CNN Correspondent Joins the Moms

Award-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien talks about her latest contribution to CNN's "Black in America" series. O'Brien joins regular Mocha Moms Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro and Dannette Tucker to talk about the report and its representation of the contemporary black experience.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, a special report on the state of black America. 40 years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., CNN correspondent Soledad O'Brien digs into the special challenges African-American women and families face in building strong and functional families. It's just one of the installments of CNN's "Black in America" series airing this week.

Soledad O'Brien is our guest for this week's Mocha Moms. We're joined by our regular Mocha Moms Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, and Dannette Tucker. Ladies, moms, welcome to the program.

Ms. SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (Journalist, CNN): Hi, Michel.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha Mom): Hi, Michel.

Ms. CHELI ENGLISH-FIGARO (Mocha Mom): Hi, Michel.

Ms. DANNETTE TUCKER (Mocha Mom): Hi, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Soledad, start us off. Why this topic? Why now?

Ms. O'BRIEN: I think we were really looking toward the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and a couple years ago, there was a conversation about doing a real story about black people in this country, but how would you do that? And then looking forward to this date because it takes us a solid, you know, 18 months to shoot something.

And so we did the first part, which was a look at the assassination itself, all the roads leading to that moment in time, and then we decided to have the second and third part be a look at black people in America since that time, those 40 years that have elapsed. Where are we? What opportunities, what obstacles do black people face? So that was really the source of the idea.

But then at the same time, Barack Obama's candidacy took root. He started and then had legs. And so at the same time, there was this conversation going on about race, and so the timing has been quite remarkable for us because it's a conversation that's happening even though our documentary in and of itself doesn't focus really on Barack Obama. He's just one story in all the stories of black America.

MARTIN: And as I - I think I mentioned, you focus on men, you focus on the women and family, we want to hone in on the women and family segment. What are some of the themes that we will see in the piece on black women and family?

Ms. O'BRIEN: One of the things we really wanted to do in the family was to show all the range of black people, people who are sending their kids off to school, people who've left poverty, people who are in poverty, people who've had drug problems, people who've overcome them, moms, single moms, intact families, families that are trying to stay intact. There's this huge diversity in black America that you do not see in mainstream media.

It was fascinating to me to watch the Rands. You have this 300-person big family reunion every year, and the first time I saw the Rand kids all playing, and I thought, they're 14, 15-year-olds, and I thought, wow, you never see those kids on TV. You see them as little junior gangbangers. You see them in cuffs, but you never see the kids who the Rands are, just hanging out with their cousins. And it made you realize there's this thing that you send out in mainstream media that's a portrait of black America that is, you know, that it does not fully represent all that we are.

Ms. IVEY: For me, I - and this is Jolene speaking, it was really interesting to see, but at the same time, it just made me think, well, this is just normal life. I mean, why would they have this on television? So it's nice that they did this, but on the other hand, this is clearly not meant for black people to watch. We're not learning anything. This is more for white people who are some place, who don't have normal interaction with black people.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Right and this is Cheli talking...

MARTIN: Go ahead, wait, Soledad, what about that?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Well, you know, I don't think that's really true because in a lot of the screenings that we've had, where people have had a chance to see a lot of the documentary, I think they do learn something. Yeah. It's certainly - for certain statistics, there's no question. You think - I remember people saying to me, do you know one in three black men are in prison? And I would say yes, I do. Yes, I'm aware of that, so that's not news to me.

But what I wanted to explore was sort of the spaces in between those statistics because for me, as a storyteller, statistics are kind of dull. What you want is a story, a rich story, of how someone ended up where they are. So I actually think that a lot of the people I've spoken to, black and white, but mostly black, who have come to our screenings feel like they learned a lot about the whys and the wherefores in our community well beyond the statistics.

