Sunny Hostin's latest beach read draws from "The View" host's own surprising ancestor discovery

Hostin was shocked at what "Finding Your Roots" uncovered. Now it's her heroine's turn to research her heritage

Published May 27, 2024 3:30PM (EDT)

Sunny Hostin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sunny Hostin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Bestselling author and "The View” co-host Sunny Hostin returned to "Salon Talks" to debut the new novel in her series set in historically Black beach communities. The resort town at the heart of “Summer on Highland Beach" is a real place near Annapolis with ties to Frederick Douglass.

The novel finds Hostin’s protagonist Olivia Jones on a quest to discover her roots. This theme is personal for Hostin, who recently appeared on Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series “Finding Your Roots” to explore her Puerto Rican heritage. In the process, she learned some history about her family’s past that she described as “deeply disappointing.” 

Hostin, who is mixed Black and Puerto Rican, knew some about her mother’s ancestry from Puerto Rico, but wasn’t aware that her family were direct descendants from Spain on that side. "And with being a Spaniard, sometimes you're a colonizer as well," Hostin said in our conversation.

“They were also slave owners and they trafficked in the slave trade,” Hostin continued. “Of course, that was deeply disappointing because I'm someone that talks about reparations a lot. I'm someone who really believes in racial justice and social activism. I'm a direct descendant of people that made their living on the backs of others' misery.” 

She found more to admire in her Black heritage on her father’s side. "They were enslaved for as long as we could find back…. But there was one relative who got the right to vote the first time in the 1800s. And the KKK threatened to kill him if he ever voted again,” Hostin shared. “His name is Dean Harris, and Dean voted nine times."

Towns like the one in which Hostin's novel is set—a historically Black beach community, or HBCC—were created by Black homeowners as safe havens from racism, and remain so today. “Writing this series is important to me because so many people don't know about HBBCs,” Hostin said. “Everyone's heard of HBCUs — historically Black colleges and universities… but they haven't heard about Oak Bluffs or Sag Harbor. … What's fascinating about [Highland Beach] is that it is the oldest historically Black beach community.” 

The mental toll that Hostin's job as an opinionated public figure takes on her is substantial. Going into a contentious national presidential election this November, alongside former president and current candidate Donald Trump’s ongoing legal battles — during which the host has returned to her courtroom reporter roots as a correspondent — Hostin says self-care is essential. “It’s doable and it’s necessary,” she said. "I won't let anything interfere with it anymore."

Watch my "Salon Talks" with Sunny Hostin here on YouTube to hear more about her novel and her take on Trump's trial.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Olivia Jones, your protagonist, is back.

She is back.

For those who have not met Olivia yet, tell us about her.

Olivia is one of three goddaughters — Perry, Billie and Olivia. They were chosen as chosen family by their fairy godmother, Ama, and her husband is Omar. Olivia is unsure of herself, unsure of her self-worth, has issues with colorism. She is sort of copycatting her godmother's career. Is that really what she wants to do? She's modeling herself so that her godmother likes her the best. She's sort of one of those women. As we follow Olivia, I think [she] comes into her own. 

One of the reasons why Olivia became the protagonist in this series — when I thought it was going to be Ama — is because of the feedback I got from my readers. After writing “Summer on Oak Bluffs,” it was during the pandemic, so I did a lot of Zoom book club tour meetings and everyone wanted to know more about Olivia. They saw themselves in Olivia. They saw the imposter syndrome in Olivia. And I thought, well then, let's write to it. So I write to it in “Sag Harbor.” I thought I gave her her story, but same thing, Olivia! Does she find her biological family and what does that look like and does mother explain herself? 

So it's a lot about Olivia's journey. She has a therapist, Dr. LaGrange. She now knows her worth. She is finding love and most importantly she is finding herself and she's finding self-love and self-care and I think that's something that's missing a lot in our lives, especially today because the world's on fire. I wanted to give people some tools to mirror what Olivia is learning.

