CNN Executive On Troubled Family Past

Feb 16, 2012
Originally published on February 16, 2012 11:47 am
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to continue our Black History Month series now. All month, we've been digging into some of the literature that has expanded our understanding of African-American lives. We're talking about the memoir. Memoirs by African-Americans date as far back as the journal set down by former slaves, but now, these days, there seems to be a fresh zeal to log family history or tell a compelling personal story.

With us today is an author who did both. He chronicled his family's very interesting history and because he's one of the premier journalists of our time, told a riveting story with solid reporting. He is Mark Whitaker. He is now executive vice president and managing editor of the cable news outlet, CNN Worldwide, but you might also remember him from his previous stints as editor-in-chief of Newsweek and Washington bureau chief for NBC News.

Welcome to the program or welcome back, I should say. Thank you for joining us.


MARTIN: One thing I've been interested in with all of our authors is, why did you want to write a memoir and why now? And you actually describe this in your book as kind of a eureka moment where you sat up in the middle of the night and started writing.

WHITAKER: Right. You know, over the years, people had said that they thought there might be a book in the story of my parents, you know, an interracial couple that met in the 1950s and both of them came from very interesting backgrounds, my father from black Pittsburgh. My mother was raised in French Africa and then came to America. Her father helped save a lot of Jews in the mountains of France as a protestant pastor.

But, you know, I was very busy with my career and there was a sad part to the story after my parents divorced, so I never got around to it. My father died right after Thanksgiving 2008 and I thought, well, that's that, I'll never write the story. And then, a year later to the day, I woke up in the middle of the night and sort of with this blinding epiphany that I wanted to try to write the story.

MARTIN: As you mentioned, your parents both came from such very interesting and different stories. If you'd just talk a little bit about your mother, you describe her as being kind of very shy in ways, as very kind of passive in some ways, but also very tough in her own way.


MARTIN: I just wanted to talk a little bit about that. I'm particularly interested, of course, the fact that, at the time your parents married, you know, interracial marriage was still illegal in most of the United States. And that could not have been easy.

WHITAKER: Yeah. Well, you know, my mother, in terms of her personality, is very shy and very quiet. She stuttered very badly as a child and yet, you know, throughout her life, she did some very adventurous things. She came to America when she was 14 years old with five of her younger sisters. She married my father, who was, at the time, the only black male student at Swarthmore College. She was his professor, so it was sort of a doubly adventurous romance.

And then, you know, after they divorced - and it was a very unhappy divorce - she'd given up tenure at Swarthmore to follow my father and, you know, she had to work as a substitute teacher and take temporary jobs for years before she got back on her feet, taking care of two young children. You know, she did it all, even suffering, you know, from depression and a lot of financial hardship.

So in her very, very quiet way, my mother, I think, you know, was very heroic and I hope I've captured that in the book.

MARTIN: And your father?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, my father was, as one reader described him, very Shakespearian in all of his dimensions and contradictions.

MARTIN: That's well said. I was going to say, a hot mess.

WHITAKER: Yeah. That's another way of putting it. I mean, he was brilliant. He was the son of two black undertakers from Pittsburgh and had grown up in segregated Pittsburgh, but excelled as a student at Swarthmore, became the first black PhD in politics from Princeton and a groundbreaking scholar of Africa. His specialty was Nigeria.

But he also was a womanizer and ultimately became a chronic alcoholic. It sort of started in the years when my parents were still together, but it got much worse after they divorced and I was separated, didn't see him for five or six years after the divorce. I only saw him a couple of times, but then he reemerged in my life. He came back - he had been at UCLA, came back to the East Coast to become the first director of African-American studies at Princeton. And I was entering my teens and thought he was - you know, was really overjoyed with the idea that he was going to be back in my life, but I quickly discovered that he was in no condition to really be a good father to me at the time.

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the memoir, "My Long Trip Home," with author Mark Whitaker. He is now the managing editor of the cable news outlet, CNN Worldwide. He's been a prominent figure in American journalism for many years now. Just to remind you, we'll be digging into a memoir each week throughout Black History Month.

Now, I don't want to set your mother's story to the side. As I said, it's fascinating. But I do want to - in part, because it's Black History Month - focus a little bit on your father's side of the story. I don't know if you knew this all along or you found this out through your reporting - that he had also had a terrible relationship with his father, who was a very significant figure in black Pittsburgh. And his womanizing really helped destroy their business in a way that made things very difficult for the family.

WHITAKER: That's right. Well, one of the things, ultimately, that I try to convey in the book is that, you know, my father, I think, really sort of hated him for much of his life and was determined not to be like him, yet sort of became very much like him. And so, you know, I always felt - I was aware of this when my father was still alive, but I think it was some of the impulse of the book, too - that, as far as I was concerned, in order not to be like my father - at least dimensions of my father that I didn't want to emulate, you know, I couldn't push him away. I needed to try to, you know, understand him and forgive him. And, ultimately, you know, that is the process that you see unfold in the book.

