Long Island native and award-winning journalist, Soledad O’Brien, brought her Black In America Tour to Stony Brook University on Tuesday night. She opened up a conversation about racism, social inequality, and injustice, to a community not far from where she grew up in St. James, New York.
Black In America is a documentary series on CNN that covers various issues in the black community. It features expert opinions as well as the stories and experiences of regular people living in the U.S.
“Seven years ago when we launched the Black In America series, I was hoping to show that the lives of African Americans are much more complex than statistics or stereotypes might have you believe,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien’s own experience of growing up in a multiracial family on Long Island in the 70’s inspired her to educate the public on the larger social, economic and political contexts of the black community within the national community.
In the video below O’Brien discusses how her parents struggled to buy a house on Long Island because of the lack of diversity that existed.
O’Brien said that when she was eleven, and her sister, fourteen, they stopped at a local store together to get their photographs taken. She was too young to fully realize that being a half black child in Suffolk County at the time was different. That ended when a worker at the store approached and asked, “I don’t want to offend you, but are you black?”
“That defined my experience in Suffolk county,” O’Brien said. “It was going great until it’s not.”
She said that Long Island was a beautiful place for her to grow up, except for those few moments she cannot forget. Her goal is that in the next 20 years that no kid feels like Long Island cannot be their home.
Shari Plummer, an NAACP E-board member and Senior English and Secondary Education major from East New York, had a similar experience at Stony Brook that made her realize she wasn’t in Brooklyn anymore. “My freshman year I was rooming with this girl and everything was going great until she said, ‘oh you know how some black girls are pretty, and others aren’t so pretty? You’re a pretty one,’ she said. “I was like ‘what does the mean?’ aren’t there pretty and not pretty people of every color?” It was then she knew that some people weren’t even afraid to say things to your face. Plummer said that Soledad O’Brien validates the point that the black community still faces inequality and prejudice today.
The Black in America Tour focused on the latest documentary of the series, titled, Black & Blue. Black & Blue addresses police brutality and how the environment it creates has an effect on the people in the community, collectively and individually. The panel at the event included Joan Morgan, a prominent feminist author and journalist, Etan Thomas, a former NBA player and community advocate, and Luis Paulino, a victim of police brutality. Each had a different outlook on the black experience.
Joan Morgan talked about having “the conversation,” with her sixteen year old son, the conversation meaning how to deal with the police as a young black person. “It’s always important to keep race in the forefront,” she said. “peoples stories and personal experiences create their perspective about race.”
Savonne Crews, the Resident Hall Director of Mount College, agreed that one’s views and perspectives on race are shaped by personal experiences. She has been following the series since its beginning in 2008.
“If you’re from a small town with little diversity, the ignorance that you may have may be innocent,” she said. “It’s good to see her out on college campuses. It’s perfect timing.”
The perfect timing is the prevalence of police brutality in mainstream and social media today. With cases like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, these issues are out in the open for everyone with a television or smartphone to see.
Panelist, Luis Paulino, told the audience about how fitting the description of a young black man wanted by the police got him beaten by five police officers in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Now the former college athlete has severe damage to his shoulders. He described how the over policing of young black men can not only be physically abusive but also mentally exhausting. You don’t have to be a criminal to feel like one.
Etan Thomas explained how being educated and being a former professional athlete means nothing when the police are staring at “a big black man in dreadlocks possibly could have been involved in something.”
Race is a highly sensitive topic for most people. There is the fear of offending someone, the fear of being too honest, the fear of not being politically correct enough.
Claire Portevien, a senior from Oakdale, and of Haitian decent, spoke to me very carefully about her feelings on being black in America. “It’s something that’s very complicated,” she said. She spoke to me in lobby of the Staller Center and told me of her reality. While saying certain words like black, slave, and color, she quieted her voice not to bring attention to our conversation. She acknowledged a negative stigma still exists and although we have a black president there is work to be done.”Don’t get me wrong, black is beautiful,” she said smiling. She made me realize that although her skin color is black, when we look at it big picture, she is actually Haitian. Soledad O’Brien is the reason we opened up to each other about our backgrounds.
Through her reporting and journalistic events like the Black in America Tour O’Brien connects different people. Without her having come to Stony Brook, so many stories would not have been shared that night. She opened conversations at Stony Brook just like she had planned.