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June Cross on Secrets and Displacements

August 14, 2006

Writing her memoir Secret Daughter “has been a journey in learning how fallible memory is and how changeable a story can get,” said June Cross at a recent journalists’ lunch at the Women’s Media Center. She talked about examining her experience of growing up biracial in mid-twentieth century America, in a country and a family divided along racial lines.   The exploration began with her Emmy-award winning 1996 documentary of the same title, driven in part, she said, by her desire for her white mother to “go on national television to tell the world she was my mother.” Cross was raised in Atlantic City, not by her parents but by African American family friends, Peggy and Paul. When she spent summers in LA with her mother and stepfather, actor Larry Storch of the 1960s TV show “F-Troop,” she addressed her mother as “Aunt Norma” in public. When she was 12, a magazine published a family portrait with the headline, “Larry Storch: Why I Adopted a Negro Girl.” Her mother had told studio publicity staff that June had been adopted from a black family rife with domestic violence that lived across the hall. June went along with it because Larry’s income was essential not only to her mother but to her foster family, in which Peggy worked as an underpaid teacher. “Everyone’s survival depended on my silence.”  Her mother’s choices influenced her life profoundly, Cross believes, down to her choice of profession as journalist and documentary film maker. After spending so much time keeping secrets, she feels the need to give voice to the voiceless. She also decided not to have children in part, she says, to avoid the risk of repeating patterns of inadequate mothering she saw in her mother’s and grandmother’s lives.  Cross, who was recently awarded tenure at Columbia University’s School of Journalism—becoming one of four such women and currently the only African-American woman—is developing a documentary curriculum as well as working on her own documentary about “the Katrina diaspora.” She said her work tends to examine “the intersection of race and class,” and the Katrina project will explore what happens to people who have lost their sense of place in a context where family identity and pride has been tied to living in the same spot for generations.