313: Parental Guidance Suggested - This American Life (2023)

Ira Glass

Act one, Two Possibilities, Both Bad. What's amazing about this story is that the people in it make one reasonable choice after another. But they're living in such an unreasonable time and place that eventually, they're forced into a position that no family should ever really be in at all. It all happened to Gene Cheek. And when the story begins, he's 10 years old, growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It's 1961. His parents split up long ago. He lives with his mom. And partly because it's just the two of them, they're really, really close. She spends a lot of time with him. And one day, he comes in from playing outside.

Gene Cheek

And Mama was on the phone crying. And I thought somebody had died or something was wrong. So I stood at her door for a minute. And she eventually, after much pressure from me, eventually told me that that was her boyfriend on the phone, or a man that she had been seeing, is the way she put it. And I didn't even know. All she did was work and come home. I didn't know when she had time to have a boyfriend.

Tuck was what everybody called him. His name was Cornelius Tucker. And my mom and Tuck worked together, and we talked about it. And I said, why are you crying? What'd he do to make you cry? And she said, nothing. He thinks we should stop seeing each other for your sake. And I said, well, why does he think I will have a problem with him seeing you? And she said, because he's black.

Ira Glass

Was there any part of you at that point which flinched a little when she said that? You're a little kid growing up in the south. You probably didn't have much contact, or were close to any black people.

Gene Cheek

I did flinch a little. We didn't live too far from the African American community, a couple of streets over. So you would see them in your daily lives, going through their neighborhoods, or going through yours to get to theirs. But that was it, really. Jim Crow civil rights was at its beginning. Blacks were being killed, lynched, beaten. I was aware that this was not going to be a very popular thing.

Ira Glass

And so how soon after that did you finally meet Tuck?

Gene Cheek

A couple of days later. He wanted to give me a birthday present, even though it wasn't my birthday. So he drove by at night and circled our block. I walked outside our apartment and walked around the corner. And he went by to make sure he wasn't being followed, circled back, and the second time around, he slowed down, rolled down his window, and said catch, and threw out a football.

Ira Glass

And could you even see him? Or was it just this mysterious voice and then a football?

Gene Cheek

Yeah, it was night, and I couldn't see him, really. You could see a figure inside the car. I assumed it was him. Mama told me what kind of car he would be driving.

Ira Glass

That is so secret agent. Was this pretty much the coolest thing that had ever happened to you?

Gene Cheek

Oh yeah, definitely. And it was exactly that, secret agent man.

Ira Glass

Now this is 1961, so it's six years before the Supreme Court rules that interracial marriage is legal nationwide. Was it legal for her to see him?

Gene Cheek

It was not legal. Well, it was illegal for them to be boyfriend- girlfriend, or any other kind of relationship, as far as that goes.

Ira Glass

And so would you start to see him? Were you in situations where it would be the three of you and you would hang out?

Gene Cheek

Absolutely. Mom and I would leave our house after dark and we would walk around the corner. Normally we would cover our faces as much as possible. Mama wore a scarf, and I had a coat that I would pull up the collar on, and a baseball cap, and that kind of thing. And again, Tuck would circle by and keep going, to make sure he wasn't followed. And he would turn around and come back from the other direction, pull up to the curb and we would jump in.

Ira Glass

And when you were in the car, would you have to duck down so people couldn't see you?

Gene Cheek

Yeah. I would be scrunched down in the seat, so that I wasn't as visible. Normally, we would pull up in his driveway and sit in the car for a minute or two just to make sure that we hadn't been followed. We would get out, and it would be dark, of course, and the porch light would not be on. And we would go into the house and do what normal people did-- talk, play games, Monopoly, card games, watch TV, listened to the radio, listened to the stereo, played marbles on his floor. He had a carpet and he would take a piece of chalk and draw a circle on the carpet, and we would shoot marbles.

Tuck was an amazing human being, and he had a way of just immediately putting you at ease. After the first night that I met him and spent time at his house, it was easy for me to see how mama had fallen in love with him. He was just that kind of a man.

