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 U.S. 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."
O'Brien, who was at Drexel University Tuesday night for a screening of "Who Is Black in America" and a panel discussion, said the show's strong Philly presence grew out of an earlier contact she'd had with Yaba Blay, an assistant teaching professor for Africana studies at Drexel who studies "colorism" and who'd asked the CNN anchor to participate in her "(1)ne Drop Project."
"She's doing a project on people who are multiethnic, multiracial. And so her book project is interviewing different people about what their take is on their identity," O'Brien said.
"As we sat down to talk about what we should do [next] for 'Black in America,' we said, 'Oh, we should talk to Yaba. She's doing all this interesting work in Philadelphia.' " Subsequent conversations led to "some really interesting people," including Perry "Vision" DiVirgilio.
Artistic director of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement, Vision, too, is biracial. His spoken-word workshop on racial identity provides some of the documentary's most powerful moments, introducing viewers to Jones and to her friend and fellow CAPA senior Becca Khalil, who identifies herself as African-American because of her Egyptian ancestry (the U.S. Census disagrees). She wishes she had darker skin so there'd be no question.
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."
Still, "it just breaks your heart."
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.
"One of the things that I try to make clear in this documentary is that I don't have the answers. I don't think that we sort of set out to say, 'And now, that's what it means to be black in America. Thank you for joining us.' "
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