But growing up, O’Brien did not at first see the value of her cross-cultural background.
“It didn’t feel cool. When I was a teenager I had a freakish name and big poufy hair that didn’t do what anybody else’s hair did and I was part of family who didn’t blend in. It was hard,” she recalls.
O’Brien this week will premiere her remarkable CNN documentary Black In America 2 (the original broadcast, Black in America, seen last summer, attracted an astounding 16 million viewers, one of the largest audiences ever for a seasonal documentary). Is she nervous?
“Last year there was tons of word of mouth. I mean, tomorrow night (Wednesday, July 22) we’ll do a live pre-show,” she says.
“But you know what’s funny? When you do a documentary it’s done. You pop it in and you hit play and you hope people will appreciate and respond to the months and months you put into it.
“It’s a very different feel to when Anderson Cooper and I were doing the Michael Jackson memorial. There’s a very different sense. We’ll be watching it like other viewers and all my friends will be watching too.”
For the new documentary O’Brien has criss-crossed the U.S., including reports from Ghana and South Africa, as she uncovers the people and programs at the forefront of change in the African American community.
“There’s a spectrum, a continuum of different stories out there to tell about people who go on to become president of the U.S. and people who are trying to overcome poverty and discrimination and then there’s a whole range in between,” she says.
“Those are all a part of what it means to be black in America. I want to highlight the young leaders who are making a difference.”
As for her famous colleague on CNN, Anderson Cooper, O’Brien’s admiration is heartfelt.
“I love him. We worked together on the election and the inauguration and he’s just exactly as he is on TV. A great guy, very funny and self-deprecating,” she says.
“Someone was auctioning off lunch with Anderson so I bought it! I had to pay money to have lunch with that man. I’m a busy person, but he’s insane.”
A final word on Black in America 2 from O’Brien: “I think there are so many stories of the African American experience -- and tonight’s will be just a tiny sliver. But these are communities I feel very connected to and these are people I love.”
Black in America 2: Tomorrow's Leaders will air on Wednesday, July 22 at 9 p.m., and Thursday, July 23 at 8 p.m. A countdown show will air live on Wednesday from 7-8 p.m.