There is also a series that's being developed, I believe.

Yes, on Prime Amazon. 

With Octavia Spencer.


Do you think the notion of self-care is B.S. or do you believe that it is actually doable?

I think it's doable and I think it's necessary. I was interviewing someone, the medical director of the NFL, Dr. Thom Mayer, who has a book coming out. He is a prolific public speaker, coordinated the 9/11 response and constructed the NFL concussion protocol. He said the interesting thing is we're all used to performing. Athletes — they prepare, they perform. You prepare and you perform, but then you don't give yourself the rest and recovery time that you need. It becomes this huge circle that can lead to not only burnout but failure in the performance part.

And it really struck a chord with me because I've actually written four books in four years and the show is live five days a week. I'm raising two children. I have a husband; my mother lives with us. I have a lot going on. And I don't do enough self-care. I've realized now that I really need to do it. I need to say no more. I need to get a massage now and then. I need to meditate more. I need to walk at least three miles a day because that's what makes me feel good. 

I read a lot and that makes me feel good, but I need to garden more. I need to hang out with my chickens more—that sort of restorative self-care. I think if you don't do it, your performance in life suffers and your relationships suffer as well.

Meditation, they say, is a practice.

Yes, it is.

But then, how do you fit it in? What is your methodology, especially with being so busy?

I've learned it from my son, interestingly enough. He’s 21. He was just home from school and it was early in the morning. It was raining lightly and I looked out of the window and he was sitting in our garden just meditating. And he had a big day that day and I was like, "What are you doing?" And he's like, "I have to take that time to set up my day for success." 

So that's what I do now. I set up my day for success. Yes, I have to be at “The View” very early, but I take out at least 10 minutes to set myself up for success and settle my mind so that I am more open to performing better. I don't pick up my phone first thing in the morning. I used to. I used to do that. Now I get up and meditate for at least 10 minutes if I can. Your mind doesn't have to be quiet actually. I just learned that recently. Your mind can be racing, but you just take the time to try to hone in on something.

Then I start my day and I don't look at my phone until about 7 a.m., which I know for most people sounds crazy because that's still early. But I used to look at my phone at like 5:30, 5:45. I don't do that anymore. And I set myself up and I have boundaries now in terms of time. I write at night so that I can spend the evenings with my family. I get up very early so that I have time to maybe practice yoga or meditate, take my long shower, go feed my chickens, have my matcha latte. I do all these things, these sort of self-care rituals, but I am kind of formulaic about it. I'm kind of crazy about that. I won't let anything interfere with it anymore.

It's not crazy. It's called structure.

Yeah, I’m fanatical about it. 

This generation, Gen Z, people have a lot to say about them, but boy do they know how to put themselves first and care for themselves so that they can be better people.

"I think the kid takes the lead, but I do think that you need to provide them tremendous support."

Since you mentioned your children, what are your thoughts on the college admissions process? Do you have tips for supporting a teenager through this arduous process?

It is really difficult. I think you let the kid take the lead, which is what I did. I think finding deep joy is really important because if you find this deep joy and it meets sort of a deep need in society, you're walking in your purpose. And so my daughter's joyful about art. She's joyful around painting. And of course my husband starts looking up statistics, because he's a doctor, and he's like, "It's the number one degree that leads to unemployment." And I'm like, "Yeah, but she finds deep joy in that and so let's let her take the lead.”

We also provided her any support she needed. I'm a writer, but she didn't want me to review her essays because that's how kids are. So she had some aunties that she felt a little more comfortable with reviewing her work, and that was fine. She had her art teacher at high school looking at her portfolio. She didn't let me pick the ones I thought were the best. She picked the ones she thought was the best. So I think the kid takes the lead, but I do think that you need to provide them tremendous support. 

The SATs and the ACTs are very difficult. I think we can all remember that. And writing these essays, it's pretty difficult. Trying to stand out is really difficult. And so I think if your kid can't or won't take your support, then you have to get the support system of family, friends, teachers and give them that support that they need. And then I think you let go. 