Ira Glass

And then would you stay over there, and then go to school from there in the morning?

Gene Cheek

No. No, we never spent the night. And Tuck had made it plain that we had to be very careful. I was oblivious. I was just caught up in the espionage of it all-- that I had a secret that nobody else knew.

Ira Glass

Oh right, you couldn't even tell kids at school.

Gene Cheek

Oh, heck no. God no. I couldn't tell anybody. I couldn't tell my best friend. Couldn't tell anyone.

Ira Glass

And how far did it go? Like how often was there something where there was trouble?

Gene Cheek

Well, we got chased. The police would come by and they would knock on the door, or just open the door sometimes, and just walk right in. And we would be sitting in the living room talking, or sitting at the kitchen table playing games, and they would say, nigger, what are you doing with this white woman? And he would say, we're just friends. We're just visiting. And then they would say something to my mom, don't you know better? What's your son doing here? And she said, well, what's wrong with my son being here? Well, you can't stay here. Don't you know it's illegal for you and that nigger to be sleeping together?

But they would always say, you and your boy are going to have to leave. And Tuck would say, OK, they were just leaving. I'll take them home. And they would say, oh, hell no, nigger, we'll take them home. You're lucky we don't arrest you. So that's usually the way it went.

Ira Glass

That happened how many times?

Gene Cheek

It would happen once a month probably, or once every six weeks. Once it was known that mama was seeing Tuck--.

Ira Glass

How did it get to be known?

Gene Cheek

Well, my dad followed my mom-- my biological father had followed my mom. Him and his brother followed my mom to Tuck's house. There was one time when the cops came and as we walked outside Tuck's house, I could see my dad and his brother parked down the street. So I knew who had brought the cops with them.

Ira Glass

So your dad called the cops on your mom. Why?

Gene Cheek

Well, because he was full of hate. It was bad enough that his wife had left him, but she was now seeing a black man. My dad was a stone cold racist, and that was more than he could stand.

Ira Glass

Would he lecture you about it?

Gene Cheek

Oh yeah. Oh God yeah.

Ira Glass

What would he say?

Gene Cheek

He would say it was unnatural, and it was against God's law, and those kinds of things. He would use the analogy, you don't see a black bird and a red bird together. And I always wanted to say, well yeah those are different species there, Dad, not just different colors.

Ira Glass

And so Tuck and your mom, they also got fired from their jobs, right?

Gene Cheek

They did. My little brother was born. That kind of changed things. It's pretty difficult to hide that. They got fired from their jobs at the mill. My mom's family, my dad's family, our friends, everybody disowned us, walked out of our lives, didn't have anything to do with us after Randy was born. My aunt-- her sister-- came to visit her in the hospital. She had checked into the hospital under an assumed name. But Aunt Goldie went to see her, and when she saw Randy, she said, Sally, this baby ain't white. And Mama said, I know Goldie, but he's still my son. And Aunt Goldie handed Randy back to Mama, and walked out of our lives. And it was 30 years later before they ever spoke again.

And about eight months after Randy was born, we had gone to bed one night during the week, and I was awakened at 2 o'clock in the morning by sounds outside. And I could see through the curtain that there was something burning, and I didn't really know what it was. And when I pulled back the curtain, I could see three Klansmen. One of them had a shotgun, and was shooting it into the air, which is what had woke me up. And they had put a cross on the yard and were shouting racial slurs-- death to nigger lovers, and those kinds of things.

And Mama woke up. And when she came in, she said, get away from the window. It's the Klan. And of course, I know what the Klan was. And I said, what are they doing here? And she said, they're here because of your brother. And I was just infuriated. We spent the night sitting in the living room. And I had gone to the kitchen and got a butcher knife, and I'd taken a chair and set it facing the front door, and sat there thinking they were going to bust in at any minute. And we didn't have a phone, so we couldn't call anybody.

