Rita Dove's poetry career has spanned more than forty years. During that time she won a Pulitzer Prize and became the first African-American poet laureate of the United States. Now she's released a new edition of collected works. Rita Dove on a life lived in verse.
Guest Host: Susan Page
It was the 1950s. He was one of the few African American students at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College. She was a white French teacher. They fell in love, married – at a time when interracial marriage was banned in much of America – and a few years later, divorced. One of the couple’s two children, Mark Whitaker, is managing editor of CNN Worldwide and the former editor of Newsweek. In a memoir, Whitaker explores his unusual family tree, his rift with his father, and why it’s never too late to heal even the oldest wounds.
- Mark Whitaker executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Mark Whitaker’s “My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir.” Copyright 2011 by Mark Whitaker. Reprinted here by permission of Simon & Schuster:
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us, I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's in Maine on a station visit and will be back on Monday. Children often see their parent's faults and vow never to repeat them. Journalist and editor, Mark Whitaker made many such observations growing up as a biracial child in a broken home. But when he began to write his family history, he found more to admire than he'd realized.
MS. SUSAN PAGEHis new book is titled "My Long Trip Home" and Mark Whitaker joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. MARK WHITAKERIt's good to be here, Susan.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation with your questions or comments. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850, we'll go to the phones in just a little while. You can always send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. So your mother, tell us about her.
WHITAKERWell, my mother was born in French Africa, the child of two missionaries, Protestant missionaries. Her mother came from America, from Wooster, Ohio and her father came from Paris and was French. And my mother was raised in Cameroon and Madagascar up until about the age of nine. She was the oldest of what turned out to be eight sisters and when she was nine, they moved to France and my grandfather, who was a French Protestant minister, in addition to a missionary, eventually became one of the religious leaders in a little town in mountains of central France called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
WHITAKERAnd after the Germans occupied France Le Chambon became a center under the direction of my grandfather and his fellow pastor there, a sort of underground railroad for Jews who were hiding from the Nazi and the Vichy police. By the end of the war, they hid thousands, literally thousands of Jews.
WHITAKERHowever, my grandfather, at the very beginning of all this, was very concerned about the fact that the Germans in the countries that they were occupying were denying educational opportunities to girls. So he decided that he was going to send his daughters to America to live with American families during the war.
WHITAKERAnd so they arranged for my mother, who was 14 at the time, and five of her younger sisters who were old enough to travel, got them on a boat with other refugee children, on a boat that arrived in America in 1940. And my mother was placed with a family in Swarthmore, Pa. where she finished high school and went to college and later became a professor. And that's how my mother came to America.
PAGEAnd so that, in itself, could be a book, the story of your mother and her parents. Your father also has his own amazing story. Tell us about him.
WHITAKERWell, my father was black, raised in Pittsburgh, the son of two undertakers. So he grew up -- I call it a world that was a cross between August Wilson and "Six Feet Under." And I discovered, actually I didn't know this, my granddad, my father's father, had suffered a stroke when I was very small so I just remember him as sort of a sad figure in a wheelchair unable to communicate very well.
WHITAKERBut in the course of reporting this book, I discovered what a force of nature he was. He was born on a tenant farm in Texas in 1898, the thirteenth child of a former slave who, you know literally started school in a one-room log cabin school, was educated only through the 7th or 8th grade and then made his way in his teens north as part of the great black migration that Isabel Wilkerson and others have written so well about, to Pittsburgh.
WHITAKERHe started as a laborer in the steel plants in Pittsburgh in the -- it would have been the late teens, early 20s. But then eventually encountered a lot of racism and I discovered actually a document that he had written when he was in a nursing home late in life where he described a lot of his early adventures.
WHITAKERBut he then got a side job as a chauffeur for a white funeral owner who was concerned that with all these black folks arriving in Pittsburgh, he didn't want to have to bury black folks because it would be bad for his business with white folks. So that's what Pittsburgh needed were some black undertakers so he actually set my father, my granddad up in business, which is how my granddad became an undertaker.
