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Ellen Gray: 'Black in America: Who is Black in America?' asks about identity

| Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

“People will ask me, ‘What are you?'” complains 17-year-old Nayo Jones in the latest installment of CNN's “Black in America” series, which asks the not-so-simple question, “Who Is Black in America?”

And what are you?

That's one CNN anchor and series host Soledad O'Brien has heard a time or two herself.

Like Jones, a senior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts featured in Sunday's show, O'Brien is the daughter of a black mother and a white father.

“I guess (the question) used to just really annoy me and frustrate me, because it really goes to the essence of who you are,” O'Brien said in a phone interview earlier this week. “And sometimes, when I was her age, I would've said, ‘It's none of your damn business, leave it alone.' It used to just really annoy me.”

These days, “and probably because of my job, I'm just much more open to discussing the question. Because I kind of love the conversation,” which can go something like this:

“‘What do you think I am? And why do you ask?' Or, ‘I'm an American.' And then, invariably, because that's not what they're asking, you play dumb a little bit,” she said, laughing, because “I find the conversation intriguing. And when I was Nayo's age, I didn't find it intriguing. I found it annoying.”

Maybe because at home, it was never a question.

“I don't have the angst, and I never had the angst, that she did, about who am I and what's my identity. I knew from the time I was little. ‘I'm black' ... My white dad will tell you: I'm black,” she said.

“When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me — and to my five brothers and sisters — ‘Don't let anyone tell you you're not black. And don't let anyone tell you you're not Latina.' And I remember thinking, ‘Who's the they?' I grew up in all-white Long Island, N.Y. In Smithtown. I literally wasn't sure what she (her mother, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba) was talking about. And now, I understand what she was talking about: She was trying to give me a sense of identity ... that she knew people would try to chip away at.”

Too light, too dark, too whatever: The persistence of “colorism” nearly a century and a half after the end of slavery — and four years into the presidency of Barack Obama — is a running theme in the film, its connection to history demonstrated to schoolchildren in Richmond, Va., in a segment in which Kiara Lee, who runs workshops on colorism, subjects children to the “paper-bag” test, telling those whose skin is darker than the bag that they must sit in the back.

“Brutal, right?” said O'Brien, who has four children of her own, when I confessed to cringing.

“I think that the point she's trying to make is that these kids are already having discussions about who's valuable and who's not (based on skin color). She's just giving them historical context.”

Given that the series is called “Black in America,” maybe the question of who's actually represented in that title might have been visited earlier.

“In a way, it is the formulative question, but, in a way, it's better not to take that first, to back into it,” O'Brien said.

The first “Black in America” grew out of a desire to look at “the assassination of Dr. King and 40 years later, where are we now,” she said. But “I'm really glad that for our fifth anniversary that we're tackling a topic that is really just, I think, central to the idea of who are we. Who counts? Who matters? Is (identity) something that society bestows upon you? Is it something that individuals get to decide?”

Don't look at O'Brien, who's clearly more comfortable asking the questions.

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