Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Secret Daughter; A Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother who Gave Her Away by June Cross

I borrowed this book from the library because I read about it at Dawn’s blog. It is a fascinating autobiography of June Cross, an award winning journalist and television producer. Her mother Norma is white and her father Jimmy Cross, a famous comedian is black. She grew up in the 60s and 70s moving between her mother’s life in NYC and her black foster family in Atlantic City, NJ. Her mother was always afraid of what people would think if they found out she had a half black daughter, so she tried to keep her a secret. June grew up learning to pretend her mother was an aunt and that she was adopted either by her foster family Aunt Peggy and Uncle Paul or by her mother Norma and her husband Larry Storch (an actor well known for his role in the 70s TV show “F Troupe”). June’s writing about it sheds a lot of light on racial attitudes. She writes about learning to be black and the life lessons given her by her family in Atlantic City. They lived in a middle class black neighborhood and her Aunt Peggy was an elementary teacher. Uncle Paul worked two jobs. Her stories about learning manners, expectations, school lessons, and hair care as a black child are contrasted with stories of being in New York on the edge of her mother’s socialite party life.

As she gets into adulthood and moves through college into a journalism career she struggles with her identify as a black woman, still longing for recognition and acceptance. Her mother is still ashamed to call her daughter in public, afraid her rich friends will shun her if they knew she had a black daughter and had lived with a black man. June has many successes in her career as a TV producer. She worked on PBS’s “Frontline”, CBS News, and the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour”. She made a documentary film about her life called “Secret Daughter” which won an Emmy. In doing research for the film she learned a great deal about her own life and mother’s life which she had never before understood.

I have learned so much from this book about the social climate of our country in the years when I was growing up. I went to high school in a suburb of Cleveland that changed over from about 80% white to 95% black in the ten years I was in that school district. Considering the turmoil in the rest of the country in the 70s our little school district made a pretty smooth transition, but there was definitely white flight and I was very aware of it while coming of age. I dated black men and had a friend who was shunned from her Italian family because she dated a black man, became pregnant and bore his children. She moved out of home in our senior year of high school and moved in with him. She was my boyfriend’s sister as well as my friend and I remember fondly the fun times we had over at her and her boyfriend’s apartment. He was the only member of the family still talking to her.

One of the themes throughout the book is the importance of hair and hair care to black women. The pain and struggle to find an acceptable, livable style and to know you are beautiful the way you are is a heartache I have witnessed in many of my friends. I don’t think I would know how to keep up with the expectations if it were me and my daughters dealing with black hair. I am not much of a fashion girly girl; I barely can keep myself reasonably presentable. My own hair is kept as easily and inconspicuously as possible. I am glad I have only sons and I find the challenge of keeping their heads cut and styled enough of a problem.

Another of the themes that capture my interest is the disjoined perspectives of race in the middle class black community of Atlantic City and the socialite New York and showbiz Hollywood worlds of June’s mother. For one person to move between these worlds and make sense of it all is amazing to me. It is no wonder it takes June until her 40s to begin to feel grounded and sure of who she is. Never mind that she never felt completely claimed and owned by any of the adults that raised her. She was loved, nurtured, cared for and supported in many different ways but the fluidity of which family she belonged to was tremendously unsettling. When she was born she was light enough that her mother hoped she could pass. Aunt Peggy warned Norma “They get darker as they get older, honey”. Norma kept June with her until her skin darkened enough that people noticed, and then she brought her to Peggy to raise. Norma later told her she didn’t seem black to her and that she couldn’t see anything of her black father in her. She wasn’t adopted but her mothers and she herself told people that she was all of her life. What a crazy, in between way to live.

Norma had two other children. Lary was born when she was 18 and single. Norma shared the raising of him with her mother, whom the children called Granny. Five years before June was born she had another child, a girl they named Candie. Candie was put up for adoption and they had no contact with her for forty years. At the end of the book the reunion story is told and it is quite touching. Candie’s father is Larry, the man Norma ended up marrying years later (after a relationship with Jimmy, June’s father and their break-up). Norma and Larry stayed for the rest of their lives. At the time of Candie’s birth he did not want to settle down and have a family so he insisted she be given up for adoption.

Anyone in a transracial family, a family of adoption or an unconventional family arrangement will find a lot to identify with in this story. Anyone even remotely interested in race in the US should read this book. Ms. Cross is very gentle, compassionate and fair in presenting all the members of her families and the factors that lead up to their behaviors. She really tries to present the story from an emotional distance, even when describing her own hurt and confusion. I found it very tender, wistful and loving. She expresses her frustrations and regrets at different members of her family, but then she digs a little deeper to reveal each person’s unique struggles and the paths that lead them together. Her love and the love of her family shine out even in their painful mistakes and failings. The lesson I am taking away most clearly from this book is the urgent need to affirm my children for who they are; to nurture their talents and allow them to find their roots and their wings… It is clearer than ever to me the need for them to know and connect with their biological families and the cultures of their births.

Another thought: Racism has deeply wounded all of us, reaching back throughout our history. Every member of our families is affected, whether we realize that or not. Whatever our ethnic of racial identity, if we look we will find the pain. We are all in need of healing. Telling our stories and listening to each other is part of that journey.

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