You can advise in terms of what college they're going to. And one thing that we told our daughter was she's going to turn 18 during this process. Well, at the end of the process, actually. Wnd we said, this is the last decision we get to make with you as a family, because once you're an adult, you make your decisions and we'll be your advisors forever. But we make this decision together. 

What are you feeling? Where are you going? What are you thinking? And let's have pros and cons for each school and let's visit all the schools. I didn't even visit one school when I got into college because I just went to the school that gave me the scholarship. Thankfully she's blessed and we're blessed and so it wasn't as much of a factor and we visited all the schools and she made a great choice for herself. I have a lot of friends that kind of pick the school for their kids and it doesn't work out well.

Alright, let your kids be independent.

Yeah, they've got to pick. It's their life.

I'm going to send mine to your house. 

"It's pretty spiritual almost to sit on the porch of one of the greatest orators of our time in American history."

Back to the book. Tell me about Highland Beach, the community near Annapolis where you set this book. It has historical ties to Frederick Douglass.

Writing this series is important to me because so many people don't know about HBBCs — historically Black beach communities. Everyone's heard of HBCUs, historically Black colleges and universities like Howard and Morehouse and Spelman, but they haven't heard about Oak Bluffs. They haven't heard about Sag Harbor and they have certainly not heard about Highland Beach.

Highland Beach is in Maryland, as you mentioned, and what's fascinating about it is the oldest historically Black beach community. It was founded by Frederick Douglass's son as a respite in the late 1800s for Frederick Douglass. His house is across the bay from where he was enslaved. So it is just this beautiful hamlet of a place. And I will tell you what's so interesting and different about Highland Beach, as opposed to Oak Bluffs and as opposed to Sag Harbor, is that Highland Beach does not have hotels, no restaurants, pretty high grass over the water, no Airbnbs. It's generational wealth. Each home is generally passed down to a family member or sold to someone in the community.

So it is very much like the late 1800s. Everyone knows everyone. They don't want a lot of people to visit, I'll be honest about that. It's not a tourism place. They do have the Frederick Douglass Museum, which is in his former home and you can actually walk through and see his typewriter and see his papers, see pictures of his family. I sat on a rocker on his porch. It's pretty spiritual almost to sit on the porch of one of the greatest orators of our time in American history. But it is a special, special place and they've kept it that way. And I knew I wanted to write about it because my friend Erica had a home there that was passed down to her. And I had lived in Maryland for 10 years and it is spectacular. It's a special, special place.

This was a haven for him, safe from racism. Is it still like that today?

It still is today, absolutely. It's predominantly African-American, and I think what happened is that his son and a couple of neighbors, much like Sag Harbor, much like Oak Bluffs, had a vision. They had a vision of how do we create community and create a space where we are welcome in a country where we are not welcome. And I think that was the goal, has been the goal and they have really maintained that goal. That for me was what was most striking. 

I thought I had seen it all when I went to see Erica while I was writing this and when I actually got to speak to the elders. These are octogenarians that have lived there their whole lives and they're telling me stories about Frederick Douglass' great-great-grandson. It was pretty phenomenal that they were their own griots, their own storytellers. It was all up here and they've managed to maintain it. And that's pretty spectacular. And I think it felt very safe to me. I can only imagine Frederick Douglass sort of sitting across from those waters.

Has anything changed there over the years?

It's about preservation. They have Douglass Street with the two S's and all of that. It's changed somewhat in the sense that they are making sure that they're taking care of the streets, they are improving some of the homes. There's a lot of improvement going on, but the character remains the same. 

"Not only is the majority of the family on my mother's side from Spain, they were also slave owners and they trafficked in the slave trade."

This year you had to examine your own identity and your own history.

Oh yes.

Especially your Puerto Rican heritage. You learned on an episode of “Finding Your Roots” some "deeply disappointing" information about your family's past. Can you speak to that?