WHITAKERSo that's the world my father grew up in, but he became involved -- he was raised as a black Baptist, but his Sunday school teacher suggested when he was in high school that he investigate a Quaker work camp, a summer work camp for students run by the Quakers. So my father started to go to Quaker work camps and sort of became very interested in Quakerism, started to worship as a Quaker, still in his teens and that's what led him to apply to Swarthmore College, a venerable Quaker school outside of Philadelphia.
WHITAKERAnd in the early '50s, he enrolled as the only black, male student at Swarthmore College, which is what he was when my mother who, at that point, was a professor at Swarthmore met him and they fell in love.
PAGESo they had a sort of surreptitious romance while he was still a student there and got married soon after he graduated. You know, these days, interracial marriage is increasingly common. How unusual was it, at that point?
WHITAKERWell, it was still, first of all, illegal, I think, in two thirds or so of states in America. Statistically, I think it was very rare and as you say, my parents' relationship was sort of doubly illicit because not only was it inter-racial, but it was also between a student and a teacher. And they as a result, they met when my mother who oversaw the French club, decided that she wanted to help the students put on a play entirely in the original, in French.
WHITAKERAnd they needed somebody for the part of a tribal chieftain and my father's roommate suggested that my father might play the part, although the problem was he didn't speak French, which is, you know my mother had to tutor him in French, which is how they first got to know each other.
WHITAKERYou know, it is interesting people ask me when they hear about this, well, how did the families on both sides react? And the fact is that my father's parents were very accepting of my mother when they first met her and as were my mother's parents of my father. The university, however, and particularly the university president was not so enlightened when eventually it came out that they were involved.
WHITAKERThe president at Swarthmore at the time was named Courtney Smith and my mother was coming up for tenure at the time that their relationship became public and Courtney Smith tried to block her tenure appointment and my father who through his Quaker contacts knew some civil rights leaders, got them involved, Bayard Rustin, among others, you know, who later organized Martin Luther King's march on Washington, got involved and eventually they kind of, Courtney Smith backed off and my mother got tenure, but it was a little touch and go there for a while.
PAGESo it's a wonderful love story in a way, against the odds, they get married. They have two children, but then they get divorced. And that started a very tough time for you and your mom.
WHITAKERYeah, well, you know, and this is interesting because you know the part of the story that I've just told you is the, you know, the part that always led people when they heard about it to say, you know, that could be a book someday. And one of the reasons that I was reluctant to actually do that for many years was that there was a second part of the story, which is what happened ultimately to their marriage and then after, they broke up.
WHITAKERYou know, and it's a story that, you know, my father got involved with other women. They moved to Princeton where he had become the only -- the first black graduate student in the Department of Politics at Princeton on his way to becoming an African scholar. But Princeton then, perhaps now as well, it's still a prettily, heavily drinking town and they both started to drink more. There was more fighting and then eventually they -- my father was offered a job at UCLA and my mother gave up her tenured position at Swarthmore to follow him.
WHITAKERAnd within a year after they arrived at UCLA, my father asked for a divorce and, you know, it was very acrimonious. My mother hated L.A. She knew -- you know, barely knew how to drive and she tried to sort of patch it up and they went to therapy and so forth and so on. But ultimately, it didn't work out and she brought my brother and me back to the east coast.
WHITAKERAnd my father was supposed to pay child support and, you know, was very unreliable in that regard so she really had to, you know, raise us on her own. And you know, it's interesting because that was a story I became very -- I started to overeat. I became eventually almost 100 pounds overweight. You know that was the difficult part, but it's interesting, though, now that I've written the book and people are reading it, that's the part that people say, well, I've lived that story, you know, being raised by a single mother, having a father who left us struggling with all of those things. So that may be the more universal part of the story.
PAGEAnd the story -- essentially, your book is really about coming to terms with your hatred for your father. Is that right? I mean...
WHITAKERWell, I wouldn't -- well, what I do is sort of trace the journey of my feelings towards my father. And one of the things that I think is important to say is that, you know, I think my memoir is different than a lot of memoirs in that rather than try to settle scores or be melodramatic, I really approach this as a reporter and it was a reporter's attempt to really understand what had happened to my parents and the effect that it had had.
