I have been frustrated by my inability to find out the identity of my birth father and have often wondered if DNA testing might help me in my search. I recently asked this question in the “Tracing Your Roots” forum at The Root and, to my delight, received a very helpful and thoughtful answer written by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kyle Hurst. Check it out here.
If you are an adoptee and a parent, you’ll want to read Parenting as Adoptees.
If you parent with an adoptee, and if you are a transracial adoptee, you’ll want to read this book. The essays presented in the book will also be useful to adoptive parents, social workers, counselors and anyone with an interest in, or connection to, adoption.
For me, having children raised many issues: Seeing the vulnerability of my tiny daughters made me wonder about my own infant self. Who cared for me in my first month and a half of life? What impact did the immediate separation from my biological mother have on me? Does that have anything to do with my reluctance to trust others? I had grave doubts about my ability to be a good-enough parent: if my biological mother wasn’t able to parent me, what kind of parent could I be? Perhaps there was something inherently wrong with me. Will my children feel the same loss of culture and identity that I experience? How do I guide them toward a strong, secure sense of self? The essays in this book explore many deeply personal questions for a variety of adoptees from diverse backgrounds. There many be no “right” answers to the questions many adoptee-parents face, but certainly there are ways to understand and build on the experiences of others. Parenting as Adoptees does just that by articulating the particular struggles, pain, healing and joys of parenting-while-adopted.
“My hair’s gone right back to Africa.”
An old friend told me this saying when I was in junior high. She was letting me in on what some black women say when their straightened hair reverts “back” to curls or afro in wet or humid weather (a common occurrence in my part of the world). I loved learning sayings like this; it made me feel in the know. As a black girl growing up in a white family I was on the outside of black culture and community. That is, until I entered junior high and made black friends, had a black boyfriend, listened to black music, read black history and literature and deliberately absorbed as much black culture as I could. Embracing – and learning – a variety of black cultures and people gave me some self-confidence and generally helped in the quest to know myself; but a kind of doubtful self-consciousness and insecurity about my cultural identity remains. I am easily shaken if someone, black or white, insinuates I am not “black enough,” because I am too fair-skinned, or because I am bookish, or because I don’t “sound black,” or because my parents are white or because I have too many white friends. Intellectually I know there is no single authentic black experience and perhaps I should not care what others think; but the emotional need to belong within a community, particularly a racially defined community, is very strong.
Read the full article here: http://thecentennial.ca/the-search-for-roots
Victoria Rowell is probably best known as Drucilla on The Young and the Restless. I’m not a watcher of daytime drama – or much TV generally – but I’m aware that Rowell was one of few black actors on the soaps, especially in the early days of her acting career. Rowell was and is many other things too: a talented ballerina, a foster care survivor, an advocate for foster children, a mother of two.
Her memoir, published in 2007, is a tribute to all the women – and there were many – who mothered, supported, influenced and encouraged her. No memoir is complete; this one because Rowell’s story is told only around the women in her life. With the exception of one foster father, the men in her life are mentioned but not fully discussed. Fair enough, since the book is structured on the various women who influenced her. And the story of the women in her life and how they shaped her is compelling and important enough on its own. But I found myself wanting to know more about the absent men in her life and to know more explicitly the effect those absences had on her. Rowell writes, for example, that she found the name of her father written in a letter by her mother to her foster mother, but nothing more is said about it. It is a curious thing to mention in passing and then drop. The father of her children (one of whom is Wynton Marsalis) are mentioned only briefly as well. Did the men in her life have little impact in shaping her? Were their absences or failures too disappointing or too painful to discuss? Or would writing about them somehow take away from the significance of the women in her life? Perhaps privacy was an issue. I read elsewhere that at least one foster family member abused Rowell and a sister; however, this is not discussed in the book.
While I think the memoir would have benefited from addressing the father/male question, the book stands on its own and certainly pays homage to the “village” of women who raised her: foster mothers (white and black); her own biological mother (who despite debilitating mental illness fought for her children in her own way); numerous teachers; her social worker; mothers-in-law and sisters; and many female friends. Taken into care as an infant, Rowell suffers the loss of having a permanent, stable family, of moving many times in her youth. As the biracial child of a white mother and an unknown black father, she struggles for acceptance and identity within both her biological and foster families.
Rowell was born in Maine in 1959. Her first foster family was white, living in an all white community, and they tried very hard to adopt her. The law in Maine at the time prohibited the adoption of black or mixed race children into white families. Rowell writes that this law was “overtly racist” and reflected the “attitudes stigmatizing mixed-race unions”. Both Child Welfare and Rowell’s mother (who did not want her to be adopted at all) wanted Rowell to be placed with a black family. Child Welfare wrote of Rowell’s situation:
It would be easy for us to leave Vicki in a home where we know she is loved and well cared for and to close our eyes and minds to what life would hold for her in ten and fifteen years hence. But in thinking of the future we must remember that being brought up in a foster home is difficult enough without adding the problems of racial difference and separation from what little ‘own family’ is left…. We must face the fact that the same people who love her at age two might feel differently when she is in her teens. We also know that Vicki herself is going to be aware of the ‘differences’ as the years pass, and she will have problems to work out living in a totally white community.
