In his memoir, Mark Whitaker focuses not only on his own life, but also on his parents' lives.
Stop me if you've read this one before: A mixed-race American man destined to shatter an important racial barrier frames his improbable journey through his relationship with his black father -- a brilliant but deeply flawed scholar who abandoned the author as a boy.
But unlike President Obama's groundbreaking "Dreams of My Father," Mark Whitaker's "My Long Trip Home" traces the author's decades-long path to reconciliation with his estranged father as well as his personal evolution toward acceptance of his eclectic heritage.
Though comparisons are inevitable in the age of Obama, Whitaker, a top CNN executive who was Newsweek's first black editor, has a story that's perhaps more exotic than that of the nation's Hawaiian-born, Indonesian-schooled first black president.
Whitaker's mother, an African-born French émigré whose father worked against the Nazis in World War II, arrived in the United States via a social-services wartime boatlift. His father, the handsome eldest son of a stately black couple who ran a successful mortuary in Pittsburgh, became a practicing Quaker after helping integrate a religious work camp early in the civil rights movement. Their paths crossed at Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College, where Jeanne Theis, a shy young French professor, and Syl Whitaker, a charismatic undergraduate nine years her junior, engaged in a then-scandalous secret romance that led to marriage. Their idealistic union led to son Mark just a few years later.
Syl Whitaker's studies took the young family abroad to Europe and Africa before they settled into academia back in the States, where he was considered a rising star among Africa scholars. But there were dark clouds on the horizon: A restless Syl moved the family to California shortly after the birth of their second son, then -- unwilling and unable to fight the demons that ruined his own father -- divorced his ingénue wife, pushing the family to the brink of destitution.
In lean, magazine-style prose bolstered by reporting along with personal recall, Mark Whitaker takes a wide-angle view of the memoir form, integrating much of his parents' story with his own, which includes a fish-out-of-water year living with his extended family in northern France as an adolescent; cutting his journalistic teeth at the highly competitive Harvard Crimson; a meteoric rise at Newsweek; a marriage-driven conversion to Judaism; and balancing parenthood with a demanding career.
And although race and identity are recurring themes in his 357-page narrative, they largely remain in the background against Whitaker's central objective: comparing his father's tragic life with his own to determine, or refute, the universal sins-of-the-father theory.
"In a perverse way," he writes, "I realized he had done me a favor by offering so many cautionary tales about how not to behave. But I saw he also gave me a priceless gift: the model of a black man who was proud of his identity but determined not to be confined by it."
Joseph Williams, a former editor at the Star Tribune, is White House correspondent for Politico.