PAGEWe're talking to Mark Whitaker about his new book, "My Long Trip Home". We're going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll go to the phone. Our lines are open, 1-800-433-8850, stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio is Mark Whitaker. He's executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide. He was formerly the Washington bureau chief for NBC News and the editor of Newsweek. He's written a new memoir. It's called "My Long Trip Home." And, Mark, you were saying before the break that you approached this as a reporter would. How did you go about researching your family's history?
WHITAKERWell, you know, I woke up -- my father died two days after Thanksgiving 2008 and a year later to the day in the middle of the night I woke up and I said, you know, I want to try to write a book about him and about our family. And I started writing from memory but realized very quickly that there were a lot of things that I didn't remember very well or I didn't know or I thought I knew but maybe I was wrong. And, you know, after spending 30 years as a reporter, you know, you want to find out what the truth is.
WHITAKERSo I decided to undertake this as a reporting project and doing all the things that a reporter would do. Finding all of the sources and subjects who were still alive who had lived through these events, arranging to interview them. Asking them for letters and documents, a lot of which they had forgotten that they had. Going through those letters and finding keys to various secrets and so forth that perhaps they had forgotten. But I was able to then go back and interview them again.
WHITAKERResearching and finding out more about the worlds that my parents and their grandparents lived through. This is a book -- the backdrop of this book goes from Black Pittsburg to the Civil Rights movement to the Black Power movement, World War II France, the sort of -- the feminist movement which later, you know, after my parents got divorced, became very important for my mother in terms of coming to terms with what had happened. So, you know, I think I did a lot of research in the sort of surrounding historical events as well.
PAGENow, did -- was the attitude of your family members when you came and said, tell me about this or tell me more about that, was it, great we want the record to be clear or was it why are you digging up all this stuff about our family?
WHITAKERWell, you know, it was interesting. At first they said, well we -- a lot of them said that they didn't remember the events very well, and partly because they were -- some of them were painful. But I said, look, you know, let me come and talk to you. And -- because a lot of the sources were elderly I always made it a point to arrange to interview them early in the day so they'd still, you know, have -- be wide awake and have a lot of energy, to make sure that they didn't have other things they had to get to that day, so that once we got going they would have time.
WHITAKERAnd it turned out that actually they remembered a lot more than they thought they did. I also found -- you probably found this as a reporter -- that a great way to sort of get things out of people is, you know, when you either present something that other people have told you or that you think you know, but they think is -- say is wrong then, all of a sudden, their memory becomes very sharp.
WHITAKERBut, you know, I think that in a way approaching it as a reporter, not being judgmental, not saying, why did you do this to me, why did you do this to each other, first of all it gave me a little bit of the detachment that I think I needed to go back and relive these events. But I think it also helped the interview subjects too in terms of I think they realize that I wasn't really trying to get this out of them to pass judgment. And indeed in the book, I don't pass judgment.
PAGEAnd was there anything that you uncovered or discovered that came just as such a surprise, something you just did not understand or realize?
WHITAKERWell, I really hadn't known that much about my father's father. I knew that he -- my father had a very difficult relationship with him and he had been described as a difficult man. What I didn't understand is just how unbelievably both enterprising and tough and charismatic he was. I mean, you know, really to start in a tenant farm in Texas and make your way and become a prominent undertaker.
WHITAKERAnd then he actually divorced -- got divorced from my grandmother and fell on hard times and had health problems and lost his business. But still came back after suffering a heart attack to get on his feet again as a businessman. Then suffered a stroke but still managed to hang on for 20 years. But, you know, he was very tough on my dad. And my dad always -- I don't think it's a stretch -- I didn't hate my father. I went through a lot of difficult periods with him but I think my -- I think it's fair to say that my father did hate his father.
WHITAKERBut I think that was -- turned out, unfortunately, to be the root of a lot -- psychologically of a lot of my father's problems. He ended up being in many ways like his father. But, you know, my father who eventually became a chronic alcoholic to the point of losing prominent university jobs and suffering from the DTs that I had to nurse him through when I was a teenager and so forth, you know, I think his conflict with his father played a role in that. And it was one reason why I was determined both while my father was living later on after he stopped drinking, but then ultimately in writing this book to come to a point of reconciliation with my father and understanding so that I wouldn't sort of repeat that generational pattern.
