By Errol Castens
OXFORD – Former NBC and CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien came to the University of Mississippi on Monday to talk about race – on the heels of a racially charged incident.
“The timing is tough. Ole Miss is in the news,” she said.
O’Brien, known among other works for her “Black in America” documentary series, gave the keynote address for the university’s celebration of Black History Month, a scant week after a noose was looped over the statue of James Meredith, who broke the color barrier at Ole Miss. An investigation continues into whether the act broke any federal laws.
Chancellor Dan Jones said, “Hateful acts are not welcome at this university. This was an act of intimidation, but we at Ole Miss will not be intimidated.” O’Brien said when she started “Black in America,” she wanted to know “Who’s the face of black America?” One aim was to add “new voices and new faces” to the public perception.
“Conversations about race are often angry and certainly complicated. They often reflect the sense of losing something,” she said.
Her parents – a white Australian man and a black Cuban woman – were turned away from every Baltimore restaurant they tried on their first date and were forbidden by 17 states to marry, she said, but “Today, discrimination is more subtle.”
O’Brien also interviewed three black members of the Ole Miss family. Student Tim Abrams said while he has largely felt welcomed there, “We have to change the conversations we have behind closed doors,” where publicly intolerable statements may go unchallenged. At the same time, minority students need “safe places” to decompress among peers from constant “micro-aggressions.”
Alumnus C.J. Rhodes, chapel rector and associate professor at Alcorn State University, said the juxtaposed statues of Meredith and the Confederate soldier make Ole Miss a “spiritual battleground … a microcosm of Mississippi and America,” he said. “What a place to have a continuing conversation about race – not just ‘Kumbaya.’”
Barbara Combs, UM associate professor of sociology, warned against satisfaction with prior progress.
“People get stuck on that ‘Oh, but it’s so much better than it used to be,’” she said. Despite Meredith’s popularity at Ole Miss today, Combs said, “It’s a mistake to think that because one black man is embraced, all blacks are equally embraced.”
Donald Cole, UM assistant vice chancellor for multicultural affairs, told O’Brien, “We will never … never let hate take us back.”