Ira Glass

If she could have called somebody, was there actually somebody who she could have called, who could have come over?

Gene Cheek

She could have called Tuck. The police probably would not have done anything at that time.

Ira Glass

Could she have called her family? Wouldn't they have stepped in to rescue you, even if they were having this fight?

Gene Cheek

No, not at this point. No. Her family had turned their backs on her and her family would not have lifted a finger. Her \ probably sent the Klan in the first place, if you want to know the truth about it. She had nobody.

Ira Glass

Why not just move north?

Gene Cheek

Well, we had talked about it. Tuck asked me. He said that we could move up north and be more like a family. He said, your mom and I could even get married. But you got to understand that we didn't have any money. Tuck didn't have any money. It was not like we could just gather up what we owned and off we went.

Ira Glass

I know. But so many poor people move north. I mean, the whole city of Chicago is like people who had nothing, who just picked up and moved.

Gene Cheek

I know. And the only thing I can look back on now and say is that things happened so fast. From the time Randy was born, things just spiraled out of control before they could get a handle on it. They didn't expect things to turn out like they did.

Ira Glass

Things turned out like they did because of what happened next. And what happened next is that his mom told him that they had to go to court for child support. They'd been fighting with his father over child support payments for years, so Gene wasn't especially worried about this.

Gene Cheek

Mom and I rode the bus downtown, and then walked into the courtroom by ourselves. And we sat on the right side of the courtroom, and on the left side was my dad, his brother, my grandmother, Mom's brother, Uncle Bill, our next door neighbors. And on our side of the courtroom was me and Mom. And when the judge walked in, he said, in the matter of the custody of Jesse Eugene Cheek. And I knew immediately what that meant; that we were not here for child support. And Mom's lawyer didn't show up, he never did show up. So it was all downhill after that.

She had told her sister the day before this trial that there's no way they'll take Gene away from me, I'm a good mother. And she believed that. She was convinced that they would not take me away from her, because she was a good mother. And I'm here to tell you that she was. There was nobody in that courtroom that day that could testify that she was not a good mother. And nobody did. What they did testify was that she had a mixed race baby by an African American man and was therefore unfit.

Ira Glass

Now one strange thing about this case is that your dad wasn't actually trying to get you back himself, right?

Gene Cheek

No.

Ira Glass

Explain what your dad was arguing in court.

Gene Cheek

He was arguing that Mama was unfit. But he told the judge that he, himself was an alcoholic and an epileptic, and could not raise me. His brother-- my uncle-- testified that he could not provide me with a home either, because he had his own family to raise. My grandmother-- my dad's mom-- testified that she could not offer me a home either, because her doctor had advised her that having a teenage boy in the house would be bad for her health. And so they all testified that mama was unfit, but they couldn't take me for this reason or that reason.

Ira Glass

It's just so crazy, the notion of a parent going in and saying, well, she's unfit, but I'm unfit too, so I can't take the kid. I've never heard of a custody hearing that works like that.

Gene Cheek

Well, that's exactly what he said. I mean, that's honest to God exactly what he said. My dad was a rare bird.

Ira Glass

And then when the judge asked your mom, is the father Tuck-- because I know as part of the court proceeding, he actually asked her flat out, is this guy the father of this baby? What did she say?

Gene Cheek

No. She denied it. She said that the father was a truck driver, who is now deceased. And that's all she said about the matter.

Ira Glass

And didn't they ask, who is this guy? What's his name?

Gene Cheek

No, they didn't.

Ira Glass

Because they just could see that this is a lie?

Gene Cheek

Sure. Well, they knew she was lying. But it was a felony for her to admit in a court of law that she had a baby by Cornelius Tucker. So she had to lie about it. She had to say, no, it's not Cornelius Tucker's baby. The father's dead, I don't remember his name.

Ira Glass

It didn't take long for Gene and his mother to figure out this hearing was not going very well for them. Gene's mom started crying. He started crying. Gene says he simply had no idea the world could work the way it was working in the courtroom that day. It was incomprehensible. It was shocking.