PAGEAnd you started the book after your father had passed away.
PAGEDo you regret that it's not a process that you had gone through while he was still alive?
WHITAKERWell, you know, the fact is I had -- when people first started suggesting that I might write a book about my parents he was still alive and I approached him. I write about this towards the end of the book. And he had a very sort of characteristic response. He said, well, I suppose I'll agree to talk to you on one condition. He said, I don't want to be the villain of the piece. Now, sort of ironic given that, you know, he first met my mother acting in a play
WHITAKERBut, you know, first of all that shows -- that line itself shows just, you know, how erudite my father was and, you know, he always had a way with sort of phrases and words and so forth. But he was also quite defensive. And I think it would've been actually very difficult to talk to him about these events.
WHITAKERBut, you know, he was a very charming man who I think liked to be the center of attention. So I like to think that at the end of the day since he is a very central figure in this book that he would've liked the fact that he's getting a lot of attention now in the reviews.
PAGELet's go to the phones. We'll invite our listeners to ask us a question, to make a comment. We'll go to Marcella first. She's calling us from Lansing, Mich. Marcella, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARCELLAHi. Thank you so much for having my call. I am the mother of two biracial children and their father and I have made a very conscious effort to have them embrace the fact that their biracial. Not to just identify with one race or the other, which seems to be kinda the opposite of what a lot of very prolific people in, you know, our society are doing. Like, you know, Halle Berry seems to identify herself with more of the African American side.
MARCELLAAnd my question for Mark is what do you seem to identify with? Do you tend to identify yourself with more one race than the other or do you embrace the fact that you're biracial?
WHITAKERWell, you know, this is a terrific question. You know, the fact is when I was growing up there were so few of us that it almost wasn't an issue whether you were black or biracial. It was just that you sort of felt alien really, you know, so different from everybody else. But I write about the fact in the book that by the time I became a teenager and I was in high school and in college in the '70s, there was all of this pressure to so-call self define as black for biracial kids, again, who were still not that great a number at the time.
WHITAKERBut even for a lot of black kids who I met in high school and college who had actually grown up in very integrated circumstances and gone to integrated schools, and some of the same schools that all the white kids had gone to, and yet when they showed up at -- you know, ended up going to Harvard, you know, in the mid to late '70s felt this great pressure to sit at the black table, to live in the black house, to have a black experience.
WHITAKERAnd, you know, you see this -- you mention Halle Berry, but I think you see this in Barack Obama. You know, his story as told in his autobiography is largely about somebody who really probably grew up, had even less exposure to American Black culture than I did, or a lot of kids did. Because his father, first of all, left when he was very young and came from Africa. And yet, you know, clearly decided that he had to very consciously define himself as a black man.
WHITAKERYou know, so look, my father always told me -- there were two things about my father. I mean, on the one hand he never wanted to be confined by being black. And obviously, he grew up in an era where society was confining you in that way and he was determined not to allow society to do that. But on the other hand, he identified strongly. He was proud of having come from Pittsburgh. He became an Africa scholar. And he always told me, look, you know, the fact is, you know, in America if you have black -- any black blood, you know, you are black. That is how, you know, race has been defined and you have to be -- embrace that and be comfortable with it.
WHITAKERBut he -- you know, and I -- but at the same time, I never felt that I had to, in any way, deny the white side of my heritage either. And I've got to say that I am very heartened and encouraged that there is a generation now of kids who have grown up biracial who feel that they don't have to choose. And that actually the latest census results show that the growth in the number of biracial -- people who are identifying -- self-identifying as biracial has been greater than the growth in the number of people who identify as African American.
WHITAKERSo it's obviously from a -- still from a numerically low base. But I just think that's great that people -- you know what? I don't pass judgment. You can do it either way but that people feel that they have that -- that young people feel they have that freedom I think is terrific.
PAGEMarcella, thanks very much for your call. Let's go to Jeremy. He's calling us from Raleigh, N.C., I think has a related comment. Hi, Jeremy.
