Broken Family Threads

It is said that it is Black History Month, though many of my friends chafe at that and say it is ALWAYS black history. I understand. Imani Perry’s book South To America has been getting some buzz and as I writer I notice those things.

Yesterday, I read an essay adapted from her book published in Time Magazine’s Feb 14 – Feb 21 2022 issue titled “The Way Home.” It is about her effort to reconnect with a grandmother in Maryland who she is able to know very little about. Was her name Easter Lowe or Esther Watkins ? Was she born in Maryland or Georgia, was she 101 years old or 91.

I realized as I read how much I could relate to her journey to Maryland which is described in the article. Her attempt to get some insight into unknowable people. I recognized my own “roots” journey, often fraught with disappointment and too little too slowly. I am fortunate to know what I know now. Though the African American experience of slavery is not mine, I know how it feels not to know anything about where one came from (both of my parents were adoptees). At one time, I used to tell people I was an albino African because no one could prove me wrong, not even myself. Now I finally do know better.

Slavery was not exactly in my family history but in a way it was. My paternal grandmother was put to work in the Rayon mills in Asheville NC at a young age. She was not allowed to keep her own earnings and was probably expected to do a lot of other chores in the home. Her mother died when she was only 3 mos old and she had to live with a decidedly evil step-mother (from a story I heard about her being tied to a tree in a thunderstorm). She was a run-away slave. When her family visited her grandfather and her aunt in La Jolla California, she refused to return to Asheville and her slave labor there.

Poverty and the Great Depression was likely the cause of both of my grandmothers being separated from their babies. There really was not any family support for them. My maternal grandmother also lost her mother at the age of 11. She also escaped harsh conditions with her widowed father who was a sharecropper. She ran away to Memphis where she met and married my mom’s birth father.

Though I am not black and my family wasn’t enslaved, I can relate to Imani Perry’s story because in very real ways it is my story too. I didn’t grow up with a strong white supremacist’s identity. I was in the minority in Hispanic El Paso Texas and anyway, we didn’t have a clue to our ethnicity. Even so, I do recognize now that being white has put me in a class of advantages and I’ve worked very hard at educating myself by reading every anti-racist type book that has come my way. I celebrate the contributions of Black, African Americans to the diversity and vibrancy of the country of my own birth.

The Grandfathers I Never Knew

My mom’s father with her half-sisters

And I never will know my grandfathers, or my grandmothers either, because they have all died. But I’ve seen photos and heard some stories which is more than I had for over 60 years of my life.

My mom wasn’t much inclined towards this man and showed no interest in these half-siblings. She only yearned for her mother who was already dead when she pushed the state of Tennessee to give her details as an adoptee (which they still denied her). I think my mom had a pre-birth and infant sense that her own mother felt abandoned by this man with good reason. The true reasons for their separation and why he didn’t come to her aid in Memphis, I’ll never know. I have this picture thanks to my cousin, the daughter of the younger girl in this photo.

An article in Severance magazine where the aftermath of separation is often detailed by those who have experienced it is shared caught my attention for it’s headline – The Grandfather I May Never Know. I still need to actually read it (and will before I finish this blog) but I would suspect from the headline, it is still possible for the author.

In her article, Bianca Butler writes – “As a young child, I didn’t know that my mother and her twin sister (now deceased) had been adopted in 1960. I found out in 2000, when, after nearly 40 years of silence, their biological mother wrote to the twins asking to reunite.”

She describes one outcome of their reunion – “By meeting her biological mother, my mother learned her biological father’s identity and that she and her twin are of mixed-race ancestry: African American and white. Their biological mother had been a young African American college student at the University of California, Berkeley when she relinquished her twin daughters for adoption. They were born in a time in the United States when interracial unions were not only taboo but also illegal (Loving V Virginia) and when young unwed women were shamed and stigmatized—a time known as the Baby Scoop Era, from 1945 to 1973, before Roe V Wade in 1973.”

Since the suspected father of the twins denied paternity, the author decided to get her DNA tested. She goes on to share that “The Ancestry DNA test confirmed that I’m 31% Norwegian and, through the DNA matches, that I’m related to his cousins. I sent him the DNA results, but he’s still in denial and, sadly, not open to a relationship.” She admits that – “Finding biological family and taking a DNA test can bring great joy and excitement, but it can also bring rejection and disappointment. . . . It can be very emotional opening up old generational wounds that still haven’t been healed. . . . some people don’t want to be found, especially when race and adoption are factors, and I’ve had to accept that reality. “

She adds a happier note – “On a positive note, through Ancestry DNA I was amazed to connect with a cousin on my mom’s paternal side who is close to my age and open to connecting. She moved to Sacramento from Minnesota last year for graduate school, and we plan to meet. From her own ancestry research, she was able to give me more information about our shared heritage and ancestral homeland in Fresvik, Norway, which, in addition to Oslo, I hope to visit.”

This happened for me as well (thanks to DNA testing). I have contact with a cousin in Denmark now. I have learned details about my paternal grandfather’s early life. I would love to travel to Denmark and visit the family there (who never knew my grandfather ever had any children, and he probably never knew either as he was a married man and my grandmother simply handled it quietly).

I do share this perspective with the article’s author – “As an adult, I’m doing the healing work to educate myself on intergenerational trauma, loss, and abandonment that happen through adoption.”

Vagabond, I think the man with the pipe in his mouth is my paternal grandfather.

