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Stars Screen Binge Culture Media. Tech Innovate Gadget Mission: Facebook Twitter Instagram. Chat with us in Facebook Messenger. Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds. Story highlights In new book, CNN managing editor tells story of his family Mark Whitaker's father met his mother at Swarthmore, where she was a professor The couple secretly dated in the s before marrying Parents shared "commitment to battling the world's evils by turning the other cheek".
Growing up, I always took it for granted that it was my mother who was first attracted to my father. After all, he was the exotic one, the gregarious one, the charm machine. She was the shy one, the one who stuttered so badly as a child that her parents sent her away to be treated by doctors in Paris and who still got self- conscious when she couldn't get her words out quickly. But when I went back and investigated, it turned out that it was the other way around: He became obsessed with her.
She had noticed him around campus, of course. As one of the few black students at Swarthmore College in the mids, he was hard to miss. She had heard him perform once or twice: He played the guitar and sang folk songs. For a while, he earned pocket money by recording radio commercials, and later she would hear one of his jingles playing on the air and feel a shiver of pride when the announcer said that if the young man with that voice ever turned professional, he would give him a contract.
But that was news to me too, since I have no memories of my father singing. They met in his junior year, thanks to a play. Jeanne Theis was a French instructor in her fourth year of teaching at Swarthmore. She was also the faculty adviser for the French Club, and she decided that it would be fun to help the students put on a production in the original. To direct, she enlisted Michael DeLaszlo, a junior from England who had taken one of her classes as a freshman.
They cast most of the parts but didn't have anyone to play Chief Outourou, the tribal leader who greets the explorers. DeLaszlo said he knew someone who had the perfect look for the part: Mark Whitaker. More Videos Mark Whitaker The only hitch was that he didn't speak French. When he agreed to take on the role, she had to coach him so he could learn his lines and speak with a convincing accent. They met before rehearsals and several times in her apartment, in a dorm called Roberts, where she oversaw French Hall, a suite of rooms for students who wanted to speak the language and attend her weekly teas.
She was impressed by how quickly he learned and by what a good mimic he was. They laughed at the part where the chief, to show hospitality, offers his daughters to the flustered, repressed Englishmen. She noticed how his cheeks dimpled when he smiled and how the worry lines in his forehead creased when he was making a serious point. In all, there was no mistaking how handsome he was, particularly when he put on his grass-skirt costume for rehearsals and bared his dark, muscular chest.
But she was startled the night of the wrap party, which she threw at Roberts, when they were talking in a corner of her crowded apartment and all of a sudden he kissed her. He must have seen her blushing, since her skin was fair and freckled and framed by black hair that she wore, Jean Seberg-style, in a short bob. But her diffidence didn't deter him.
In fact, it may have been part of the allure when he had fantasized about wooing her, as he must have done, since in a black student would hardly have dared to kiss his white teacher on the lips simply on a spur-of-the-moment whim. He started to come by Roberts every few days, for an hour or so at a time. They would listen to music, and he brought his favorite 45s and introduced her to black jazz singers like the infectious Nellie Lutcher and Eartha Kitt, with her seductive purr.
Sometimes he would kiss her or hold her hand, and she would primly consent, but mostly they talked. He told her about growing up in Pittsburgh, about his parents the morticians and what it was like to live above a funeral parlor. When his mother came to visit friends in Philadelphia, he arranged for them to meet.
My mother was instantly impressed by Grandmother Edith's light-skinned beauty and her elegant manner and entertaining way of speaking. He rarely mentioned C. He confessed that his father had beaten him as a child. Eventually they discovered what was for him a humiliating coincidence: My mother had gone to graduate school at Bryn Mawr with a girl who came from Harrisburg and whose family had employed Granddad as a butler after he lost his business.
She told him about her parents, about how they met as Protestant missionaries in Africa, where she was born and spent much of her childhood before they moved to France. She described how she came to America on a boat with five of her little sisters when she was fourteen and went to live with the family of Dr. Enders, the Swarthmore biology professor, which was how she came to attend college there and later return to join the French Department.
And she explained the reason her parents had sent her away, the dangerous work that caused Pastor Theis to be watched and arrested by the Vichy police. She told him how much she loved and admired her father and how sad she thought it was that he disliked his own so much. They reminisced about student work camps. After the war, she had returned to France for several summers to attend the work camps at the boarding school that her father had founded in the mountains of central France, joining young people who came from across the country and as far away as Britain and America to build classrooms and dorm barracks.
