Editor’s note: Mark Whitaker is managing editor of CNN Worldwide and the former editor of Newsweek. He is the author of “My Long Trip Home,” a family memoir.
By Mark Whitaker, CNN
(CNN) - The Tragic Black Man. From the novels of Richard Wright and the plays of August Wilson to the spin that is still placed on the rise and fall of many African-American males in today’s media, it’s a stereotype with all too familiar themes: the bitter encounters with racism, the battered personal pride, the syndrome of wounded fathers who abandon their families, boys who grow up without male role models.
In reporting on my family for a memoir that has just been published, I encountered all these strands in the tales of my father and grandfather, and it would have been easy enough to attribute them to the immutable curse of race. Yet in the end, I came away concluding that their fates, and mine, were ultimately shaped more by the different times we each lived in and by our own individual talents and flaws.
Born on a tenant farm in Texas in 1898, the 13th child of a former slave, Cleophaus Sylvester Whitaker confronted more than his share of blatant bigotry as a child and a young man as he made his way north in the Great Black Migration to work in Pittsburgh’s steel plants. Yet by sheer force of will, he managed to talk his way into machinist training and get a side job as a chauffeur for a white undertaker, who was so impressed that he offered to help Granddad become one of the city’s first black morticians.
Although he never fulfilled his dream of crossing over into the white business world (he claimed that he had the idea for the electric waffle iron before any white inventor) he could have continued to prosper within the confines of Pittsburgh’s black bourgeoisie. But it was his personal demons that caused him to lose his business and end up shining shoes in a whites-only country club - specifically, the philandering that drove my Grandmother Edith away and, with her, the feminine touch that he relied on to attract customers to his funeral home.
By the 1940s and ’50s, his son, Cleophaus Sylvester Whitaker Jr., was able to attend an integrated high school in Pittsburgh and gain acceptance to virtually all-white Swarthmore College. He suffered racial slights there - the local barber refused to cut his hair, and he got stopped by policemen when driving with white women - but none of that prevented him from becoming the first African-American to earn a doctorate in political science from Princeton University.
Brilliant and magnetic, he served as a dean at UCLA and the first director of Afro-American studies at Princeton, positions that would have set him up to scale even further heights with the advent of affirmative action. But Dad was fired from his post at Princeton and lost several others jobs because of his own demons - not only womanizing, but chronic alcoholism - and by the time he finally stopped drinking, the world had moved on and awarded its limited prizes to other talented black men.
Growing up as a witness to my father’s self-destruction, I came to see that mere intelligence and charm aren’t enough to ensure success, let alone happiness. It also requires discipline and reliability. I like to think that those qualities, along with a reverence for learning and language that I inherited from both sides of my family, has had more to do with my professional and personal achievements than the pros and cons of being black. But I was also fortunate to come of age at a time when being African-American could help open doors for the well-trained and ambitious, to the point that today we can aspire to the top jobs in the land, from heads of news organizations to corporate CEOs to president of the United States.
Yet precisely because of those advances, I suspect that we are now entering an era when fewer and fewer people are going to make excuses for the Tragic Black Man, or even be moved by his plight. The overall statistics for black male unemployment and prison rates and parental neglect remain alarming, but the narrative of race and ethnicity in America is moving on again, to the rise of the Hispanic population and the search for identity and belonging of mixed Americans of all kinds.
For better or worse, we are on our own now, to make whatever we can of our lives, as perhaps the story of three generations of Whitaker men shows that we always were.