In other parts of the United States and in Canada, many black children would be adopted by white families in the 1960s and 70s without so much consideration for their well-being. It is interesting that the concerns identified by Maine’s Child Welfare in 1959-60 more or less echo the concerns of community services in Canada today (after a push by black social workers in the 70s and later for cultural awareness). Rowell was moved at about age 2 to a black foster family and reunited with two older half-sisters.
Rowell’s memory and attention to detail make this book an interesting read, though at times I wished the details had been edited down a little. Overall, Rowell’s personality comes through as someone I would like to know and chat with. Her perseverance and commitment to her friends and family are admirable. When Rowell is in her twenties and learns her mother is dying, she tries to visit her but her mother’s sister refuses to acknowledge her sister’s “nigger” children and will not let Rowell see her mother. Rowell, however, defiantly goes to her mother’s funeral, despite having to hitchhike there alone and with little money.
Many foster care survivors and adoptees will be interested to read Rowell’s story. She overcomes many hardships and she writes about her past in way that may be instructive for others trying to find and accept themselves. While Rowell showed great character and determination, her success in life was greatly helped by many people who rallied around her early talent as a dancer and student. She was lucky to have so many women believe in her abilities, to guide her toward achievement. Sadly, many fostered youth do not have such supportive mentors and loving foster families.
They’d looked like each other, more than in their faces. Even though the boy took quick, fidgety steps, with the occasional bounce, and the man’s strides were calm and extended, there was a point at which they’d met and reflected one another. They were two different stops on a single journey. The man had a proud disposition and long, neat dreadlocks, always tied back. He would pass himself on to the boy, who wore the beginnings of this pride, suggested in they way he frequently looked up at his father. Lucas used to gaze at them until they were out of sight, imagining himself in the boy’s place. He found it difficult to accept, in the light of their perfection, that the man might not want the boy, that there could come a situation where he might not look out for him, unless there was something that prevented him doing so. (Anchor Canada, 2010, at p. 22)
These thoughts belong to Lucas, one of the main characters in Diana Evans’ The Wonder. Lucas is an orphan who, knowing almost nothing about his father, becomes fixated on discovering the secret behind his absence and why his sister will not tell him anything about their father. The passage above, in which Lucas recounts his feelings on seeing a little boy with his father each morning before school, resonates with me as an adoptee. Those who grow up without parents or biological family often look with envy on those who see themselves reflected in the continuum of their family. Like the father’s dreadlocks, there is a “neatness” in such a family line, of being “two different stops on a single journey”. Lucas – and indeed many an adoptee - needs to know how and why he ended up outside this familial neatness.
Lucas begins as something of a lost soul, becomes determined to find his father’s story and is mildly disturbed by his search along the way. An interesting exchange occurs when Lucas is challenged by his close friend Jake, whose own father he might rather not have known:
‘I might not be wondering,’ he said, ‘but I’m dodging. I’m second-guessing myself all the time so I don’t end up like him. You’ve got a clean slate, Luke. No shadow over you, no template, nothing to repeat. You’re free - why spoil it for yourself? Personally I think you’re getting into all this stuff too deep.’ (pp. 211-12)
I’ve heard this before too: I must be lucky to have no background; I can make it up as I go! But Lucas concludes: “He didn’t agree with Jake. It was better to know. And maybe what you didn’t know you repeated anyway, because of genes, because of generations unfolding in their particular unchanging fabrics” (212). Once Lucas learns the truth of his father’s disappearance from his family he seems liberated, able to let go of the past and create his own future. This is what I imagine being necessary for many adoptees, certainly for me: finding out the truth, absorbing it and ultimately moving on. But then I am always reading my adoption psychology and history into everything….
This novel is about much more than a son’s quest for his father’s and his own identity; that is just one of the narratives. The book describes the London streets of Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove in detail (makes me want to visit London even more) and recounts the history of Lucas’ father’s involvement in the creation of the “Midnight Ballet”, a pioneering black dance troupe. It explores the characters and psyches of artists and themes of loss, denial and love. Initially I found it hard to get into the flow of the narrative as time, setting and perspective shift frequently throughout the novel; however Evans’ writing is so subtle and insightful I couldn’t help but be drawn in. My only complaint is that there are so many interesting characters, not all of them get fleshed out as fully as they might.
I really enjoyed Evans’ first novel 26a and I highly recommend The Wonder. Thanks Zetta for referring me to both!
I’m keenly awaiting the arrival of the new memoir, Color Blind, by writer Precious Williams about her experiences as an African child growing up in a white foster home in England. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her memoir:
Why did you decide to write a memoir?