MARTIN: Cheli?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I was going to say that I felt that a lot of white people are tired of hearing black people complain and bellyache about how hard it is. And I feel, as I watched it, I said to myself, this is so people can understand a little bit better, but the truth is no one really quite understands what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes.

And so if someone said to me, what is like to be black in America? I'd say to myself, I don't really know. I mean, I can't take off my black skin. I've always been black, but I think being black in America is sort of like having a radio and having static constantly.

And what I mean by that is, for instance, when I go to certain boutiques and certain very very high-end retail in white neighborhoods - of course, high-end retail doesn't exist in black neighborhoods, but OK. I know that I'm going to be profiled. I'm going to be watched because my black skin signals to the security that they need to put a plain clothes security person on me, and so what does that mean? It means that if I need to fish through my pocket-book for some lipstick, I'm going to take three steps and go to the isle and fish through, pull out my lipstick, do what I need to do, throw it back in, and then walk back three steps to the scarves or wherever I was, so they know.

Because I know someone is watching me. I know it. That's what they do, and I know it. So it colors my experience, and unless you know that, unless you can walk in my shoes, you don't quite understand. Being black in America is like having a radio with static.

Ms. O'BRIEN: And what was interesting to me was to explore - you know, I keep describing them, maybe not well, but as spaces - those spaces of, not just the statistics would say X number of black women are profiled, that's the statistic. But what I want to know is what does it do to you?

We heard families talk about how they had that conversation with their sons, about how to behave when they are pulled over by the police, whether you've done something or not. Here's how you behave, and the story's exactly the same, whether you're rich, or you're middle class or you're working class, or you are poor, almost verbatim, the story is the same.

Around the age of 12, 13. I told my son, do not engage the police. You be respectful. You keep your hands on the wheels. Don't make any sudden movements, etcetera. And almost everybody had the same story. And one Ivy League professor said to me, I told my sons, you cower because I want you to survive.

And a white friend said to me, well, white people have those conversations too about respecting authority. I said, oh no, no, that wasn't a conversation about respecting authority. You're not listening. That's a conversation about how to not get killed, and that, to me, is the space to explore, of what's it like to be a 13-year-old boy growing up with your parents giving you that advice. That, to me, is startling.

MARTIN: I'm going to play a short clip from the documentary. It's an interview with Ira Johnson (ph). She's a single mom raising five teenagers. Let's play it.

Ms. IRA JOHNSON (Single Mom): I push myself more now than I ever have. There are times that, especially the summer time, I didn't come home until like eight o'clock at night sometimes.

MARTIN: Dannette, I wanted to ask you, as a single mom yourself, did this resonate with you?

Ms. TUCKER: It resonated what she said. Shat has not resonated is the way that they are trying to portray it on CNN. Soledad, I loved your interview. I'm Dannette. I'm a single black mom with two kids. I live in the Southeast.

Ms. O'BRIEN: How do you mean by the way it was portrayed?

Ms. TUCKER: Because it's not the - you just said something, actually. You said about, you know, explaining to a 13-year-old how to survive. I have to do that every day with my 15-year-old. When the bullets fly, you don't run. You drop. You wait. You move. That's what we face every day.

When you put that on T.V., I kind of feel like I'm on display sometimes, when it's not a display I'm talking about, it's all about survival. This is not something for prime-time. This is every day life for us.

MARTIN: Do you feel, Dannette, it's like airing dirty laundry, or you feel like you're being objectified, like making like, oh right, look at that.

Ms. TUCKER: Sometimes I feel like a zoo exhibit. Oh, look at the little black people over there trying to survive. I've got to worry about my 15-year-old getting shot. A 15- year-old got shot on my corner yesterday.

MARTIN: This is not an idle conversation. In fact, as we are speaking, a 13-year-old was just killed in the district within the last couple of days. There's big sort of spate of that. So Soledad, what about that? And you've been just showing the film in some community forum. So are other people feeling that way? We don't really - do we really need to see more of this?