JEREMYHey, how are you doing?
JEREMYGood. Yeah, I had a quick question. I am biracial -- well, multiracial. My father was black and Hispanic and my mother's white. And in high school, you know, I had, you know, somewhat kind of pressure on me, you know, in class sometimes. Like, you know, pretty much all through high school people would just be -- I would just be hanging out and they'd lean over and just be like, you know, what are you? And (unintelligible) ...
PAGEAnd Jeremy how would you answer that?
JEREMYWell, I think the most -- the one thing I had told them was, you know, I guess I'm me, you know. And I wanted to ask the panel, you know, what -- did he get any kind of questions like that? And, you know, how did he respond?
PAGEAll right, Jeremy. Thanks so much for your call.
WHITAKERYeah, it's -- you know, I encountered a lot of that. You know, particularly once I started to go to school. But, you know, again I think partly because, you know, my father, for all of his problems and the problems we had together, was someone who always sort of insisted that I should be my own person. I just felt free to have the friends that I wanted to have. And some of them are black but, you know, my two college roommates, one of them was Hispanic and the other one was, you know, a southerner from West Virginia.
WHITAKERAnd, you know, I always felt very determined to take full advantage of all the opportunities I had to meet different kinds of people rather than to just limit myself to one group.
PAGEWe also have an email from Philip who writes, "As a mixed race person who wrote his Master's thesis on the subject of racial identity in 1993, I am glad to see that we are illustrating our proto American culture as I anticipated. Thank you for adding your voice." I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking phone calls, 1-800-433--8850.
PAGEYou know, Mark, you mentioned Barack Obama's experience and I know that when Diane had a Reader's Review panel talking about Barack Obama's book about his father, you were on the show on that panel.
WHITAKERI was, yeah, yeah, ironically.
PAGEIt does seem like there are some real parallels between your experience and his experience.
WHITAKERWell, there are in the sense that, you know, his parents were interracial, they came from the academic world. His father was both very brilliant, but also very self-destructive, as was mine. I think the major difference besides the fact that he's the President of the United States and I'm just, you know, someone who's had a career in journalism is that he never really knew his father. You know, his father left him and his mother when he was a small child. He only met him a couple of times after that. So his book is really about the search for identity. How he learned to be a man and a black man in the total absence really of a father.
WHITAKERMy story is much more about a very complicated 50-year relationship with my father, also with my mother. And, by the way, I'm going to thank you for starting with my mother because I think she is -- she was a less flamboyant character than my father, but in some ways, I think the hero of this book for people who read it. You know, but, you know, I went through many complicated -- you know, I found out I worshiped my father as a child. I found out, actually in the letters and so forth that I collected and the interviews that I did, how much I worshiped him.
WHITAKERI was very depressed and hurt when I was separated from him, which led to, you know, my eating problems and becoming very overweight for much of my childhood. When he reentered my life in my teens and I deeply wanted to have a relationship with him he was falling apart with his drinking. And then when he finally gave up drinking and pulled out of that I was making my way, you know, with my own career, my own family. Sort of trying to prove that I could be everything that he wasn't, which made it very competitive for that period of my adulthood.
WHITAKERAnd it was really only late in his life after he retired that we started to spend more real quality time together, get to know each other. And at that point he actually gave me a lot of advice -- 'cause my father was a very brilliant man despite all of his, you know, sort of personal demons -- that I valued at the time. But that I valued even more as I went back and remembered and saw, you know, how right he was about a lot of the things that he advised me on.
PAGEOur first callers were interested in the question of how one self defines. And interesting that President Obama's made it clear that he defines himself as an African American, as a black man even though he is, you know, the definition of a biracial person. What do you think about that?
WHITAKERWell, look, you know, again I don't pass judgment. I think it's -- I think people have a right to sort of embrace the identity that they want to embrace. And I think that, you know, with President Obama I think there are a lot of different -- you know, I think, you know, he wanted to have a clear identity. I think it also had to do with moving to Chicago and becoming part of that community. A huge part of it was meeting Michelle Obama -- Michelle Robinson and, you know, becoming sort of part of her family, too.
