My friend Jesse Kerman shared a recent article from the UK Guardian with me that discusses Eartha Kitt’s search for the identity of her white father. “Eartha Kitt’s daughter has revealed that the singer died without knowing the identity of her white father,” the article begins, “after being denied the truth by officials in the American Deep South.” The article goes on to describe Kitt’s discovery of her birth certificate at age 71, only to find that her father’s named had been blacked out.
The story raises the obvious issues of classism, racism, and identity. It also speaks to the nature of resilience; despite being the victim of child abuse and experiencing a life-long identify crisis, Eartha Kitt went on to become a world-renowned singer, political activist, and according to Orson Welles, “the most exciting woman in the world.”
This raised all sorts of questions for Cinemulatto: what was it about Eartha Kitt and significant events in her life that prevented her from succumbing to the effects of poverty, hardship, and an identity crisis? Is resilience a quality, a set of fortunate circumstances, or a complex combination of both? Thinking even more broadly about something close to home, how are children of gay parents who were conceived by a sperm donor and capable of finding the donor at age 18 affected by the years-long wait? And specifically, how will this wait affect my daughters? Do my children have needs that can only be met by some unknown male, and if so what are they?
I know only some of the answers to these questions. I know that my children—who are both mixed-race—aren’t growing up surrounded by abuse, or uncertain of their heritage. I know that lines of communication are gapingly open. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough explores how persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence all contribute to well-being and success, and the importance of overcoming failure. If her public persona is any indication, these are all qualities that Eartha Kitt possessed. They’re ones my wife and I are trying our best to pass along to our daughters. By all accounts, these qualities were fostered by various adults during the course of my own upbringing, and allowed me to navigate through rough emotional and psychological terrain.
Weighty matters indeed. In the next Cinemulatto post, I’ll map out how resilience worked in my family of origin.