Living In The Shadow Of Family Secrets

Oprah Winfrey's recent revelation about a half-sister she never knew she had, sparked widespread online discussion about family secrets, shrouded in shame. As part of Tell Me More's special focus on the American family today, host Michel Martin speaks with biracial authors June Cross and Gregory Williams. Both grew up estranged from their white heritage, in part, because of a sense of shame.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're taking a break from international news today to go back to a big story from another world, the world of entertainment and media. It's about Oprah Winfrey and the bombshell she delivered to her audience late last month. Here's a clip, in case you missed it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host, "The Oprah Winfrey Show"): So, a few months ago, right around Thanksgiving, I found out that I have a half sister I never knew about. I didn't even know that my mother gave up a baby for adoption in 1963. I can't tell you how many times I'd done a story like this on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and seen the surprise on somebody else's face. It's not something I ever thought would happen to me or our family.

Needless to say, it's something you need to process when it happens. And I'm telling you today because my family and I agreed that we wanted to do it on our terms and not have it become some big tabloid spectacle with all of the facts getting confused.

MARTIN: Well, that announcement from Oprah on her program, of course, got us thinking about everybody else's families and the secrets and truths that many people carry around with us, for better or worse. So we've decided to devote this program today to families and the things that we keep secret and how that affects our lives.

We'll also talk about the changing definition of family, which, it turns out, is very much tied to what some of us believe should be hidden and what many of us believe belongs in the open. We'll have more on that later.

But first, we have two people who have each lived a powerful story of a family secret, and they've also chosen to talk about it. June Cross is a journalist and a professor of journalism. She's the daughter of a black father and a white mother. When she was four, her mother sent her to live with a black family because her mother feared that young June was too dark to pass for white. June Cross wrote a book about it called "Secret Daughter: A Mixed Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away." And she also made a film called "Secret Daughter."

Gregory Williams is the son of a white mother and a father who passed himself off as Italian. Young Gregory learned after moving from Virginia to Indiana that his father was actually African-American, and that information and that move changed his life dramatically. Gregory Williams is now the president and a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati. He has also written a book called "Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black."

And they're both with us now, and we thank you so much for joining us.

Professor JUNE CROSS (Journalism, Columbia University): Thanks for having us.

Professor GREGORY WILLIAMS (President, University of Cincinnati): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Now, I wanted to call both of you because each of you is accomplished in your field. And this isn't something that you had to talk about. And so I did want to ask each of you why you did want to talk about this, go public with this and write books about your experiences. June Cross, why don't you start?

Prof. CROSS: Well, for me, it started right after the Rodney King riots. I was working at a PBS documentary series called "Frontline" and we were trying to figure out a way to get at the race question in the United States. And I was tired of doing these stories where you go interview African-Americans about what's wrong with this country that we keep going through this.

And I really spent about two years trying to find different ways into it. And then, finally, I realized - or, you know, sort of with some help from colleagues at "Frontline," who by this time knew the story - that I had it in my own family. And the only white person that I was likely to get to talk honestly about it was my mom.

MARTIN: Gregory Williams, president - Mr. President Williams, why did you decide to talk about this? As I mentioned, you were already very successful in the field of law at the time that you decided to write your book. Tell us why you decided to tell your story.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, Michel, actually, I've spent the last 30 years in higher education. And during that time, I've talked to a lot of students about struggles they faced in their lives and how they overcome obstacles and move forward. And I've told bits and pieces of my stories to students, and they seemed to draw some inspiration from them. In fact, many of the students said to me, Professor Williams, why don't you write a book?

And I started thinking, well, maybe I might have a story of overcoming struggle and odds and moving forward despite racism and discrimination that I faced as a kid. And so that really was a major impetus, plus my wife always telling me that I should tell this story.

MARTIN: Mr. Williams, I want to pick up on this question, something that Oprah talked about when she talked about this with her audience. She talked about the sense of shame that she had carried around with her - not just because of her mother's story, but her own story, issues around, like, the fact that she had become pregnant as a young girl and what happened there.

And she talked about the sense of shame and wanting to be done with it. And I wanted to ask you - and President Williams, I'll ask you this first, and then, June, I'll ask you to pick up the thread. Did you feel a sense of shame around your circumstances?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, I was really confused. My change really came when I was about 10 years old and I'd grown up in, really, a white environment. My dad was passing for white. And then, of course, the change was just absolutely amazing after my mother left when I was 10. And we went back to Indiana and I learned that I really was mixed race. And people started treating me differently. And so it was confusing for a 10-year-old, saying, well, why am I being treated different today than I was yesterday?

But I didn't really talk about it a lot. In fact, you know, there's a lot of mixed race in African-American families, and they don't really talk about that that much. And so it was kind of a mixed bag there.

