By Alexandra Poolos
Monday, July 3, 2006
June Cross has put her story under the microscope of historical journalism and managed to find, in her own life, a story of not only conflict but also endurance and inspiration. She has now written a book that expands on her film "Secret Daughter."
(WOMENSENEWS)--June Cross couldn't be clearer about her professional identity.
"I identify as a black, woman journalist," said the author of "Secret Daughter: A Mixed Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away."
Cross, an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries and a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, has a long track record of professional accomplishments. She has worked for PBS' "Frontline," CBS News and what was known as the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour" on PBS, covering a range of topics including the defense industry, the Middle East, poverty in the United States, welfare, Haiti and the Cold War.
During a phone interview from a San Francisco stop on her national book tour, Cross said that during her journalism career, perhaps especially when she was covering the defense industry in the early 1980s, she was distinctly aware of the "double-edged sword" of being both African American and female.
"Being a female was always an issue," she said. "Being black was the bigger issue. There's presumption that blacks couldn't write, that they were there because of some affirmative action thing."
And now with her book published in June by Viking, which follows the "Frontline" documentary of the same name eight years ago, Cross has turned her professional eye on herself, telling the story of growing up as the mixed-race daughter of an aspiring white actress and a professional black comedian who was sent by her mother to live with an unrelated black family in Atlantic City, N.J., at the age of 4 when she could no longer "pass" as white.
Cross' story is remarkable not just for the moving and personal account of her own experience of being given up by her mother, Norma Booth, and raised by the dignified black schoolteacher whom she called "Aunt Peggy," but also for the wider lens it casts on a time in U.S. history when a being a married white woman raising a mixed-race daughter was considered virtually impossible.
In her book, Cross details the complicated and intertwined relationships between herself, Booth and Aunt Peggy. She tells of how she initially was raised alone by her mother in a New York apartment after her mother left her father, who had begun abusing her. But when Cross could no longer "pass" as white, her mother arranged for a woman whom Cross would call Aunt Peggy and her husband to raise her. Booth, who eventually married a well-known white comedian and actor, stayed in regular contact with visits, letters and phone calls and was actively involved in parenting questions if from afar. But as Cross grew older she began to feel confusion and deep shame when her mother refused to publicly acknowledge her as her daughter and she had to live a double life.
In describing the layers of duplicity woven around her childhood, Cross also reveals telling details in the larger scenes of the civil rights and women's rights movements. She recounts scenes of visiting her white mother, who resettled in southern California, and listening to upper-middle class white women discuss their clandestine abortions. And she tells the story of the many other women who influenced her, including an older black woman who cleaned Aunt Peggy's house and taught Cross the power of endurance and the importance of dignity and story.
For Cross, writing the book was mainly about understanding the constrictive position society imposed upon all three women, and she says that she wanted her book to describe both the good and the bad of these relationships and to celebrate how lucky she felt to have both women in her life. "Thank god they were both really smart and educated women," she said. "Together they figured out how to get it right."
The power of Cross' narrative is in her painstaking examination of the relationships between herself, her mother and Aunt Peggy.
"I had two mothers and two selves and the question was how to build one woman out of that," she said.
The professionalism of her exploration is a trademark of Cross' journalism. Michael Sullivan, executive producer for special projects at "Frontline," says the film "Secret Daughter" and the subsequent memoir were a natural outgrowth of her previous work doing up-close, in-depth reporting with a historical outlook.
"It was a difficult process for her, but she had worked on this method before," Sullivan said, noting Cross's work on such films as "A Kid Kills" and "Rosa Lee," a story about a welfare mother. "That was the grace which she brought to 'Frontline.' The people who are really stunning at the end of the day are those that do both things: those that stay faithful to themselves but who go out there and do the discipline. For all the passion she brought to these films, she never strayed from the journalism standard."
For journalist Charlyane Hunter-Gault, Cross' story makes "all black women proud." Hunter-Gault, an Africa correspondent and book author, was at "McNeil/Lehrer" when Cross began her career there.
"I think she has opened up an avenue that people can walk down," she said. "It's not a taboo subject, but it's one that a whole generation of young people will be relieved to read. As much progress as we've made, race still touches a nerve."
Hunter-Gault says that Cross is a seminal figure first for her professional standards, but also because she overcame many of the challenges of being black and female in a predominantly white, male profession.
"And that's still the case. I don't see black women being discussed as successors to Peter Jennings or in some of these serious journalist positions in the decision-making positions," she said. "I think that the door has opened a little bit; there's a Creole proverb that translates 'beyond the mountain, more mountain.' And I think that's our lives, unhappily our lot. It's our reality."
Alexandra Poolos is the former managing editor of Women's eNews. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Radio Free Europe and Newsday. She recently graduated with an M.A. in journalism from Columbia University and will travel to Kyrgyzstan as a fellow for "Frontline World."
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