MARTIN: There are a number of very moving scenes in this book, but there are a number of very painful scenes in this book. And one of them, for me, anyway - particularly painful scenes - was where you confront your father. I just wanted to ask you about that.

WHITAKER: Basically, what had happened - I was a teenager. I was in high school and my father, at this point, was at a substance abuse clinic. And he arranged, essentially, for a furlough for the weekend, Thanksgiving, to come visit us. We were living with my mother in Massachusetts at the time. And he arrives the day before Thanksgiving and we decide to go out to the movies and, as we're leaving - it's a cold night - he tells me to put on a coat. I'm not wearing a coat. And I tell him, no. And he seethes throughout the movie, doesn't talk to me. And I get angrier and angrier throughout the movie. You know, who is he to come back into our lives and tell me what to do?

And then, when we got back from the movies, we were all sort of sitting in the kitchen and, all of a sudden, I just let him have it. You know, and I said, you weren't there for us. You didn't pay child support. You have no right to tell me what to do. He screams back at me, you know, you have no right to say that. I'm still your father. And, you know, it ends with tears and my crying and running in my bedroom, but at the same time, feeling, you know, very vindicated that I finally stood up to him and I've spoken not just for me, but for my mother and my brother.

And I cry myself to sleep and, the next morning, I wake up. My mother's tapping me on the shoulder and she says, you know, your father's going back to Silver Hill. He's been drinking all night. And, you know, I discovered that, you know, he had - you know, he had basically drank every ounce of alcohol that my mother had in her kitchen.

And, at that point, you know, I was still angry, but also guilty because I thought that perhaps, you know, he finally was on his way to recovery and I had ruined it. Of course, I later discovered that, you know, he fell off the wagon, you know, dozens and dozens of times before he eventually stopped drinking.

MARTIN: To that end, though, you also say that it was your father who helped answer some very important questions for you about racial identity. You were asking him some questions. This was when you were in high school at one point and you were starting to dig into African-American literature, some important texts, and you had questions and he happened to be available at that point to answer some of them.

And he said to you, it would be up to you to decide how you want to be black. Has that been important guidance for you, despite all his flaws?

WHITAKER: It was very important and it was important to me, you know, partly because, you know, as someone who's mixed race and, you know, light-skinned and so forth, you know, by the time I really started to wrestle with these issues, it was in the '70s in high school and college and so forth.

You know, there was a lot of pressure to sort of self-define. You know, were you going to sit at the black table? Were you going to live in the black house? You know, I always felt that it would be, you know – look, I had a lot of black friends, but frankly, I had grown up in largely white communities, college towns and so forth, particularly after, you know, we were living just with my mother.

And, you know, I just thought it would be false of me, you know, to try to, you know, only be black, whatever that meant. You know, and also, I wanted to live in the black world with black friends, but I also wanted to have other friends and experience other things, as well.

And the fact that my father had talked to me about that and had encouraged me to make my own decisions and not to be worried about being judged and that he had lived that life, too, you know, and there's a lot of pain and dysfunction in his story. But there's, you know, a lot of, you know, other things. You know, he had many friends and intellectual accomplishments and so forth, so you know, his example was also important in that.

And it became increasingly an example once he stopped drinking and I became an adult and we were able to have a better relationship. He continued to give me encouragement, at various points in my life, not to be afraid to walk my own path.

MARTIN: I'm sure that people who know you well through the years will have known parts of this story, but I'm guessing that there are people who have only seen you at a distance and seen you as very cool, you know, very elegant, you know, very well-spoken will have been shocked to discover that, you know, you were so unhappy as a boy at not having contact with your father, that at one point, you became, you know, very, very overweight. And then you went the opposite way and became almost anorexic and there's a lot of pain and pain and pain in your life.

Now that you've gotten it all out there, how do you feel?

WHITAKER: You know, for a long time, I felt almost ashamed of those things and it's one reason I didn't really talk about them, in general, as you say, as sort of a private, reserved person. But one of the things that's been, you know, for me, just very gratifying is that the part of the story that I thought I was ashamed about actually is the part of the story that people are connecting with.

You know, I mean, people think it's interesting. You know, a lot of the family history and the interracial marriage and so forth is interesting, but what they can identify with, in terms of their families - no matter what their backgrounds are - are these themes of family relationships, of the struggles you have with your parents. But then, ultimately, how you can rise above them, both in terms of your own life, but then coming to terms with your parents, finally.

And, you know, somebody said, when - read an early copy of the book - you know, now, you're going to hear everybody else's story. And that's true. I'm hearing a lot of stories and they're very moving.

MARTIN: Mark Whitaker is author of the memoir, "My Long Trip Home." He is executive vice president and managing editor of the cable news outlet, CNN Worldwide, and he was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau.

Mark Whitaker, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WHITAKER: Thanks, Michel. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.