MARTIN: Well, there's the internal world and there's the external world. I mean, one of the passages in your book that I found really compelling and heartbreaking was how in your school records, for example - you're a terrific student, as someone might imagine. And at one point on your school records, there's a notation that your teachers should not be fooled by your appearance, you know, letting people know that you are to be treated as black, no matter what you did.

Prof. WILLIAMS: You know, I was a high school student, a high school senior when I saw that, and it just absolutely shocked me and blew me away. I mean, that was a note that had been made when I was a fourth-grade student, as opposed to talking about the poverty I was living in, the fact that I needed glasses in the fourth grade and no one helped me get them. But the major thing that folks were interested in was my racial background. I mean, it was just incomprehensible.

MARTIN: June, what about you?

Prof. CROSS: I didn't personally experience the shame because one of the great things about being raised by the black family that raised me was that they spent a lot of time making sure I had a secure sense of self-esteem. Shame wouldn't be the correct word. My mother experienced a lot of shame, and that was what I had to help her get through before she would agree to appear on camera.

The period in which she lived with my dad, she was on welfare. There was a period where she was reduced to prostitution for a while. It wasn't something that she wanted to relive, and she felt a great deal of shame about having done what she did. And even he had been physically abusive. So she had a lot of issues around why had I allowed this to happen to me ever in the first place. That really, I had to help her walk through that before I could get her to agree to go on camera.

MARTIN: Author and journalist June Cross and Gregory Williams, author and the president of the University of Cincinnati, have both written about their unique family histories and the role that family secrets played in their earlier lives. They've written books about it, and now we're talking about this in a special program today on families and the secrets that they carry.

Race was central to the family secrets that were in your - each of your families. So, Gregory Williams, I wonder if - and I'm asking you to speculate -whether you think that there would be this powerful sense of mystery today. If your parents were a mixed race couple today, do you think that they would've had this need to obscure their identities in the way that they did, if they would've behaved the way that they did?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Michel, I wish I could say today is different, and I'm sure it is in many respects. But I've done a lot of book tours around the country, and invariably, when I go up - and I remember in particular. I went up to this mixed-race couple and asked - they were asking me to sign a book to her parents. She was white. The husband was black. And I said, well, what should I say? And they said, well, we don't know. They haven't talked to us for five years since we've been married.

So I wish I could say it's different today, and I'm sure it is, to a large respect. But there are still situations where even mixed-race couples today are facing some very hard difficulties.

MARTIN: June, what do you think?

Prof. CROSS: I think it is different, and I also think it's the same. And I don't know how to quantify to what degree it's different. I do know that when you're sort of living in this craziness of being not who you are, you do sort of open yourself up to what Oprah experienced. I know when I wrote my own book, A, I found out that I had a sister on my father's side I never knew I had. And then after I wrote the book, another sister that my mother had had and put up for adoption sort of found us, which was wonderful.

You know, I mean, how many children have the - sort of the honor of being able to give their mother back the children that they never thought they'd ever see again? But it is a lot to process. And you have to change your sense of identity of yourself, your sense of what family is. You have all these other family members that, all of a sudden, you have to begin to embrace. And then it really gets crazy around Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter. It's, like, who am I going to go visit?

And when I've talked to kids who come from divorced families that sort of face this same thing, but for some reason it feels, I feel it more keenly, because everything in this country gets touched by race and then it becomes, like, it's like a hotwire, you know. (unintelligible) black side or the white side. It gets really insane.

MARTIN: So, in the couple of minutes that we have left, I'd like to ask each of you: What words of wisdom do you have for people who may be living with such secrets now? June, do you want to start?

Prof. CROSS: You know the - you remember that song that Whitney Houston wrote, "The Greatest Love of All"? Go listen to that song, and keep listening to it. The love - learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. And it is the hardest thing to do when you're living with not just a racial secret, any kind of secret. And if it's impossible, go seek help. Talk to a therapist. Don't feel like you can't trust anybody, ever. There's got to be somebody in the world that you can unburden yourself with.

MARTIN: Gregory Williams, what about you? Any words of wisdom for those who may be living - not your specific circumstances, which are quite unique, but similarly carrying around something of which they are ashamed?

Prof. WILLIAMS: There's great freedom in telling the story. It's not a burden you have to carry any longer. It allows you to move forward in your life, in the way that you could never imagine. My writing the book really changed my life, and it allowed me to move forward and not be burdened by the past.

MARTIN: Gregory Williams wrote the book "Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black." He is currently serving as the president of the University of Cincinnati. He's also a professor of law there, and he joined us from his office there.

June Cross is a journalist and the author of "Secret Daughter: A Mixed Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away." And she also is the filmmaker behind the PBS "Frontline" documentary "Secret Daughter." She's also an associate professor at Columbia journalism school. And she joined us from our studios in New York.

Thank you both so much for joining us and for telling these stories.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Prof. CROSS: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.