WHITAKERBut, you know, look, I mean, I think it had certain political benefits, too, and I think it was clear from a fairly early age that he had ambitions to be a public figure.
PAGEWe're talking with Mark Whitaker. He's the author of a new book, "My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones, we'll read some of your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio is Mark Whitaker. He's the author of, "My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir." He's also the executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide. He was formerly the Washington bureau chief for NBC News and the editor of Newsweek. You know, we've gotten some emails on this topic.
PAGELet me just take one of them; this particular one is from Fran. She says, "Several years ago I saw a documentary on PBS hosted by Bill Moyers. The film was produced by a young American man who grew up in New York City. As an adult, this young man was told by his parents that they were Jewish and had been sheltered in that little Huguenot town in central France that your guest speaker mentioned." "I'm wondering if Mark Whitaker is a decedent of any of the clergy who protected the Jewish children hiding there."
WHITAKERI was, I was. My grandfather was named Edward Theis, T-H-E-I-S, which is my mother's maiden name. And he was one of two Protestant pastors who were the leaders in that village. The other one was named Andre Takme (sp?) and they met as divinity students in Paris when they were studying to be clergyman. And eventually when the war broke out and the Germans occupied France they took it upon themselves to, literally, organize these villagers who, you know, were just ordinary farmers and so forth and so on.
WHITAKERThey had a whole system where they would -- when Jews and other refugees were sent to them or arrived they would, sort of, place them with villagers around the town. And, you know, this became a famous story. There's a very good book called, "Less Innocent Blood Be Shed," which was written about it. Several movies -- a movie called, "Weapons of the Spirit." My grandparents -- both of them -- my mother's parents are now -- were named righteous gentiles by the state of Israel and are honored in Yad Vashem and in the Holocaust Museum here in Washington for that.
PAGEWe -- you mentioned the advice you got from your father and how, only over time, did you come to realize how valuable or how right he would be. And, you know, when -- in your book you write about when you were named the editor of Newsweek your father said so you'll be Newsweek's first black editor. Are you ready for all the attention and expectations that will come with that? Were you?
WHITAKERI wasn't really. You know, I had started working for Newsweek as a summer intern when I was in college and really risen through the ranks and I thought, sort of, ultimately earned the job of editor, sort of, the old fashioned way -- doing all the jobs that, you know, you do on the way up the ladder. I had covered a fair number of stories. You know, I covered the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and wrote the cover story when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
WHITAKERI had written a fair amount about racial issues around the O. J. Simpson trial and some other big stories we had covered, but I'd also covered, you know, many other stories as business editor and an international writer and so forth and so on. And it surprised me. My father was absolutely right that when I was named the editor that was the entire focus, the first African American editor of a national news magazine.
WHITAKERThere was a reporter who came to our news meeting shortly after I took over and the lead of his story about how unusual it was to see a room full of white journalists taking direction from a black editor. And, you know, what I would say when people asked me about that is that I was proud of that and thought that perhaps I could from my -- given my background and perspective be a champion for some smart coverage about racial issues and other related issues. But, at the end of the day, I wanted to be the best editor of Newsweek that I could be, period, not just the best black editor.
PAGEHow was it that you ended up leaving Newsweek?
WHITAKERWell, you know, I had been the editor for almost eight years and Don Graham who then owned Newsweek, the Graham family, the Washington Post Company, approached me and said, you know, I think that increasingly the future of journalism is going to be online and on the web. They -- The Washington Post had bought Slate, this very cleaver online publication from Microsoft and they were having good business results of that.
WHITAKERSo he asked me to take on a new job developing other editorial websites along the lines of Slate, which I did. And, you know, I was kind of busy working at that, but then I was approached about six months later by NBC News by Steve Capus who had just taken over the president there. And, you know, the -- I was itching to get back into just, you know, real reporting and I'd grown up watching NBC and Huntley Brinkley and so forth and I thought it was a great opportunity. I think, you know, in this day and age, if you care about news you have to care about television news and an opportunity to have an influence there.
PAGEYour father, though, had talked about Shakespearean-type intrigue and with your leaving of Newsweek did you feel -- did you feel betrayed?
