In My Long Trip Home, CNN executive v-p Mark Whitaker explores his biracial heritage and his family demons.
Your book describes a complex, stressful family background, starting with an interracial marriage in the 1950s between your black father, Sylvester, or Syl, and your white mother, Jean. What obstacles did they face?
My mother was a professor at Swarthmore, and my father was a student, so it was doubly scandalous. They couldn't be public about the affair. After they married, the university president opposed my mother's tenure appointment; my parents believed it was because of their marriage. My father got civil rights leaders involved, including Bayard Rustin.
After their divorce, Syl didn't support the family and rarely visited. How did that affect you?
I worshipped my father. He was charismatic, full of humor and irony, and very exciting. I missed him terribly. He moved to this cool bungalow in Venice Beach, Calif., and I spent a very glamorous summer with him; I wanted to stay, but he said no. After it became clear that he didn't care enough to stay in touch, my feelings shifted from adoration to depression and dejection—and anger.
Syl's drinking ruined a prominent academic career. What caused it?
He would say that alcoholism is purely a biological disease, but there were other factors, including the pressures of being a pioneering black academic. For example, he got involved in a famous feud between the UCLA Black Panthers and a back-to-Africa student group in 1969. He was a UCLA political scientist and dean, and the chancellor told him that, as the ranking black on faculty, he should keep an eye on the feud. It ended in a gunfight that left two Panthers dead. He felt a lot of guilt over that—another excuse to drink.
You write that your father was an exemplar of "choosing how to be black." How so?
He grew up in segregated Pittsburgh, studied Africa, and identified deeply with African culture. Yet he never wanted to live in an entirely black world. He became lifelong friends with his white college roommate. He dated white women. He was interested in white thinkers and artists. I'm biracial, and I learned from him that pride in your black roots and black culture is not mutually exclusive with other influences.
Can a dysfunctional and divided family actually be a source of strength?
My childhood struggles with my parents strengthened me. I had to become self-reliant and resilient. I learned to stand back and observe; that served me well as a journalist. I keep a cartoon on my desk. It shows a big rock, and jutting out from underneath it are a couple of feet and a hand belonging to somebody who's just been crushed. The caption reads, "Things Could Be Worse." That's the perspective my childhood gave me—no matter what happens, I've been through worse.