The third installment of Soledad O'Brien's Black in America series airs tonight on CNN. In three years, O'Brien has delivered three long — and sometimes controversial — documentaries addressing aspects of black life in the United States. The latest installment, "Almighty Debt," focuses on debt among African Americans and a New Jersey church leader's attempt to help his congregation conquer the problem. Today she spoke with The Root about it.
The Root: Why did you choose to focus on debt as an issue?
Soledad O'Brien: What we chose to do was [focus on] the black church as the issue because it is such an important institution in black America. When we met Pastor DeForest "Buster" Soaries, we realized that Pastor Soaries is all about debt. He's trying to get his parishioners to lower their debt and increase their wealth.
TR: How do African Americans differ from the majority in terms of debt? It seems to be a very widespread problem in our country.
SO: We asked that very question of Pastor Soaries: Is this an African-American problem or an American problem? He said it is an American problem, but the bigger issue is African Americans are devastated by the economy; for African Americans the issue of debt is absolutely devastating.
TR: Is there a danger of reinforcing stereotypes with some of the people you chose to profile? One of the families had a big house and three cars they couldn't afford. Some people might be tempted to say, why don't you sell the damn cars or the house?
SO: We asked [them], "Why don't you sell the house?" Instead of being a stereotype, the Jeffrieses are really a very typical model of an American family; they have a rationale for what they [did]. Now they are in a typical foreclosure process because they have overspent themselves. We wanted to explore their story; you have to be true to what your characters do. The Jeffrieses were willing to let us tell their stories. They were hit very hard because they were in industries that were killed in the recession. I don't worry about the stereotype; I worry about accurately reflecting their issues and their stories and their words.
TR: This is your third year doing the BIA series. What has surprised you about the response to it?
SO: The response overwhelmingly has been great, even from people who say, "I didn't like this about the show; I didn't like that about the show." Or my own mother: "Oh, no Afro-Cubans? Even your own people can't make the show. Interesting." Thank you, Mom; thanks for the feedback.
Literally, people will stop me at the office: "I love it, but here's what's wrong with it. Here's something you can do the next time." There's something very powerful about the fact there is going to be a next time. There's going to be [a] really long, thoughtful documentary on African Americans that has not happened elsewhere. We have touched a nerve, and people are really interested in this conversation.
TR: You've done blacks in America, Hispanics in America, and you're working on a documentary about Muslims. Do you worry about being stereotyped as the "ethnic" reporter?
SO: I love those stories. My goal is to expand the number of stories about people who fly under the radar. You start saying "I don't want to be the 'black reporter,' " but then a story comes down the pike, and I want to do the story because I'm the best person to do the story.
"Almighty Debt: A Black in America Special" airs tonight, Oct. 21, at 9 p.m. on CNN.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.