For the time being, I’ll take this one on face value, instead of a more cynical suspicion that CNN is promoting an agenda…
To Soledad O’Brien, it’s always black history month.
“It’s every day, sure, sure,” said O’Brien, the CNN reporter who’ll help University of the Pacific start its official Black History Month events by speaking and answering questions tonight at Faye Spanos Concert Hall.
“One gets to talk about black history, and when you talk about Black History Month now people want to know what’s happening in Haiti, too. It reminds me about our history.”
O’Brien, who recently returned from covering Haiti’s earthquake tragedy for CNN, also spent a year producing a 2009 documentary — “CNN Presents: Black in America” — that resonates appropriately with “Our Story,” the theme of Pacific’s 12th Black History Month program.
“I really sort of think about Black History Month as a living, breathing element,” said O’Brien, 43, in a phone interview from her CNN office in New York on Tuesday. “Lots of stories continue to revolve around people of color. The country’s minorities now will be a majority no sooner than 2050.”
“We identified her a couple of years ago as one of the best storytellers of the black experience in America,” said Marcus Perrot, 48, chairman of Pacific’s Black History Month Committee. “Particularly when we heard she was covering (President Barack) Obama’s election campaign, we knew she would bring a very rich perspective and variety of experiences.”
The second half of O’Brien’s 2009 CNN documentary will be shown Thursday night at the Pacific Theatre.
“It’s very well done,” said Perrot, Pacific’s assistant vice president for budget and risk management who’s headed the Black History Month committee for five years. “It’s on point. But, again, it’s a matter of perspective. Everybody has different views.”
“It’s a really exciting series,” said Kerry Robinson, 20, a Pacific sophomore from Sacramento who’s an economics/anthropology major and member of the 15-student Black History Month committee. “It covers stuff you don’t usually get to talk about and see. It’s usually stuff people keep to themselves. You see their lives and struggles and appreciate them.”
Robinson, who watched the documentary’s first half last Thursday at Pacific, said it portrays success stories that contrast with “the plight of blacks.”
The Rancho Cordova High School graduate said people are all too familiar with “stereotypes” of “black hoodlums who are gonna have a ton of babies. But you don’t get to see the doctors and lawyers.”
Robinson aspires to a career such as O’Brien’s.
“It’s really nice to see someone that’s so inspiring,” she said. “Because I’m female and a person of color who’s an econ major, I like her job — maybe not directly in that field — but I have an ambition to be in news.”
Born María de la Soledad (“solitude”) Teresa O’Brien in St. James, N.Y. — one of six siblings of an Afro-Cuban mother and Australian-Irish-Scottish father — O’Brien is a Ratcliffe College and Harvard University graduate.
Married since 1995 and a mother of four, she began her career at WBZ-TV in Boston and was a reporter and bureau chief for three years at San Francisco’s KRON-TV (1993-96) before moving on to NBC News.
“Oh, my god, it was my first reporting job,” said O’Brien, who had initial difficulty adjusting as an East Coast outsider. “It was great. A wonderful opportunity. I was in a little over my head as a reporter, but it was a great place to learn. It was my first and probably most critical job from a reporting standpoint. It was very important.
“NBC was farming me out there to let me grow in a way I wanted to. For everyone, it was win, win, win. The people around me were great teachers.”
She moved on as a New York-based producer for NBC’s the “Today” show and “Nightly News,” she began anchoring “Weekend Today” in 1999.
After working on MSNBC’s “The Site” and that network’s weekend morning show, she co-hosted CNN’s “American Morning” from 2003-07, covering major international stories and events — including the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Israeli-Hezbollah strife in 2007. She now is part of the cable network’s special investigations department.
She’ll return to Haiti in February to complete a documentary for her CNN “unit.
“It’s just overwhelmingly challenging,” O’Brien of the ongoing crisis centered in Port au Prince. “Some people would send me e-mail asking, ‘Is it true Doctors Without Borders can’t get in?’ ‘Is it true other doctors and medical supplies can’t get in?’ It’s true, yes. It’s all true. There were so many emergencies and not enough resources, food, doctors.
“There were individuals bringing in bags of rice. It improved as time passed. But the early days were so difficult. It’s depressing, yet great, to see so many people working so hard. It’s amazing.”
Her “Black in America” — she’d done special reporting on Latinos in 2007 and her annual February and October speaking tours focus on blacks and Latinos — was designed to examine black progress and race relations 40 years after civil right’s pioneer Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Her ongoing documentaries (she also did one on Jonestown) “dont have to be about racial minorities but about people who don’t get a fair opportunity.