Ms. O'BRIEN: I think what you do when people agree to be in a documentary is you - they know you're going to stick it out with them and live their life with them for a little bit. And they feel that they have an important story to share because I think that there are people, everyone who we spent time with, who really just allowed us to be part of their lives and didn't feel like that they were an animal at the zoo on display, but felt like, listen, I have a story to tell that doesn't get out a lot.

MARTIN: Are you worried, Dannette, that people will judge rather than try to understand?

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, and no disrespect to Soledad because that's what they do. That's what they do. I mean she understands Ira a lot better because she walked with Ira for a while, in her shoes, with her, you know, next to her. The people that are watching us aren't doing that. All they're seeing is something to be - they're being entertained. I'm no different than you. I want the same thing you want. It's just that this is where I live.

Ms. O'BRIEN: I mean, I guess when I - part of our idea on the documentary was exactly that, which is there's a big diversity in black America, and everybody's the same. You know, under it all, we're all really the same. Look at this particular mom or this particular young man,or this particular successful black executive or this particular family with six kids who they're shipping off to college. At the end of the day, we're all kind of the same.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit with the Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, and Dannette Tucker and our special guest mom is CNN's Soledad O'Brien. She's with us talking about her documentary series, "Black in America."

The documentary also talks about the importance of education for kids of color. We have this clip on keeping kids interested in school. Here's Ronald Fryer. He's an economics professor at Harvard.

Dr. RONALD FRYER (Economics Professor, Harvard University): Education for me is the fundamental civil right. It's it. It's the ball game.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Are you going to visit? Professor Fryer thinks he's come up with a possible solution. He takes us to PS399 in Brooklyn to visit some of the students he's paying to learn.

Unidentified Woman: Say hello to Dr. Fryer everyone.

Unidentified Children: Yeah.

Ms. O'BRIEN: You heard right. He's paying kids to learn.

Dr. FRYER: How are you?

Unidentified Children: Fine.

Dr. FRYER: The fact is that these kids understand money already at fourth grade, and they really - but they don't understand how education is going to help them get that, and so this program makes that connection very explicit.

MARTIN: Soledad, how did you come upon this project, and how did you - why did you decide to include this particular sequence?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Education is just such a critical thing because it is one of the concentric circles in our experience that, you know, when you're talking about poverty, and you're talking about income gap, and you're talking about achievement gap, all those things at some point involve education. So, we knew education was definitely going to be a part of this documentary in a big way. Ronald Fryer, I read about him in "Freakonomics" he was profiled and I thought wow this is an interesting guy. He grew up in inter-city, poor, you know had a gun in his car, sold drugs and he went on to become the youngest black tenured professor at Harvard. He was 30 when he got tenure at Harvard and he has dedicated his life as short as it is so far, to literally, to trying to figure out how you motivate kids to learn. In all the research he does as an economist, I mean think about it black economist on Wall Street could make a jillion dollars and he does this, you know working with the school system in New York City.

So, I thought his story, personally was really fascinating and then his work, which we talked a lot about was fascinating. And what you discover is that - I don't think he's killing the love of learning in these kids. I think that he's motivating them in a way that middle-class kids are motivated.

MARTIN: OK. Dannette, you got a question?

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, I do have a question. I watched most of it, I liked what I saw, but you didn't go back to our history of why we are black and now I'm bringing this up because my son has been asking me this question. Well, Ma we're not from Africa. True, it doesn't seem like Africa wants us and you know, how we got over here so where do we come from? So, I'm trying to explain to him, you know why you're black. You know - and I realized that we became a race of people out of something bad, you know and here we are we're black people. So, I noticed that him and the kids his age really want to know where we come from. You know, how did we get to be this way? and I'm bringing that up, because you said earlier, you - something about you know where we come from, but I haven't seen that.

MARTIN: Poor Soledad she shot 300 hours of tape and now Dannette wants to know what's not in it. Go ahead.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Not a problem at all.

