© Harper Collins Publishing
Caroline Clarke, longtime executive, author and on-air host for Black Enterprise, was raised in the Bronx as the only child of proud African-American educators. However, when she was eight years old, her father, a chemistry professor, and her mother, a schoolteacher, told her that she was adopted. Since then, her family’s lips had remained tight as to the history of her birth family, with some hints and fabrications filling in blanks. But health issues in midlife nudged Caroline into seeking out her genetic past, and the surprises revealed by her adoption papers opened up a personal deluge.
The highest-ranking female of the national media company that’s considered the home of African-American business news for millions was the progeny of a white man.
Recently, I sat down with Clarke, whose memoir, Postcards from Cookie, was released earlier this year.
©Harper Collins Publishing
CRW: You not only found out what family you’re from, but here you are in the offices of Black Enterprise, and you find out that you’re—
CC: That I’m biracial…It was very reassuring to me as a child to at least feel that racially I was with people like my biological people…So finding out that my biological father was white, Jewish in fact, was jarring to say the least.
For a few reasons. Fundamentally I did see myself as a black kid. And I think when you’re constantly asked that question [“What are you?”], which I was, it’s very reassuring to have an uncomplicated answer, and to feel strong about it. No big explanation. I’m black. That’s it! Wish it could be more exotic for ya but that’s exotic enough.
Also, because my parents had instilled in me a tremendous depth of knowledge about black culture and black history and a real love and affection and pride in it…all of it…the music, the food, the colloquialisms, the art…I was really proud, and whatever your ethnicity is, that is so important, because it really helps shape not only who you are but also your self esteem.
When I understood that my biological father was white, it changed the fantasies in my head about my biological parents. I had built this very Annie-esque love story: “They were probably this black Romeo and Juliet in college and she got pregnant, then their families wouldn’t let them be together and oh, it’s so tragic! But maybe they went on and got married anyway, and live in a house on a hill and miss me, right?”
And when I found out he was white—knowing that it was the ’60s and probably being somewhat ignorant about how much mixing there was at that time—I considered that maybe he was a professor who took advantage of a student, that maybe he was married and really dogged her, or maybe she was raped. I really went all the way there. Now I didn’t assume that it had to be that, but it created a range of possibilities [as opposed to] when I’d thought they were the same race, and I’d really put the best possible spin on it.
© Courtesy of Black Enterprise
CRW: It’s been a while now that you’ve known; has your feeling about it all changed? The heritage?
Yes, my feeling about it has changed. My feeling about me has not.
Race is a really complicated thing. A lot of it has to do with how you look physically, and there is no escaping that. Then there’s the piece of how you were raised, what you were taught and what you were told. And then there’s the additional piece of genetic reality.
If you ask me today what I am, even though I have a significant piece of other information, my answer hasn’t changed. And I will argue you down to the pit and just say, “I’m black.”
My kids, they laugh at me because they’re like, “Really? But you’re not. You’re biracial.”
Particularly in American society, we are made to choose. You walk through the world looking a certain way and that absolutely impacts how you’re treated. It impacts everything—it impacts your opportunities, it impacts your first impressions, it impacts absolutely everything. Like it or not, that’s just how we roll. And to internalize being something that you know the world doesn’t see you as seems a little bit silly.
You’re going to have to own it, like it or not, what the world sees. Even President Obama: We all know he’s very clearly biracial, but he is our first black president. We don’t call him our first biracial president.
We are made to choose, and what you choose is often not what your genetic reality is.
CRW: Your children, how do they talk about it themselves? Because kids are very different now.
My son has hazel eyes and the rest of us have brown eyes, and from the moment he was born, people just made a fuss…He hated it as a kid, he hated feeling different than the rest of us. He used to, ironically, ask with tears in his eyes: “Just tell me! I’m adopted! I know I’m adopted!” I’d say, Carter, you’ve seen the pictures, you look exactly like your father, but just having that one differentiating characteristic was such a big thing for him.
CRW: Your parents, very proud black parents, you did a such thing to them as a young girl. You asked, “Hey Dad, what if I married a white guy?”
Oh he just went off, completely off.
CRW: Versus your birth mother’s reaction.
Cookie was raised in such rare air, for anyone, no less for a black child in the ’50s and ’60s. [Nat King Cole and his family] were really wealthy—not just-making-it wealthy like the Huxtables. Even in the entertainment industry he was rare because he had this broad crossover appeal…So here she is, this little black girl, moves to the west coast and all she knows is this very wealthy existence, in a society where once you step outside the boundaries of entertainment and that cloud of privilege, [things are] very segregated still. [But] they had very much a mixed reality. Frank Sinatra’s kids, Dean Martin’s kids. So she and I were raised very differently. Similar values, but grossly different circumstances. She was kind of a flower child, very open-minded about the universe. She embraced all religions, all cultures, all races, and really had very little patience for the boxes we put people in.
CRW: Cookie didn’t tell your birth father that she was pregnant. Why not? [Cookie became pregnant from a brief relationship with a fellow student while she was away at college.]
I think a lot of the reason was that they were not in a relationship. He wasn’t her man, so they weren’t going to be getting married and ride off into the sunset. There was a racial reality and I think she recognized that. As she met white people who were not in her parents’ universe, she was greeted in a very different way. I’m sure there was some fascination with the fact that she was the daughter of Nat King Cole, but she was also a straight-up black girl.
CRW: Have you met your biological father?
CRW: Does he know?
You know, I have not looked for him at all. People ask me why, and is it a racial thing? It is not. My feeling is that I reached out to Cookie knowing that no woman gives birth to a child and forgets. She relinquished a child and was very happy to have that child circle back. My birth father is a very different situation. He has no idea that a child ever existed. So, I feel like to drop in on someone’s life who really just has no idea, no context…He’s identified in the book in such a way that should he read it, should someone close to him read it, he’s identifiable.
He’s 70-ish plus and he’s lived his whole life and he very possibly has other children, grandchildren. He has a whole life and family and I really don’t want to disrupt that. I don’t have a compelling need to know him. My son would like to know him. So that’s really why I chose to put it in the book…What’s meant to be will be.