Sure, my mom is Puerto Rican and we always knew she was Puerto Rican. My grandmother came directly from Puerto Rico and looked indigenous to Puerto Rico. But my mom is very fair, [with] very fair hair, light eyes. And I don't know, I just never imagined that all of her family are really direct descendants from Spain on her father's side. They're all Spaniards. And with being a Spaniard, sometimes you're a colonizer as well. 

We learned that not only is the majority of the family on my mother's side from Spain, they were also slave owners and they trafficked in the slave trade. Of course that was deeply disappointing because I'm someone that talks about reparations a lot. I'm someone who really believes in racial justice and social activism. I'm a direct descendant of people that made their living on the backs of others' misery. 

Then the flip side, I learned that on my father's side, of course, my father's African American, they were enslaved for as long as we could find back because slave records, they weren't as robust as the Spanish records. But there was one relative who got the right to vote the first time in the 1800s. And the KKK threatened to kill him if he ever voted again. His name is Dean Harris and Dean voted nine times. He voted over and over and over and over again under the threat of the Klan. 

I was just so amazed by that . . . I've never missed an election since I was 18. I vote for everything. I vote for constable in my town. I vote for everything. I will not be deterred. I make everyone vote and I drive people to the polling stations. I've worked at polling stations, I've done all these things. And I didn't realize what was calling me to do that. And in Puerto Rico, there's a saying, the blood calls you. And so while I had this on the other side, I had that. And I also found out about my grandmother who truly is indigenous. I'm like 11% Native, Taino, which is a big number for someone. 

Yes, welcome.

I’m 38% European, yes, but also 52% African American and part Ashkenazi Jew as well. I learned all of these interesting things and at the end of it, Skip Gates actually gave me a book of life, but also gave me a wonderful chart that goes back to the 1600s for my mother's father's side of the family, and then my father's side of the family only to the 1800s. 

We also learned that my father's father, the person he thought was his father, was not, and he had someone else who was 96, and he got to meet him over Zoom. How incredible is that? I got to meet a living grandparent through this process. And my father always thought he would die young because the person he thought was his father died young, but this man lived to be 96.

And herein lies the tie to Olivia and her finding out about her biological family.

That comes directly from the pages of my story.

"I will be inside the Trump courtroom every single day after The View."

So many of the issues on “The View” are well suited to your background as an attorney. You said you never miss an election. What are we going to do? Trump is currently facing 34 felony counts for falsifying business records.

I will tell you something that I'm very excited about. I started my career in television as a courtroom reporter. I was, I think, most well-known not for Casey Anthony, but for the Trayvon Martin case. I was in the courtroom each and every day and I got the first interview with the entire family, and Anderson Cooper was gracious enough to let me conduct that interview with Trayvon's brother, living brother, and his mother and his father. Well, I have my press credentials again. 

I will be inside the Trump courtroom every single day after “The View.” I will be letting people know what I think about what's going on. I'm really excited about it. I actually think if you look at the stats, if you look at some of the polling, not everyone believes in the polling, but 71% of Americans believe that if he is convicted, he should go to jail.

You have moderates and independents that are saying, I will not vote for him if he's convicted. And so this trial people are like, "It's not really a big deal. The most important one is the January 6th one. And that's not going to be until after the election." I think this one is a big deal. It's a big deal enough that I'm going to be there. It's a big deal that people are paying attention. And it's a big deal that Donald Trump has already been fined, I don't know, nine or 10 times because he's so angry about being held to account. He's been found in contempt and fined.

Why does he get 10 tries?

Well, most people don't. But he is a former president and there are logistical problems with putting someone in jail. Te judge made it pretty clear that if he has to put him in jail, he will. And I think that makes a statement. No one is above the law. And so this is the first of four trials that he has, and I believe the American people are tuned in watching this. At least I will be.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

MORE FROM Alli Joseph

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authors Black History Books Fiction Finding Your Roots Frederick Douglass Salon Talks Sunny Hostin