Saturday, November 26, 2011

"My Long Trip Home" by Mark Whitaker

It has always been my belief that, like it or not; and for better or worse; we are all the sum total of our parents, and grandparents. Those 2 generations are the ones which define us, socially, as well as morally. In Mark Whitaker's life he was blessed with a rare mixture of race, and values, all of which served him well on the path to becoming the first African-American to attain the lofty position of Editor In Chief of Newsweek, and still later, Executive Vice president of CNN Worldwide.

The book is an amalgam of several stories; the first is that of his great grandfather, Frank Whitaker, and his son, Cleophaus Sylvester Whitaker, Sr., known to all as "Cleo". Frank was a slave until the age of 12, when he went to work on a tenant farm. As a matter of fact, the last name Whitaker is a combination composed of the words "white", for the cotton they picked, and "acre", for the land they picked it on. Frank wanted more for his son, so the elder "C.S." was sent west to get an education at one of the few schools for African-Americans at the time. That was in Oswego, Kansas where he lived with his mother's family while attending school. The difference between life for black people in Kansas, compared to Texas impressed "C.S." to the point of wanting to live somewhere else.

Arriving in Pittsburgh, "C.S." was an undertaker's assistant, and proved so adept at the trade that he became one of Pittsburgh’s first black Funeral Home owners. Eventually, his wife opened a second Funeral Home, which came in handy after they had divorced. Their son, Cleophaus, Jr., was in constant conflict with his father, eventually leaving the family to begin a life of his own. He was headed for the academic world, where he would leave his mark as a major influence in African Studies, eventually chairing the first African Studies Department at Harvard.

The author's mother, Jeanne Alice Theis, came from a totally different world. She was white, and came from a family of missionaries during the days leading up to the Second World War. Her parents, and their whole village in Poland, were involved in smuggling Jews out of the country, as well as hiding them in their homes.

The story of how these two very different people met; she was his teacher at college; and began a life together in 1960's America is astonishing. This account of their backgrounds, as well as the story of their son's journey to success, is well worth reading. It gets complicated, and some of the stories the author tells are not easy to hear, but they are essential to the understanding of ourselves as people, as well as the world in which we live.

In some ways Mark Whitaker's struggle is reminiscent of Barack Obama's life story as he struggles to define, first, who he is, and secondly, who his parents really were, and how their trials and tribulations affected him. In a way, it is a story not unlike our own, as we all search for the deeper meaning behind who we are, and where we are headed.

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