Gene Cheek

I didn't believe it. Mama didn't believe it. We believed right won out. When the judge made his ruling, that it's the ruling of this court that your son be-- actually, he gave my mom a choice. He said give up this baby, is the way he put it, I believe, or give up your son.

Ira Glass

Let me just be sure I'm totally understanding the logic. The logic of that is, OK, what makes her an unfit mother is that she's got this mixed race baby.

Gene Cheek

Right, and I'm around him.

Ira Glass

And you're around him, and you'll be exposed to this mixed race baby.

Gene Cheek

That's right. Yeah, it'll rub off on me, I guess. Whatever.

Ira Glass

And so basically, if you get the baby out of this picture, then she's suddenly a fit mother again by abandoning her baby?

Gene Cheek

With the choice he gave her, that's exactly what he was saying, yeah. Somehow this will all be better, if they're not around each other. It'll all be better.

Ira Glass

How does that make sense?

Gene Cheek

Yeah, I don't know. It don't make sense. It wasn't meant to make sense. It was just more punishment, as far as I was concerned.

Ira Glass

And so does a judge actually say to her, OK, here you are, just choose which kid are you going to give up?

Gene Cheek

Not in those exact words. But his words were-- I'm going to paraphrase-- but he said, Mrs. Cheek, you can give up your illegitimate son, or we're going to take Gene away from you. One or the other. I just looked at Mama and I leaned over and I whispered and said, Mama, if they take Randy, we'll never see him again. He's just a baby. And I said, I know where home is, let them take me. And before she could say anything, I just turned to the judge and said, take me. And so that was enough. He did. He pounded the gavel and said, it's the ruling of this court that Jesse Eugene Cheek will be removed and placed in the custody of Forsythe County Child Services.

And at that time, two policemen, who had been standing in the back of the courtroom, came down. And Mama and I were clinging to each other. I was holding onto her and she was holding onto me. And she was screaming, don't do this, don't do this. And I was cussing, screaming at my dad, I'll kill you for this. And so the cops took me by the arms and literally pulled me away, tore me away from my mom, and just drug me out of the courtroom. They put me in a police car, drove me to a detention center that was a couple of blocks from the courthouse, for juvenile delinquents. A lady got up from behind a desk, went to the end of the hall and unlocked a door. The two policemen pushed me into the room, the door was pulled shut behind me and locked. And I spent three days in that room.

They fed me by slipping trays of food under the door. Those three days, two and a half days, that I spent locked in that room, all I did was cry and sleep, really. I was devastated. My life had ended as I knew it. When I came out of that room, I was an angry kid, and I stayed angry until a few years ago, to be honest with you.

Ira Glass

Gene was sent to a foster home on the other side of town, but he was like a different kid. He was not the well-behaved boy that he'd been. He was in the crazy position that he had done the right thing. He'd volunteered to leave his own family, for the sake of everybody. It was better for his baby brother. It was better for his mom. The main person it wasn't better for was him. And though he knew he did the right thing, he had other feelings about it too.

Gene Cheek

Somewhere along the line, that little 12 year old boy that got taken away from his mama expected-- as all 12 year old boys do-- that his mama would make things all right. And I was mad at her because she didn't make things all better.

Ira Glass

Right, that she didn't sweep in and move you all north?

Gene Cheek

Yeah. And that everything was just all better all of a sudden. And I guess for the first two or three months in that foster home, I held onto the possibility that things would be all right. But you lose hope of that pretty quick. And I did.

I was a terrible foster kid. I beat the heck out of her own son the first day I was there because he was standing on the back porch-- I had just come back from a walk-- and he said, you're the one with the nigger loving mama. And it was the wrong time for him to say that. So I was a pretty bad kid. I would skip school and go see my mom, and ride the bus, hitchhike, walk across town, ride a bike. I would go see her anytime I wanted to.