In high school, he had started going to summer work camps run by the Quakers. His Bible school teacher at Bethany Baptist, his family's church in Pittsburgh, had first told him about a Friends camp in Ithaca when he was fifteen. He decided to go there after some local Quakers offered to pay his way, although for the life of him he couldn't understand why well- to- do white kids from places like New York and Boston and Chicago would spend good money to do manual labor in the hot summer sun.
When he arrived in upstate New York and was first introduced to Quaker ideas about nonviolence, "I told them that I had never heard anything more preposterous," he would later tell the author of a book about the Friends. But before long he found himself drawn to the faith's teachings about simplicity and pacifism and the subtle power of silent prayer, so different from the raucous call-and-response of the black church services he was used to.
Around the campfire at night, the work campers sang folk and protest songs, and when he returned to Pittsburgh he told his mother that he intended to worship as a Quaker and to teach himself how to play the guitar. He recounted the harrowing time he had at a work camp the next summer, in the backwoods of Harlan County, Kentucky. A Pittsburgh Quaker named Spahr Hull, who later became my godfather, told him that the Friends were looking for a black student to integrate Pine Mountain, their first camp in the Deep South.
Locating a Time magazine article about "Bloody Harlan," my father learned that there had been a murder indictment in the county every month for years. Still, he agreed to go, confident that the force of his goodwill and winning personality would see him through. On his second night there, a dozen hillbilly kids came to the camp for a square dance. Seeing one of the local white girls sitting alone on the other side of the camp's lodge, my father worked up the courage to ask her to do-si-do.
She nodded and he took her hand, but she never looked him in the eye, and her damp fingers and the red tips of her ears betrayed how nervous she was. Afterward he discovered that the night watchman, who was called Old Martin, had complained to a nurse at the infirmary. Before long, a group of hillbilly boys started lurking on the outskirts of Pine Mountain day and night, asking where my father slept and once hanging a white rope over a tree.
One day the work campers went on an overnight trip and had to search for hours to find a spot that wasn't marked "White" and "Colored" to set up their tents. In the middle of the night, four cars pulled up with headlights flashing. A dozen drunken men got out, announcing that they had come to get "that n He calmly insisted that the person they were looking for wasn't there, and eventually the drunks got back in the cars and left, giving the campers a terrible scare but also an object lesson, as my father described it to my mother, in the power of nonviolent resistance.
He told her about another terrifying incident that happened later that summer. Toward the end of the eight-week camp, the brother of the girl he had asked to square-dance came back to town and joined the loitering pack of local white boys. All of a sudden, they started to be suspiciously nice to my father. They shouted out to invite him to join them on a hike, then on a rifle-shoot.
The other campers told him to ignore them, especially a white Jewish girl from New York with whom he had been taking long walks. What if they were trying to lure him into an "accident"? But he replied that the whole point of work camping was to teach people from different backgrounds to get to know and respect each other. If he didn't go, he would always wonder what was really in their hearts. So when the local boys arrived in a car to pick him up, he climbed into the backseat.
They drove to a clearing in the woods with a big tree stump at the end. Shotguns were handed out and everyone took turns firing at cans placed on top of the wooden nub. Once all the cans were knocked down, one boy at a time would walk across the clearing and set them up again. When it was my father's turn, he set off slowly toward the stump, his back to the other boys. He said that he never experienced so powerfully the physical effects of fear. Every muscle in his body tightened up, and he felt like he was going to vomit.
After setting up the cans, he turned around and faced what looked like a hillbilly firing squad: His breathing stopped and he almost fainted as he walked back toward them. But no one fired, and from then on the white boys treated him like one of them, as though he had passed a tribal test of manhood. On the last week of camp, the family of the girl at the square dance invited all the work campers to a chicken dinner.
After that, he told my mother, he felt he really understood what the Quaker belief in searching for the Light in every human being was all about. As they talked, visit after visit, my mother found herself falling in love. It was partly a physical condition, with all the usual symptoms: She couldn't stop thinking about him when they were apart, and she longed for their next rendezvous.
As she walked across campus, she found herself humming a Nellie Lutcher tune: He looks good to me, and all I can see is his fine brown frame. But for her, it was an intellectual process as well.
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Liana Maneese left confided in her friend, Amy Scott, after having a major fight with her father after the election about the country's racial divide. Both of their interracial relationships have been strained since Donald Trump was elected. Any holiday season can be stressful, but this year it is intensifying my already complicated family dynamics. As we move into the era of the new President-elect, all over the web, in schools and at workplaces, many Americans are challenging and questioning interracial relationships in new and old ways. Unfortunately, many others are having similarly intense reactions from their loved ones around what this election says about us, as Americans and, ultimately, as individuals. Many people of color in relationships with white folks have recently seen sides of those they love that they hoped did not exist. My parents are white, and they adopted me, a black Brazilian , as an infant.
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