To this day thousands of African children are still privately fostered by white unregistered foster carers in England. Back in the 1970s, when I was first fostered, I was advertised in a magazine and sent to strangers. The magazine ads are now banned and instead parents find these unregistered foster parents by word of mouth. This is an important piece of Britain’s social history that hasn’t been written about nearly enough. For that reason I wanted to share my own story. In Britain we tend to pride ourselves on being happily multicultural – I think my books asks some questions about whether that is really true. Trans-racial fostering and colonialism are closely intertwined. Many of the African parents who felt giving their children to white strangers would ensure the child had an advantage absorbed this idea while growing up under colonial rule themselves, back in Africa. There’s an emphasis on acculturation, on the black child being ‘improved’ by shedding as much of their Africanness as possible (in my case I didn’t even get a Nigerian name – very rare for an Igbo). My view is that none of this works, so in that respect my book is a cautionary tale.
Has writing the memoir changed you? Was it emotionally difficult? Was it cathartic?
Writing this book has given me new insights into the concept of family. I’d grown up with a feeling that I’d been snatched away from my birth family – even though my mother had in fact voluntarily given me away. I felt I’d been deprived of family. Writing the book, researching my past, finding out some shocking things, having a mental breakdown while doing all this – it made me ask myself questions about what family is and what family means. Who were the people who cared for me the most when I was a vulnerable child? Who are the people supporting me and loving me now, today? My natural mother didn’t factor into either category and yet I’d silently idolized her as a child.
Do you still have contact with your foster family?
My foster mother died just over a year ago. She was in her 90s and had led a happy life. I’m in touch with the rest of the foster family and they’ve read my book and feel excited about it.
When can we expect to read your book?
Color Blind is out in Canada on 3rd August and will be available in all the usual bookstores and on Amazon!
One of the things I’ve been meaning to write about is my experience at the AFAAD (Adopted and Fostered Adults from the African Diaspora) gathering in Oakland in November. Too much time has passed for me to record my feelings in much detail, but I have a few thoughts. Being at this gathering was my first time being in a room with so many people with my particular experience: black people of a similar age who had grown up in white families. Like me, some were the only black person in their family, and interestingly, many were mixed race black people. I didn’t realize until recently that many black transracial adoptees are actually mixed race (or biracial or multiracial) and have white mothers. I just read an article by Dr. Gina Miranda Samuels* that confirms this fact in the United States. It makes sense; probably many white mothers gave up their babies because of the racism in their families or due to their own fear of dealing with racism or a biracial child. I wonder if the statistics for mixed race black adoptees in Canada are similar.
Anyway, I was in a roomful of people who not only had similar experiences growing up, but some of whom even looked a bit like me. And that was very cool, very affirming. Just knowing you are not the only one out there makes you feel less of an anomaly, less of an outsider. I knew a few transracial adoptees as a teenager and young adult but I lost touch with them. Importantly, my mother found me a black hairdresser when I was a teen who was also a black transracial adoptee. She was tall and pretty and kind and fairly open about the racism she and her family faced growing up and I looked up to her. My brother also had a friend who was a black transracial adoptee; he was a few years older than me. When I was in junior high, I thought he was cute and funny, but I was terrified of him. He liked to tease people and I think I was afraid he would expose all my faults and vulnerabilities. Actually he tried to befriend me, but I basically rejected him. I couldn’t identify my fear of myself then, or my deep insecurities. I always regretted that; now I try to make up for it, or I wish I could make up for it.
I spend too much time thinking about the past. I feel it is one of the things I do as an adoptee. I get stuck on the past, unable to let it go, and immobilized by the future, unable to commit to things. And then I never fully live in the present. I give up on things, on jobs, on careers, on family, on friends. And then I’m filled with regret.
The AFAAD gathering made me think of these things past, the painful things. But it also helped me let it go a tiny bit. The gathering involved a healing circle, something I’ve never participated in before. It offered a way to let go of past hurts, and claim the positive in the present.
Attending a gathering devoted to black adoptees was powerful, if a bit mentally exhausting. I was a bit scared to be there. I’m often shy and reserved and reaching out to connect with people I find hard in the best of circumstances. At a certain level I always fear rejection, even in the safest, most comfortable environments. So I guess I was surprised at myself that I didn’t feel more at ease in a group of people most like me. Despite my anxieties, it was great to meet so many interesting and lovely people.
The best part may be that I feel a need to make changes at home. I would love to see a black or transracial adoptee support network (for adults) in my own province or across Canada. I am pretty sure there are lots of us out there? I put out a few ads but didn’t get responses except from journalists. If anyone has any tips on building a network, please let me know.
*See also Samuels’ recent article “Building Kinship and Community: Relational Processes of Bicultural Identity Among Adult Multiracial Adoptees” here. It was great to read Dr. Samuels’ articles and see so many of my own experiences reflected in her research.