Ms. TUCKER: I'm sorry I just want to know.

Ms. O'BRIEN: No, I hear you and I think that that's a great point, one thing that - first of all we couldn't get everything in it, but I think you make a couple of really good points. The first is where you come from, I mean I remember Chris Rock, I think he was talking to Oprah and he - when they discovered who you know...

MARTIN: Henry Lewis Gates.

Ms. O'BRIEN: He had a...

MARTIN: Henry Lewis Gates.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Yeah, in that project right, but I think he was actually on the couch with Oprah at one point and he was saying, when he discovered who his great-great-great-great grandfather was and he had been a slave, but then he went on to be a law-maker and a land-owner, and a business man. He said wow, you know if I had known all that I would have tried harder, if I had know where I come from that would have made a difference to me. And I think you're exactly right, I think you hit that one the head for kids who feel like they're not really connected to any history and so I completely agree with that. And that was one of the topics that we actually thought about doing, that we ended up really not being able to do. And you talk about Africa too, when we interviewed and it's in web stuff that we've done.

Africans and African-Americans, the Africans who will tell me, African-Americans think I act white. I mean it was stunning to me that the - clearly that's a whole other documentary, because there is an area of conflict right there, but at the end of the day, I think we do touch on a little bit of that. I mean the very first group we talk about the Rands you know, they go back to their shared history and the cousins, they finally have these white cousins and they're trying to figure out, you know do I want to meet them or not. Do we want to know each other or not and is it going to be uncomfortable or is it going to be OK. So, we do touch on it a little bit, but again our focus was sort of the 40 years and we kept coming back to that.

MARTIN: Sure.

Ms. O'BRIEN: So, there's some gaps, no question that we just did not get to.

MARTIN: Well, good now we know what to look for next year. OK. Jolene any thoughts from you?

Ms. IVEY: When I think about my history, it is just so varied, I just have to laugh at it, because you know, I got my black family that's pretty well educated, very middle class, smart people and my white family, well you know, we got the half of the white people were slave owners and the other half were Nazis. So, I mean, what do I have to look at like with that?

MARTIN: What do you mean, what do you mean they were Nazis.

Ms. IVEY: They were Nazis, the Germans.

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. IVEY: They were Germans, my mother's family is German and the ones who came here first were slave owners and the ones who came last were Nazis. I mean, I'm going to be proud of that? I can't say I really care, I think it's kind of humorous in a way, but I don't look at that and say, oh that's what I came from, that's where I have to go, to heck with that. I am who I am now.

MARTIN: That raises my final question for you Soledad, which is we've been talking about all the things that you have to leave out, when you're - even as much time as you had to do a documentary like this.

Ms O'BRIEN: Yeah, I thought four hours would be a lot and now I'm like I need 10 hours, I need 10 hours.

MARTIN: Now, I need more time. What would be the next film that you would love to do?

Ms. O'BRIEN: You know I think that what's always intrigued me is - and I know some journalists run away from motherhood, but I love being a mom and I'd love to explore that more. I think the conflict inherent in that, in being a working mother is really interesting. I mean, you know we've all talked about how hard - and you know you're doing it as a single parent, it's 50 times difficult, but it's just that whole connection to children has just been such a fascinating topic for me. So, I would like to explore that more, you know. And then there are a million things, we go to South Africa next month to go with some kids from Brooklyn, to work in service projects, we're doing that. Just there's you know - that's the problem, all these things take a year to shoot and I've got about a million ideas.

MARTIN: Well, that's great then you will never be bored. The Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, and Dannette Tucker and our special guest mom this week is CNN's Soledad O'Brien, her "Black in America" documentary series airs this week on CNN. You'll want to check listings for times. Thank you so much for joining us Soledad and the other moms. ..TEXT: Ms. O'BRIEN: Thank you Michel.

Ms. IVEY: Thank you Michel.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you.

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