June Cross was born in 1954, the daughter of a semi-famous black comedian and a white woman with dreams of being an actress. Her father is never really in the picture, and when she is just four years old and can no longer pass for white, June’s mother leaves her in the care of a black friend (Aunt Peggy) in Atlantic City, New Jersey, from whom she used to rent an apartment. None of the adults explain what is happening to June , and none of her questions about the change in her life and why she has to pretend that she is something other than her mother’s daughter are ever answered. She spends her childhood trying to navigate the worlds of both black and white without violating the rules of either. As a result, June often feels isolated and out of place as she struggles to find the balance in her life and within her own psyche.
Cross tells her story in such a way that you can tell that she doesn’t look at herself with pity nor does she expect that from the reader. What I did feel was compassion and empathy as she gives a detailed and straightforward account of the circumstances of her mother, and what her myriad motivations were in making the decisions that she made, whether these decisions can be fully understood and supported or not. While Norma, chose to have Cross raised by a black woman, she didn’t choose to give her a clean break, and while bowing out completely would have probably made things easier in a lot of ways for everyone involved, she chooses to participate in her daughter’s life; it’s a decision that Cross comes to support and appreciate many painful years as she slowly confronts and comes to term with her mother in middle age.
There are so many fascinating dynamics that are at work within the story, and as I eagerly flipped the pages I was alternately shocked, dismayed and aghast at the insensitivity and callousness of Cross’ mother and the cruelty that was seemingly unintentional, but which I questioned because it seems as if a white mother with a black child would have tempered her tongue more than Norma took the time to do. Neither having a black child, nor having had a five year relationship with a black man kept Norma from having and voicing her own deep prejudice to her daughter.
Besides the emotional drama, Cross came of age at what is to me a fascinating period in American history. Much of the story is set against the back drop of turmoil in the late 60’s and ’70s. Her white stepfather was a player of sorts in Hollywood and there are stories of tv shows, movies, celebrities and behind the scenes drama. Tumultuous upbringing notwithstanding, Cross went on to attend Harvard and is an award-winning journalist who has reported and produced pieces for shows such as the MacNeil/Lehrer Report and Frontline, including a documentary about her upbringing with the same title as this memoir.
June Cross has led a varied and interesting life and I learned a lot about not only about human relationships and race relations in this country, but also wonderful stories about the evolution of the entertainment industry. If you are n the lookout for a moving and multi-faceted read, then I strongly urge you to check this one out.