Ira Glass

It's a funny kind of juvenile delinquent who's evading a social worker and his foster parents, and nobody knows where he is. And where he is, the bad thing he's doing, is going to visit his mom. Eventually Gene got in so much trouble for this he was sent away to a facility called Boys Home, 200 miles from Winston-Salem. He could come home 20 days a year, that was it. But at Boys Home, he finally got a more or less normal life. He made decent grades, got a girlfriend.

Gene Cheek

I played sports. I was popular on campus. I fit in. My anger subsided some, mostly because of sports and those kind of things. And Boys Home was probably the best thing that happened to me. Because at this point in time, you're 200 miles away, and you know that you can't just walk across town and see your mom. So you resolve yourself to this fact, I'm not going home again.

Ira Glass

The first time that you heard about Tuck, Tuck was saying to your mom, maybe the two of them should split up for your sake.

Gene Cheek

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Do you think he might have been right?

Gene Cheek

Well, in hindsight, absolutely. And in hindsight, yeah, they probably should have-- but I can tell you one thing. I wouldn't change one minute of my life. I have two wonderful brothers. Had that happened, I wouldn't have known Tuck. So I'm glad they didn't end it. To be honest with you, I'm glad. I'm happy. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ira Glass

Randy's grown up by now. Does he ever talk to you about the choice that you made then?

Gene Cheek

Yeah, we've talked about it. Randy grew up thinking I was one of the knights of King Arthur's court.

Ira Glass

Because his parents had told him?

Gene Cheek

Absolutely. My mom and Tuck would tell him. So he worshipped-- like any little brother would, he worshiped me, but even more so, because in his mind, I had made this sacrifice for him.

Ira Glass

Well not even in his mind. You did make this sacrifice for him. He got to stay with his parents because of you.

Gene Cheek

I know.

Ira Glass

Years later, you must have talked to your mom about that decision, about how Tuck raised very early the thought that maybe we should split up, because look at all the bad things that can happen. Did she have regrets about the choices that she made? Or mixed feelings about the choices she made?

Gene Cheek

Oh, definitely. There's no question about it. She came to my graduation at Boys Home, and I'd been there five years by this time. And it was the first time that she had ever been to Boys Home. She rode the bus down and I picked her up at the bus station in one of Boys Home's cars. And we were going by campus and I said, Mom, do you want me to show you around? And she started crying, and she said, no, I can't do that honey. And I said, oh, it's OK, I understand. It was like we were living separate lives, and I was growing up without her.

And so she continued to cry, and I parked the car and stopped. And she just looked at me. And by this time we were both crying. And she just looked at me and she said, I'm so sorry.

Ira Glass

Sorry that you had to be there at all?

Gene Cheek

Yeah. Sorry that things had happened the way they had. Well, I just looked at her and I told her, I said, sorry for what, mama? For loving me? For loving Randy? For loving Tuck? What do you have to be sorry for? That's when I told her that I had just spent five years with 104 boys who knew for a fact that no one in the world gave a hooting hell about them. The difference between me and them was that in my lifetime I had been loved. There was never a moment, never a moment, in my life when I did not know for a fact that I was loved. And I said, you don't have anything to be sorry for and you don't have to tell me you're sorry. You never have to say that to me.

There's no question that it shortened her life and that it was something she carried with her. Guilt she carried with her every day of her life. And Tuck too. She used to ask my ex-wife how I felt about it and did I blame her? Even though we were close, very close, that's just something that can't be removed from a mother. And she was a loving mother so it was devastating for her.

Ira Glass

Gene Cheek. He's written a book about his family's story called The Color Of Love: A Mother's Choice In the Jim Crow South. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that state laws that prevented interracial marriage were unconstitutional. But North Carolina only got around to following the Supreme Court's orders on this matter in 1974. It was after that finally that Gene's mom was able to marry Tuck. They had another son, and lived out their days together. Tuck died in 1982. Gene's mom died in 1995.

Coming up, grandmas rush in where wise men never go. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

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