WHITAKERWell, a little bit, you know, I mean I think that look my father was a student of politics and, you know, he understood that things were always political and that by -- as soon as I became editor it was a great opportunity, but there would also be people who resented me, people who had their knives out for me, people who would be gunning for my position. And, you know, he turned out to be right about that.
WHITAKERYou know, there are -- I had a very ambitious deputy who, you know, I think wanted my job and, you know, I think became inpatient and part of the story of my leaving Newsweek also had to do with that. And, you know, I think that's sort of what my father had been warning me about over the years. And he turned out to be right about that, but, you know, it turned out OK for me.
PAGEYou're at CNN now. There is such a battle among the cable networks. We talked about racial identity. There's a lot of ideological identity going on with the cable networks. What do you hope to do at CNN?
WHITAKERWell, you know, it's interesting. When CNN approached me, it was interesting. I was finishing this book -- finishing the writing of this book and I realized that there was an opportunity, I thought, uniquely, at CNN, given for what it stood for in the past, to have another phase in my career where I'd really get to act on some things that had deep personal meaning for me because of my background.
WHITAKERThe first thing was the coverage of international news. You know, and given my family background, the fact that my mother was French. My father was a scholar of Africa. You know, I think that it's very important for Americans to understand what's going on around the rest of the world. CNN is the one television news organization that has really continued to expand in that area; has an international network.
WHITAKERAnd I thought, you know, if I could come to CNN and convince them to bring more of their international coverage to their domestic airwaves that that would be a good thing. I also thought that in this whole issue of how we cover America as it becomes more multicultural; as we move towards an America by mid-century that's going to where, you know, traditional minorities are going to be in the majority that CNN also, I think, could play a major role in covering that in a smart way. And not a sort of from a point of view of denial or thinking that this is America's falling apart because of all of this.
WHITAKERAnd, finally, you know, a lot has been written about CNN being in the center politically. You know, my parents had, you know, their own political views, but they were -- always taught me, both directly and by example, to be skeptical of anybody's party line. And, you know, I think that that's what CNN should stand for when it comes to covering politics.
PAGEI wonder if you have concerns, though, that FOX has become such a powerful force with many conservative anchors appealing to people of conservative views, MSNBC has some straight news shows, but also some shows that are by very liberal anchors. And I wonder if you worry about kind of the American population sorting itself out so that not only do they disagree on the proper policy ahead, but they disagree on what the news is or who they believe in telling the news.
WHITAKERWell, look, you know, I think that phenomenon of people being able to choose their sources of news is just a reality today. And I don't think -- I mean, the day when there was one institution or a handful of institutions that were considered the gold standard and everybody kind of accepted their version of the news that's just gone. We don't live in that world. But I do feel very strongly that there has to be an alternative to just a sort of, you know, lock step knee jerk political coverage on either the right or the left. And I think that certainly in the cable news world I think, you know, that's what CNN stands for.
PAGEAnd let me just ask one last question. I think one of the things that's frustrating to some people who want to get news from cable is the amount of attention paid to things like the Amanda Knox trial or the Michael Jackson's doctor's trial. Do you think that CNN has overdone it's hour after hour coverage of some events like that?
WHITAKERWell, I've got to say I won't speak for what CNN did in the past before I arrived there, but, you know, I don't think that's happened since I've been there. We have a sister network, HLN, which gives us a lot of that, you know, that kind of coverage to some of those stories, but, you know, the fact is despite some skepticism from some of my colleagues when I arrived about my crusade on behalf of international news, we have done more international coverage than we have in a very, very long time at CNN this year.
WHITAKERAnd our ratings are up 50 percent. Now those have been -- there have been some pretty dramatic foreign news stories, but I think that's evidence that, if you do it well, it doesn't necessarily have to be a ratings killer.
PAGELet's go back to the phones and talk to Achim (sp?) , he's calling us from Houston, hi, Achim.
ACHIMHi, yes, I have a question for your guest. I am from Africa. I just want to know in what way is the fact that him being biracial -- in what way has that opened a door for him or closed any door against him?
PAGEAll right, Achim, thanks very much for your call.
