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Sun October 16, 2011
'My Long Trip Home' A Memoir Of Mixed Heritage
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In his memoir, "My Long Trip Home," Mark Whitaker explores the lives of his parents, two people from vastly different backgrounds, and how their interracial relationship and histories helped shape his own life. Mark Whitaker is now managing editor for CNN Worldwide, and he's in our studios in New York to talk more about his memoir. Mark Whitaker, welcome to the program.
MARK WHITAKER: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: Now, your story centers on the story of your parents and their marriage, which I read you called it doubly scandalous. So, set the stage for us. Describe who these two people were at the time of their wedding.
WHITAKER: Well, my parents met in the mid-1950s when interracial marriage was actually still illegal in most states in America. My father was an undergraduate, in fact, the only black male student on campus at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. And my mother was a professor there, a professor of French. And they fell in love. And because they were both an interracial couple and a student-teacher couple, they carried on an affair in secret for a year and a half until he graduated, and then got married that summer.
CORNISH: Is this the kind of story that you found out after the fact or was this always part of the mythology that you understood about your parents?
WHITAKER: Well, you know, I knew some of the details. My parents only remained married for seven years. They got divorced when I was six, and a lot of the story is about what happened after they split up and we went to live with my mother. But it was only in going back and talking to her but also finding a lot of letters that she and my father had written to each other and to others that I discovered a lot of the really emotionally wrenching details.
CORNISH: I want to get a little bit more into the story that you just talked about, the fact that your parents did divorce. And this had a profound effect on you.
WHITAKER: Yes, that's right. My mother, first of all, was almost denied tenure at Swarthmore after the president found out about her relationship with my father. She ultimately, some civil rights leaders - Byard Rustin among others - got involved and she was granted tenure. But a few years later she gave it up to follow my father. He had gone on to become the first black graduate student in the department of politics at Princeton University, where he got his doctorate, and that's where everything fell apart. What I discovered was that when they moved to Princeton, they both started to drink much more heavily. It became sort of the beginning, I think, of what ultimately became my father's alcoholism. I found out that my father, you know, was involved with all of these other women and sort of this open marriage scene. I discovered that my parents had really started to fight quite bitterly about all of this during this period. And his first big tenure track opportunity was at UCLA. So, when I was just about to turn five - my younger brother was three - they packed us up and moved us out to Los Angeles, and that's where everything fell apart.
CORNISH: Essentially, you unleash your formidable reporting skills on your own family, and a lot of the book reads like not a news story but it had that very sort of anecdotal feel.
WHITAKER: Well, my parents both came from such interesting worlds. My father had grown up in Pittsburgh, the son of two black undertakers, both my grandfather and my grandmother. My mother had come to America from occupied France in 1940 on a boat with other refugee children. It's a very personal story and a family story, but with a backdrop of a lot of interesting history.
CORNISH: How did your parents end up reacting to you coming to them about wanting to write a book and making their story the center of it?
WHITAKER: Well, I approached both of them and said if I were to do this would you cooperate with me? And it was interesting - they each had very characteristic responses. My mother said, oh dear. She said, I'm afraid the story would make me look weak. And my father said, I'll talk to you under one condition. He said, I don't want to be the villain of the piece. But ultimately, you know, I was busy. I was editing Newsweek and, you know, I just didn't know if I really had the stomach to take on the project. And then my father died two days after Thanksgiving in the middle of the night. A year later on the very same day, I woke up at 3 o'clock in the morning with just this blinding epiphany that I was ready to write the story now. And I literally got up in the middle of the night and got my laptop computer and started writing down memories. And I did that for probably a couple of weeks. But then I realized that there was just so much that I didn't know. There were huge gaps. And so I said, you know, I had to do some reporting, and I sort of became obsessed with finding out as much as I could.
CORNISH: Mark Whitaker, it's clear that you've learned a tremendous amount about your parents. What now have you determined that you've learned about yourself?
WHITAKER: Well, I thought that I was making my way in the world by doing everything my parents didn't. But what I discovered is that a lot of the qualities that had made me successful actually I had in one way or the other inherited from my parents. Stories of survival and perseverance but also a love of learning, of writing that went back to my grandparents. So, there are a lot of these things that I thought that I had discovered on my own that in fact had deep roots. And, you know, I was happy to learn that actually.
CORNISH: Mark Whitaker. He's managing editor for CNN Worldwide, and his memoir is called "My Long Trip Home." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
WHITAKER: It's been a pleasure.
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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.