moment, became the most powerful person in the group. She just wouldn’t go; she would not be shushed along, or moved along. And I remember her looking at this kid like, ‘Whatever happens, I’m here to be a witness for you, I’m here to stand here for you.’”
The administrators, apparently cowed, simply told the black teen to not run in the halls. O’Brien and her mother left.
“It was a really important message for me,” O’Brien said. “I really took it as what my value could be as a reporter, that just witnessing and reporting on things that I had seen would have a lot of impact and could have a lot of strength and power.”
O’Brien shared this story November 4 during her powerful, and, at times, humorous speech about her identity, culture, and award-winning journalism career for the University Housing Services’ Latino Cultural Dinner. The event, the second Cultural Dinner of the fall semester, was held in the Bone Student Center’s Brown Ballroom. About 450 attendees enjoyed a meal featuring empanadas, fried plantains, and tres leches, and the music of folk group Trio Lucero before O’Brien’s headlining appearance.
The event was co-sponsored by Event Management, Dining and Hospitality; the Association of Residence Halls; the Hewett-Manchester Diversity Coalition and Student Association; the Cardinal Court Council; and the Latin American and Latino/a Studies Program.
O’Brien spoke for 40 minutes and answered questions from the audience for another half hour. She connected her family life to her career, which besides long runs with NBC and CNN, now includes philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and hosting the nationally syndicated talk show Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien.
O’Brien grew up the daughter of a white Australian father and an Afro-Cuban mother in a previously whites-only neighborhood in Long Island, New York. Her parents met in Baltimore, and faced discrimination before and after they were married. Restaurants refused to serve the interracial couple, and O’Brien’s mother was barred from buying property because she was black.
“My parents, in a lot of ways, really helped me think about all the stories that were not being covered by the media, that there were all these stories about community that didn’t really represent what we knew about community,” O’Brien said. “They didn’t feel like they rang true to me, that they were very stereotypical sometimes. And so I remember thinking, ‘Maybe there are stories we can add to what’s happening so people have a greater understanding of all kinds of community.’”
While O’Brien has a long list of achievements from which to choose, she sprinkled her speech with stories of failure, including a disastrous start to her TV reporting career at a San Francisco station. She had been sent out to do her first live shot, at a bar covering fans watching a San Francisco Giants playoff game. As she went on the air, one of the drunken patrons pinched her bottom, leaving her speechless and leading the station to cutaway.
Once back in the office, her boss suggested she consider a smaller market. She didn’t quit, however, and eventually had success, though now she is unhappy with some of her reporting from those early years.
“I failed to do good reporting,” she said. “I failed to do what the job of the reporter is, which is to serve the community, to tell those stories that need elevating and untangling and explaining.
“I think the first time I started figuring it out was when we started reporting on Hurricane Katrina when the word service, and serving people, and helping people understand became what my mission would be.”
Soledad became a champion of diversity, giving voice to the underserved and disenfranchised through her documentary series Black in America and Latino in America. Through her reporting, she also visited her mother’s native country. She concluded her speech by talking about her trips to Cuba, including moderating panels for President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during their historic visit in 2016.
“I had grown up rootless, and disconnected from my larger family, and unable to see firsthand when my mom would tell stories, what she was even talking about. And I felt like I can start piecing together these stories about identity and who I am. What does it mean to be a Cuban when you don’t really know Cubans, when you don’t have an opportunity to go to Cuba? I had a chance now to really figure out my own identity.”
The Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner is scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday, January 24, in the Brown Ballroom. Check the websites of the Office of the President Speaker Series and University Housing Services in the coming weeks for the speaker announcement and ticket information.