WHITAKERWell, you know, one of the interesting themes, I think, in the book is to see how -- what the opportunities and what the obstacles were for my grandfather compared with my father compared with me. And all of us -- the one thing that all three of us shared in common was, I think, a great deal of ambition and desire to sort of expand into new worlds. My grandfather ran against, you know, the obstacles of racism at the time over and over again in a way that he -- you know, although he was a pioneer in his own right, I think, ultimately found very, you know, dispiriting.
WHITAKERMy father had that early in his life but then had all kinds of doors opened once you sort of got into the age of the post civil rights age of affirmative action, but, unfortunately, at a time when he couldn't take full advantage of them because of his personal problems. You know, look I freely admit in the book that being a person of color has provided opportunities for me. You know, when I was first hired as an intern at Newsweek they were specifically looking for black kids and other diverse kids, you know, who might fit in and do well at Newsweek.
WHITAKERYou know, I also think that growing up in two worlds -- in a white world and a black world -- had two advantages for me. One is that it made me appreciate both sides of those stories and, indeed, different cultural viewpoints in general, but, also, you know, I was just comfortable around white people, you know. And the fact is you still, as a black executive today, have to live in a world that's largely white and it helps when, you know, you feel at ease around white folks.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We're taking your calls 1-800-433-8850. Tito is calling us from Chapel Hill, N.C. Tito, thanks for holding on.
TITOHi, I have a question for Mark Whitaker. I was a student at (word?) and when your grandfather was the director of the school and I knew him a tiny bit -- as much as a student might know the director -- and then later I was involved at the school. Now I work with Hispanics who are not legal in this country. And it seems like there's some lessons maybe from there to here because the school was taking in all sorts of people who didn't have papers who were traveling like, as you said, on the underground railroad, but it seems like nowadays we have the same phenomenon.
TITOAnd I was wondering if you had any insights, you know, from your background about what's happening with this enormous number and the huge demographic changes happening in the United States right now.
PAGETito, before Mark addresses that, can you tell us just a little more about how you happened to be a student at that school?
TITOWell, my parents had a year overseas and they sought out (word?) as a place for me and my brother to be students. So we were there -- I was in (word?) and my brother was in another -- he was in (word?) and so we were students there for the last year that Whitaker's grandfather was the director.
PAGEAll right. Well, thank -- that's so interesting. Thanks so much for your call.
WHITAKERHe was referencing the grades. Those are what they're called. I was actually in (word?) , which was, I guess, the equivalent of ninth or tenth grade when I spent a year in France in -- so just a little bit on the culture stuff. My grandfather in this little town, not only, you know, was the religious leader, but actually founded and then ran a school -- a Protestant school -- there that many Americans have gone to over the years.
WHITAKERLook, you know, I think that -- in fact I've, you know, I say this all the time in our editorial meetings at CNN -- that the issue of immigration, I think, is one of the great issues, I think, in this country and will be for the rest of this century. And I don't think that -- I don't see how we move forward as a country in a really productive way without coming to terms with this and having, you know, serious immigration reform.
WHITAKERAnd the one thing that, I think, is really a shame right now and certainly, you know, is part of, you know, my whole family history is that, you know, when immigrants to this country embrace learning and, you know, participate in our educational system and succeed in our educational system and want to advance in our educational system and stay here after they've had the benefits of our educational system -- the fact that our current immigration laws make that difficult, I think, is a total scandal.
PAGEWe are almost out of time. I want to ask you just quickly one last question which is what would you hope a reader would take away from your memoir?
WHITAKERWell, you know, ultimately -- I talked about this earlier -- my story is not an attempt to condemn or to feel sorry for myself or be too melodramatic. It's to understand. And, you know, ultimately, I think that it's -- you know, it's where I come from as a reporter, but, ultimately, I think, you know, it's very therapeutic, I think, not to just sort of put aside, you know, your feelings towards your parents, but to really try to understand where they came from and, ultimately, how that affected the family and the rest of your life.
PAGEMark Whitaker, author of, "My Long Trip Home." Thanks so much for being with us this hour.
WHITAKERSusan, thanks for having me.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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