“So Professor Walzer, what would you tell someone who didn’t have a clear ethnic identity? For example, what would you tell someone who had one parent who was black and another who was white? Who had one parent who was American and another who was European? Who had moved dozens of times as a child and didn’t have a specific place to call home? And not to be coy about it, I’m talking about myself.”
Caught off guard, Walzer answered rather clumsily, “I guess I would say that that’s too bad, and that in the future I hope we don’t have too many more people like you.” Rather than take offense, Whitaker replied, “Look, I think I understand what you’re saying. But I guess I would say that it’s not a matter of choice: The world is going to have a lot more people like me.”
Whitaker was right, of course, as, in the nearly three-and-a-half decades since that encounter, intermarriage between people of almost every imaginable racial and/or ethnic identity has become commonplace. No doubt the offspring of such unions still confront the questions of racial identitythat troubled Whitaker as a teenager, but as white Americans fade into a minority, the urgency of these questions surely will diminish. Born in 1957, schooled in the 1960s and ’70s, Whitaker was something of a pioneer — and has continued to be one, having been the first black in just about every position he’s occupied — but as he understood even as a youth, he was the future.
His father, born in Pittsburgh in 1935, was christened Cleophaus Sylvester Whitaker Jr., a name he so passionately detested — he thought, correctly, that it smacked of slavery — that he insisted on being called Syl, the nickname he kept throughout his life. His mother, born in Cameroon in 1926, was named Jeanne Alice Theis; her French parents were in Africa because her father was a missionary. They met at Swarthmore College in the mid-1950s; she was a teacher of French and he, nine years her junior, was a student. They fell in love and married in France, two months after his graduation in the summer of 1956. Later their son writes:
“ ‘I guess I just assumed everything would work out,’ my mother told me as she looked back. She hardly thought of herself as a spinster, but she was already twenty-eight. Some of her younger sisters were already married, and she always assumed that one day she would be too. She was in love with my father, as she understood it. She never stopped to think what marrying a black man might mean for his career or for any children they might have.”
Mark Whitaker was born a year after his parents married, and his brother, Paul, arrived two years later. Then, five years later, their father announced “that he wanted to separate.” Soon thereafter “they went through the grim motions of divorce.” This was not what Jeanne Whitaker wanted; she still loved her husband and seems to have been willing to overlook his philandering and drinking as the price of preserving the marriage. But he was headstrong, impulsive and self-centered. He wanted other women — all of his women were white — and he saw himself as a rising star in academia, a student of Africa in general and Nigeria in particular, and for quite a while his hopes appeared to be justified, as he bounced around among prestigious appointments at prestigious universities.
His older son at once loathed and adored him. His was a compelling, commanding presence and a fierce, awe-inspiring intelligence, qualities that were bound to appeal to a boy who, though shy, was smart and impressionable. But he was infuriated by his father’s failure to meet his child-support obligations, by the hard life his mother was forced to lead — bringing up two boys on the modest salary she drew teaching French at Wheaton College outside Boston — and by the perfunctory attention his father gave to his two sons. On a rare visit by Syl to his ex-wife and sons during the early 1970s, Mark exploded in fury: “You weren’t a father! You weren’t a man! Paul and I needed a man in our lives, and you weren’t there!”
Relations between father and son remained testy to the end of Syl’s life, which came not long after the election of the first African American president of the United States. Gradually, though, Whitaker began to understand that nursing his anger was fruitless and damaging:
“I had had enough of that anger. I had had enough of it for a lifetime. . . . Unlike his volatile, self-destructive variety, mine was quiet and purposeful, but deep down a rage was burning nonetheless. There were even times when I thought that it wasn’t just love for my wife and children that made me so driven to be a good husband and father. It was also as an elaborate form of revenge. . . . But now he was gone, and I realized that anger wasn’t going to help me anymore. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired too. God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can. . . . Well, I couldn’t change what had happened, but I could change how I chose to remember him.”
He was able, indeed, to recall the good things his father did for him: setting a model of gregariousness and ambition that proved invaluable in his own career, and “the model of a black man who was proud of his racial identity but determined to never be confined by it.” He also was able, in his father’s last days, to let him know “that his sons loved him despite everything that had occurred between us,” knowledge that no doubt helped his father die at peace with himself.
“My Long Trip Home” is not a confessional memoir of the sort so popular these days, especially among younger memoirists who have nothing to confess except the cruelties allegedly inflicted upon them by others or simply by life itself. For the most part Whitaker’s tone is objective, almost reportorial, which permits the reader to see his story clearly rather than through the mists of hyperventilated emotion. It’s a good book.