Secrets and lies

A TV newswoman tries to bridge the divide between her black and white selves.

By Cynthia Joyce

Published November 26, 1996 12:43PM (EST)

the PBS documentary series "Frontline" airs one of its more dramatic episodes on public television stations across the U.S. tonight — a first-person account of growing up as the daughter of a black father and a white mother who refused to publicly acknowledge her. In "Secret Daughter," Frontline producer June Cross unfolds a personal memoir, that centers around the deceit, shared by mother and daughter alike, that Cross' mother had adopted her.

In the documentary, Cross attempts to understand the circumstances that led to her being left to be raised by her black "aunt and uncle" in Atlantic City, while her mother went to Hollywood to manage the career of her husband, actor Larry Storch. Through interviews with family members and friends who knew her father, the black vaudeville performer Jimmy Cross, June uncovers a world where the races mixed freely backstage, even though segregation still prevailed throughout the rest of America. The "Frontline" program speaks volumes about America's race issues, and underlines how far away honest conversation on the subject still seems.
We spoke with producer June Cross by telephone from Boston. Cross will be joining Salon's Table Talk to discuss the issues raised in the program.

What made you decide to do this show?

I was thinking for some time about doing something on race, but was really prompted after covering (Jean-Bertrand) Aristide's restoration in Haiti. Haiti doesn't have a race problem, but it has a huge color line problem. I heard stories about the rich light-skinned elites who would have affairs with browner-skinned women. Their children would be brought to the elites' households but not be treated equally. Sometimes they would not be acknowledged at all. Part of that struck familiar chords with me.

So I came back here thinking I wanted to do something more about color in America and about the privileges that one accrues because of one's skin color. I talked to several people I know who are biracial who are confronting one of the "other" sides — the black side or the white side — but I couldn't find anyone who wanted to do it on camera. It finally occurred to me that I wanted somebody to tell my own story.

And you found that your story was similar to many others.

I've been amazed at the numbers of white folks who have told me stories about having blacks in their families, as nieces, cousins, aunts. One guy said his father had seven sisters, but he'd only met six. Thirty years later he finds out the seventh one had married a black man and been summarily dismissed from the family. These stories are really prevalent, but nobody's really talked about them. We all know it kind of secretly, and whisper it over coffee. Or black folks kind of sit around and bitch about the fact that "they ain't as white as they think they are." The idea that we're an American family, and that family is related by blood and genes on both sides hasn't entered the discussion. I think if it did, we might start thinking about how we would change our behavior toward people who look like our relatives, or change how we act when people say derogatory things about people who look like our relatives.

What was it like to report the story using your own family?

One of the downsides of being a journalist and interviewing a member of your own family is that you're too close to be able to follow up with the kinds of questions you should be asking. But the good side is they might tell you things that they wouldn't tell someone else. It was very calculated on my part.
I talked to one reporter about the show who kept insisting that everything between me and my mother was about race, and finally I said, "Listen, she's my mother. I've got issues with her, about a daughter trying to be another person and living in her mother's shadow. All daughters go through that. It has nothing to do with the fact that she's a white woman and I'm a black woman, that's just incidental."

Still, your mother would say things like, "If you weren't so dark ..." Did you think she was a racist?
No, I think she was a realist. I don't think she was wrong for leaving me to be raised by Peggy and Paul (her foster family in Atlantic City). The way she saw it, those were the options she had. All I'm trying to deal with now, in hindsight, after having been through the anger, is the pain of it. This piece was really about trying to get to that pain — my pain and her pain. Because neither one of us has ever dealt with the pain that we shared about our separation, or about our having to deny each other.

Growing up, did you identify yourself as African-American or as white?

I grew up thinking of myself as an African-American. The one-drop rule prevailed in my (foster) family, many of whom are even lighter than I am.
Their whole attitude was, You give back to the race. It didn't matter if you were blond and blue-eyed; if you had one drop, as a black educated American, your duty was to give to the race and achieve for the family.
When I tell my real mother, I'm an African-American woman, I'm your daughter, she doesn't show much grief. But I wonder, because in essence, I'm denying that part of her.

Not everyone will have the same sympathy for her as you do. Your father's mother didn't approve of her. Won't some African-Americans see her as racist?

You'll have to tell me. I think if people think she is racist, they are bringing their own baggage to it. There have always been black folks who thought that white folks were the devil, and there probably always will be. And there are plenty of white folks who think black folks are the devil, and there probably always will be. The pendulum that is swinging only has to do with standards — the standards of 1954 said that a white woman couldn't live with a black man and have his daughter and raise her. The standards of 1996 say, "How dare a woman who bore a man's child think about giving her up?" The standards have changed in the past 50 years, but racism has been a constant subcurrent. We haven't gotten past that.

As a TV producer how do you feel about media portrayal of blacks?

Well, we'll see after these stories come out whether I am truly naive — whether I'm not any better than anybody else in trying to get my point across. One of the things I've learned in my years as a reporter is that it's not our place to judge, it's our place to report the story and try to get the subject of the story to explain what happened to them, the way they see it, in such a way that we can then explain it to somebody else. We're not supposed to be in the business of making judgments about people, but it seems a lot of journalists have decided to become judge and jury. I think that's part of the reason why Americans hate the press.

Quote of the day

Meeting the fans

"I have to be prepared. Look at what happened to Lennon."

— William Burroughs, 82, who carries a sword cane and a canister of pepper gas when he attends public functions. (From "'Naked Lunch' Author Gets Another Helping of Admiration," in Tuesday's
New York Times)

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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