The Color of Love: A Mother's Choice in the Jim Crow South

Overview

Nine years after the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and only a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a judge in the Forsyth County Courthouse of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, wrenched twelve-year-old Gene Cheek from the security of his mother's devotion. Here is a true story of love in a time afflicted by hatred, ignorance, and racism. At its core, this is a frank account of a love affair between a white woman and a black man that took ...

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Overview

Nine years after the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and only a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a judge in the Forsyth County Courthouse of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, wrenched twelve-year-old Gene Cheek from the security of his mother's devotion. Here is a true story of love in a time afflicted by hatred, ignorance, and racism. At its core, this is a frank account of a love affair between a white woman and a black man that took mother from son and split a family forever.
In the early 1960s, the city of Winston-Salem struggled under the strict edicts of segregation, setting the tone of division that would plague Gene Cheek's life. Raised by his alcoholic father and his earnestly loving mother, Gene learned about the power of hatred and the strength of love. Yet when his mother fell in love with Cornelius Tucker, an African-American man, and became pregnant with Tucker's child, their union was seen as morally and lawfully unfit. The court forced the parents to choose between the mixed-race infant and Gene. From a distance of more than forty years, Gene Cheek recounts a life of constant struggle with his biological father. Briefly that tension dissolved with the warm guidance of Cornelius Tucker - but that period of peace would soon end.
The Color of Love is Gene Cheek's story told in his singularly honest voice. Its sincerity and truth resonate with a plea for tolerance, and the irrevocable nature of the decisions and emotions of modern life.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
After years of living with a drunken and abusive husband, Cheek's mother separated from her husband in 1961 in Winston--Salem, North Carolina. She began a clandestine relationship with a black man, Cornelius Tucker, who was everything her husband was not. Ten-year-old Cheek was enlisted to keep the relationship secret, which they managed for the most part until his mother became pregnant and gave birth to a brown-skinned baby. In the face of rabid racial attitudes and Klan violence, Cheek's mother and Tucker remained steadfast. But his vengeful father and other family members testified against the mother in a custody case that carried the threat of prison for violating the state's anti-miscegenation law. From the perspective of a young boy, Cheek recalls the horrendous choices that were forced on his mother and his separation from a loving family. Cheek recalls the painful guilt his mother suffered and the seething hatred he felt for years. This is a powerful story of love and forgiveness in the context of racial hatred during a tumultuous time in the South. Vanessa Bush Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Keri Holmes

The grainy black and white photograph on the cover of Gene Cheek’s memoir reaches out and grabs you before you can pick up the book. It shows a smiling young man of the sixties holding his baby brother. His mother sits on his left, his stepfather on his right. We know what this story is about before we open to page one. What’s surprising, though, is that Cheek doesn’t get to that part of his life until the second half of the story. He starts his tale in March 1959, at Grandma Pearl’s house for his eighth birthday. We meet and fall in love with his mother’s family, and understand why he dislikes his father’s family. We’ll read of marital strife and reconciliations, hopes for new beginnings, and hopes dashed by an alcoholic father unable to beat his addiction....

...Parents and grandparents of a mixed-raced child still worry that society willpunish the child for its parent’s choices. Slights and offences are scrutinized for racist motivation. Certain restaurants are avoided. Stories like Gene Cheek’s challenge us to examine ourselves and to exorcise any racist demons we find lurking there. This is a must-read book for baby-boomers; it personalizes the abstraction of America’s civil rights movement and shows us that we may not be as enlightened as we believe ourselves to be.


special to The Winterset Madisonian
Meredith Jacobs

Harsh Life, Double Trouble

The Color of Love, A Mothers Choice in the Jim Crow South

In 1963, a judge in Forsyth County NC, decided that a white woman who had fallen in love with a black man should choose between the baby she had with him and her older son, who is white. Gene Cheek, 12, was taken from his mother. She was deemed by the court to be morally unfit for getting involved in a mixed-race relationship.

This book isn’t a legal treatise. This isn’t a screed about politics or morality. It’s a story about a boy. And it’s written by the man he grew into.

Cheek had been raised by an alcoholic, abusive father in a harsh upbringing that included watching his mother being beaten and having a grandfather who tormented the family dog for sport. Gene’s mother, he believes, feel in love with Cornelius Tucker, an African American, simply because of the man’s kindness.

