ED GORDON, host:
A decade ago, PBS aired an autobiographical film, Secret Daughter. The film examined how race and color affected one woman and her interracial family. That woman is journalist and TV producer June Cross, the daughter of a white actress and a black vaudevillian entertainer. Inspired by her documentary, Cross has now written a memoir, Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Raced Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away.
Cross very candidly described how she struggled with her identity.
Ms. JUNE CROSS (Author, Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Raced Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away): I grew up as an African American - actually, I grew up as a colored girl, because I came from that generation. We were either colored or Negro back in the 50s and the 60s.
And I think the book actually is a story about what it takes to survive in the racial skin that you choose, or the racial skin that you chose at a certain time in this country's history. You have to keep in mind, I'm born in the 1950s when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states in this country.
And so you really did have to - it was not a choice. It's just begun to be a choice in the 70s and 80s, and I think this generation is sort of redefining, socially and culturally, what it means to be interracial. But in my day, you were either one or the other. And I was - and a lot of it was determined by what you look like.
Ms. CROSS: So I am a sort of - I guess I would call myself - they used to call us café ole. I would call myself a light-brown person with features that identify me as African-American within the construct the United States holds for these things.
GORDON: Often, you know, one grows up believing they are one thing or another...
Ms. CROSS: Mm-hmm.
GORDON: ...whether the world sees you as that or not.
Ms. CROSS: Mm-hmm.
GORDON: So you always saw yourself as a black person?
Ms. CROSS: I always saw myself as a black person, yeah. By definition - I mean, my mother sent me to live with a black family...
Ms. CROSS: ...because she, a white woman, trying to raise an identifiably black child in a white neighborhood in New York City in the 50s was not a viable idea. So I was sent to live with a black family. That made me black.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CROSS: You know, once I got there and I realized that everybody around me, there were lots of people who looked like me. There were lots of people who were darker than I was. But they were all black. They enveloped me and raised me with love. Of course, my allegiance is going to be on the black side.
GORDON: Can you give us, as best you can, a thumbnail of the book and the story?
Ms. CROSS: I do think it is a story about what it takes to survive in whatever racial skin you're in. My mother made a series of choices because she saw herself as a white woman and couldn't figure out a way - she was addicted to the idea of being white, in a way. I was raised in a black family and so that meant a certain set of things for me as we come through the 60s and 70s. Being black in 1968 and '69 meant being black and proud.
I'm identifying as black. She's identifying as white. You know, yes, she's my mother and I was her daughter, but we were always trying to reach across this sort of racial schism, as the country went through the trauma of integrating African-Americans into the American project. My mother and I also went through a similar process on a personal level. So the book tries to work on the personal and the political at the same time.
GORDON: When you look at your mom's life, I mean just the people that she came across. We should not that your father was a Jimmy Cross, who was...
Mr. CROSS: Mm-hmm.
GORDON: ...a black vaudevillian who frequently appeared at the Apollo and made a name for himself through a vaudevillian team. Your mom married, for those of us old enough to remember F Troop, Larry Storch, who was a comedian. And they lived a very traditional Hollywood lifestyle, the glitz and the glamour there.
How much did you have to play between all of these worlds? And were you resentful at all at any time, in not being maybe engulfed in the traditional sense of family?
Ms. CROSS: I always saw it as having sort of playtime. I was raised in - I'm raised in this middle-class environment in Atlantic City, you know. I went to an all black public schools. I had dance classes, I had music classes, I had -I didn't have signing classes, but I didn't go to choral summer camp, so I even did that.
You know, so I'm sort of a little black princess in Atlantic City. And then I get to go to Hollywood and life was sort of wild in Hollywood. I appreciated those months that I would spend out there, and I was always glad to come home. I never really wanted to stay in that life in Hollywood. So I appreciated the stability I had in Atlantic City, and I was glad to return there.
And plus, when I was in Hollywood, especially in my teenage years, there were no - because of the fact my mother and Larry were, you know, didn't want a lot of people to know about me, I really had no friends out there. So I would go to Hollywood and for 30 days I was hanging out with my mother and my stepfather. But, you know, when you're a teenager you want to be around other teenagers. So that was a strong pull to come back to Atlantic City.
GORDON: Many will look for a lesson learned in all of this and how you were able to reconcile being kept at arm's length, to a great degree, yet still not being able to let, what many people would assume, a hatred or anger take over and forging a relationship with your mom.
Ms. CROSS: I think the key to it was that she stayed in contact with me and tried to maintain a relationship with me. She could have just dropped me and walked away. And she didn't; she tried to stay in touch. And so I think that her efforts to maintain a relationship with me were what made it work. And then, Aunt Peggy(ph), the woman who raised me in Atlantic City, Aunt Peggy and Uncle Paul were very understanding. If you kind of think of it, if you take the race out of it and think of it as a, like a joint custody child...
Ms. CROSS: ...my experience of it was more like that. There were periods of - I was a joint custody child. There were periods of time I was living with my aunt and periods of time I was living with my mother. And I went through periods of being angry and resentful at both of them, at different points in my life, the way most kids are. And so the lesson I guess I tried to put in the, you know, the lesson - I don't know what people will take what they take from the book, but I'd like people to think about the personal relationships that one maintains in spite of race, or even through race.
GORDON: Well, it's a fascinating and complex story. The book is Secret Daughter: A Mixed Race Daughter and The Mother Who Gave Her Away. The author is June Cross, and we thank you for your time today.
Ms. CROSS: Thank you very much, Ed.
GORDON: June Cross is currently working on a documentary about the politics of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
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