Cheek’s father started the court battle, but didn’t bother to raise his son or ever apologize to him for ripping apart the child’s life. Cheek went from his mother’s home to the courtroom, and then directly from there into foster care. Later, he went to the children’s home at Lake Waccamaw. Gene missed his mother and was fond of Tucker. But court’s and misguided social workers allowed only infrequent visits. His mother married Tucker in 1979, six years after the repeal of the anti-miscegenation law in North Carolina. The couple remained together until the end, he says. Tucker died of cancer in 1981.

The Author said his reason for writing the book was revenge-anger against his father, the court, relatives and others who took him from his mother and endeavored to keep them apart. While writing, he gained some understanding and forgiveness. But in this book the scars still show.
For the Fayetteville Observer

Publishers Weekly
Cheek spins a mesmerizing yarn, told from a little boy's viewpoint, of growing up poor and white in 1950s North Carolina, surrounded by generations of wife-beating alcoholics. Through plain yet descriptive language seasoned with wry, biting adjectives, he ably conveys the sights, sounds and feelings of his surroundings. His musings are funny and hopeful, and Cheek shapes his childhood voice to suit stories of his tense relationship with his violent, alcoholic father; his mother's endless tolerance and denial; and his admiration for his maternal grandmother, who taught him to "be full of love, not hate." His child's-eye reportage captures the intricacies of his mother's postmarital relationship with Tuck, a strong, kind and gentle black man Cheek had met years earlier, and their secret life as an interracial family. The secret was revealed only after Cheek's mother had Tuck's baby, which enraged her family enough for them to have a court declare her an unfit mother. When the judge ordered her to give up one of the children, the author took the choice out of his mother's hands when he elected to leave the family and become a ward of the state, turning the formerly optimistic young man against the rest of his family. In an epilogue written in his adult voice, Cheek explains that his motivation for writing the book was vengeance, which in the process of writing turned to understanding and, finally, forgiveness.
© 2005 Reed Business Information
VOYA - Melissa Potter
In 2007 life under segregation feels like a foreign concept, which makes this book a unique choice for autobiographical collections. Cheek was born in North Carolina in 1951 to Caucasian parents. His father, Jesse, was an abusive alcoholic whose addiction forced his family into poverty. Cheek's mother left Jesse and started seeing Mr. Tucker, an African American man. The author details the lengths to which they had to go just to visit Mr. Tucker, ducking down in the car as they moved through different neighborhoods, being hassled by the police, even being visited by the Klu Klux Klan. Mr. Tucker was consistently kind to Gene and his mother, but their problems multiplied when she gave birth to his son. Her family rejected her, and she had to protect Mr. Tucker's identity for fear of his being imprisoned or worse. Jesse brought them to court saying that Gene's mother was unfit because she had given birth to a mixed-race child. Shockingly the judge agreed and made her choose between her infant and twelve-year-old Gene, even though no one in Jesse's family was willing to take him. Gene offered to leave, knowing that he could find his way home whereas the infant would be lost forever. He then became a ward of the state. This powerful story sheds more light on this particularly dark period of American history, and it also works as a suggested title for teens who like Dave Pelzer and other true stories about dysfunctional families.
Kirkus Reviews
A son remembers his North Carolina childhood in the 1960s: his abusive father, his loving mother and the racist climate that empowered a judge to place the boy in foster care when his mother became involved with a black man. Cheek has a truly troubling tale to tell. His father was a racist and alcoholic brute who beat both his wife and his son. (The father's relatives seem similarly unpleasant.) Cheek's mother is all but angelic in the author's recollection-affectionate, wise, compassionate, understanding-but also poor, forced to work long hours in menial jobs. The author likes her family much more, especially his uncle Bill, who for most of the story is loving and protective of his sister and nephew. (Later, though, when the author's mother has an illegitimate child with the black man she adores, her relatives banish her.) Cheek tells about his mother's tribulations with his father, about her decision, finally, to leave him, about her involvement with a local black man (a virtual saint, in the author's eyes), about the vicious reaction in town to that involvement-and to the child that ensued (the KKK burned a cross in the yard). The principal crisis occurs when a court removes the author from his mother's care, an action initiated by the 12-year-old's father and his odious family. He bounces from foster care to a boys' home and sees his mother only occasionally. Years later-after most of the principals have died-he forgives everyone, including himself for failing to be the husband he had always hoped to be. (His own marriage disintegrated.) Cheek's pain is evident throughout, but unfortunately so is his lack of skill: He spins his tale with so little craft that the narrative losesvirtually all of its potential strength, overshadowed by diction that's often trite, dialogue that's unconvincing and dramatic shaping that just isn't there. A doleful debut, heartfelt but disappointing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592286263
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/1/2005
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Gene Cheek is a blue-collar son of the South, born on March 2, 1951 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He has lived an unremarkable life with the exception of his children, grandchildren and his own peculiar childhood. This is his first book. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 6, 2009

    The Color of Love

    This book was very touching and very well writen. I had the pleasure of meeting Gean Cheek in person and shook his hand. He is such a great guy with an amazing story. This book was amazing. I would recomend this book for some kind of an award.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2006

    Disappointing and trite

    Gene's pain is evident throughout, but unfortunately so is his lack of skill: He spins his tale with so little craft that the narrative loses virtually all of its potential strength, overshadowed by diction that's often trite, dialogue that's unconvincing and dramatic shaping that just isn't there. A doleful debut, heartfelt but disappointing.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2005

    Color of Love: A Mother's Choice in the Jim Crow South

    The grainy black and white photograph on the cover of Gene Cheek¿s memoir reaches out and grabs you before you can pick up the book. It shows a smiling young man of the sixties holding his baby brother. His mother sits on his left, his stepfather on his right. We know what this story is about before we open to page one. What¿s surprising, though, is that Cheek doesn¿t get to that part of his life until the second half of the story. He starts his tale in March 1959, at Grandma Pearl¿s house for his eighth birthday. We meet and fall in love with his mother¿s family, and understand why he dislikes his father¿s family. We¿ll read of marital strife and reconciliations, hopes for new beginnings, and hopes dashed by an alcoholic father unable to beat his addiction. Reading more like a novel than a memoir, Cheek shows us the ugliness of pre-civil rights America through the eyes of a child being pulled in opposite directions by his mother and grandmother¿s respect for all people and his father¿s violent racism. The drama of the custody hearing is heart-wrenching, the outcome chilling. Hard to put down, you¿ll find yourself taking sides and hoping for a ¿happy ending.¿ But it is a memoir, not a novel, so some ends are left untied at the end. The epilogue tries to answer most questions, and reminds the reader that while we may think that segregation was stopped in the sixties, the practical working out of the new social order took longer. For me perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was that North Carolina kept its anti-miscegenation laws on the books until 1973. Cheek¿s mother didn¿t legally marry her beloved Tucker until 1979. Looking back smugly from the twenty-first century, the result seems so obvious that it¿s difficult to understand why the racist system lasted as long as it did, but in fact, vestiges are still alive. Parents and grandparents of a mixed-raced child still worry that society willpunish the child for its parent¿s choices. Slights and offences are scrutinized for racist motivation. Certain restaurants are avoided. Stories like Gene Cheek¿s challenge us to examine ourselves and to exorcise any racist demons we find lurking there. This is a must-read book for baby-boomers; it personalizes the abstraction of America¿s civil rights movement and shows us that we may not be as enlightened as we believe ourselves to be.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2005

    Once upon a time in the south

    I was fortunate enough to have read an advanced copy of this book, and I couldn't put it down. Simply written and powerful are words I would use to describe it. If you've read--and liked--Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin' or James McBrides The Color of Water then you're going to love this book. A dark tale from a dark time in our not so distant history, it is a tale of despair and courage.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2005

    Color of Love: A Mother's Choice in the Jim Crow South

    Cheek spins a mesmerizing yarn, told from a little boy's viewpoint, of growing up poor and white in 1950s North Carolina, surrounded by generations of wife-beating alcoholics. Through plain yet descriptive language seasoned with wry, biting adjectives, he ably conveys the sights, sounds and feelings of his surroundings. His musings are funny and hopeful, and Cheek shapes his childhood voice to suit stories of his tense relationship with his violent, alcoholic father; his mother's endless tolerance and denial; and his admiration for his maternal grandmother, who taught him to 'be full of love, not hate.' His child's-eye reportage captures the intricacies of his mother's postmarital relationship with Tuck, a strong, kind and gentle black man Cheek had met years earlier, and their secret life as an interracial family. The secret was revealed only after Cheek's mother had Tuck's baby, which enraged her family enough for them to have a court declare her an unfit mother. When the judge ordered her to give up one of the children, the author took the choice out of his mother's hands when he elected to leave the family and become a ward of the state, turning the formerly optimistic young man against the rest of his family. In an epilogue written in his adult voice, Cheek explains that his motivation for writing the book was vengeance, which in the process of writing turned to understanding and, finally, forgiveness. (May)

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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