Racially Determined Adoptions

I spent most of last summer educating myself about racial inequality and reform issues. Now I see this advertisement. First of all, $13,000 tax credit for adopters??? Think if poor mothers got $13,000 to keep and raise their own babies. The newborn adoption industry would totally collapse.  In Canada, they pay single parents so that they are not burdened with having to find a job and child care. There are no losers in that scenario. This program lasts until the child is 18. The amount per month decreases as the child gets older.

Note that African American babies are less valuable at Everlasting Adoptions. One could ask – Doesn’t this somehow directly violate anti-discrimination laws? Besides the smell of human trafficking in this brochure. No one regulates this business. It’s truly the wild west at this time in human history as regards adoption. This one isn’t even an adoption agency, its like a “travel agent” for people who want to pay someone to find a birth mom for them. If found, the parties then go to an adoption agency to draw up the paperwork but on Everlasting Adoptions website, they proudly take credit for successfully completed matches.

NPR did a story back in 2013 titled Six Words: ‘Black Babies Cost Less To Adopt’. The title for this one came from a Louisiana woman. Other contributors have also addressed the skin-color based fee structure for many adoptions, NPR noted – The intersection of race and adoption has prompted many people to submit their six words to The Race Card Project. Americans adopt thousands of children each year. And as the nation has become increasingly diverse, and with the growth of international adoption in recent decades, many of those children don’t look like their adoptive parents.

One adoptive parent, remembers a phone call with an adoption agency social worker. “And [she] was telling us about these different fee structures that they had based on the ethnic background of the child. And … they also had, sort of a different track for adoptive parents.” Moving through the process would be quicker, if the family was open to adopting an African-American (not biracial) child, the social worker explained to her. “And that is because they have children of color waiting,” but adopting biracial, Latino, Asian or Caucasian children could be a slower process because there were more parents waiting for them. “And I remember hearing this and just sort of being dumbfounded that they would sort of segregate — to use a loaded term — segregate these children by ethnic background before they were even in this world,”

It is a profit-motivated, supply and demand business. Thankfully, NPR also found that some states and agencies are using a different formula to make adoption more affordable for families, with a sliding scale based on income rather than skin color. In that system, lower-income families pay less to adopt. Some agencies are also moving toward a uniform cost system where all adoptive parents would pay the same fees. (Though I am still not in favor of adoption in most cases.) Still, back in 2013, the cost to adopt the Caucasian child was approximately $35,000, plus some legal expenses. I see upward of $40,000 in Go Fund Me efforts set up by hopeful adoptive parents today in 2021.

Self Indulgent Adoptive Parents

The lead-in to today’s blog expresses an opinion about this couple in my “all things adoption” group.

This is such a self indulgent, sad article to read. It was all focused on what they wanted, conveniently wrapped up as “Gods plan.” They wanted African American twin boys?! They treated adoption like a menu they could pick from, tailor made to suit their requirements. The part that was particularly telling was when she said “one birth mom got in a car accident on the way to the hospital and was in a coma, it was not looking good for us.” An expectant mother has an accident and goes into a coma and all she could think about is – it wasn’t looking good for us?!

This adoptive parent has a huge following on Instagram and regularly uses her children’s stories and adoptee status to promote the brands she partners with. I often wonder what will we hear from these children (and there are many cases of adoptive children being used to promote adoptiove parent platforms), when they grow up.

In one of the comments is a screenshot from the adoptive mother. I don’t even had words for how self-centered the adoptive mother is and yet obviously aware of what is happening to the birth mother – all at the same time. Here are her own words about it.

“The day I posted about bringing the baby home, I explained that those few days in the hospital were hard. There were so many comments on my remarks about why it was hard.”

“Here’s why – two pictures were taken that day the baby was born. One is of me holding the baby with tears in my eyes with the birth mother being held by a nurse because she has tears in her eyes also. I will admit that I was crying because my baby was finally here and yet, I knew at the same time that someone else’s heart was being torn apart.”

What kind of insensitivity acknowledges this so matter of factly. To the adoptive mother’s perspective, the birth mother is only crying because she knows her baby is “where she is supposed to be” (and that is with the adoptive mother – which is plainly NOT, in the natural order of things, true).

She admits that “adoption is every emotion in the book” but admits that “those few days while the baby and the birth mother both remained in the hospital were hard” (and I would suppose, hardest on the birth mother).

She is keeping those pictures for the baby when she is older so that she can know that her original mother’s heart broke. Though the adoptive mother’s perspective is – “so the baby’s heart would not have to be” ? Really ? Staying with her original mother would have been heartbreaking for the child ? This is what entitlement looks like – your baby is better off with me because I am better than you.

The adoptive mother admits that adoption isn’t fair and that it’s hard but she still claims it is beautiful and personal – and like all adoptive parents want to believe – a selfless act on the part of the mother.

Oh What A Beautiful Baby

Magnolia Earl is the 2020 Gerber baby seen here with her adoptive family

Magnolia Earl is the winner of the 10th annual Gerber Baby search.  She’s the first Gerber spokesbaby to be adopted. Magnolia is from Ross CA and was picked from over 327,000 entries submitted. She has “captured the hearts of the judging panel with her joyful expression, playful smile and warm, engaging gaze.”

“At a time when we are yearning for connection and unity, Magnolia and her family remind us of the many things that bring us together: our desire to love and be loved, our need to find belonging, and our recognition that family goes way beyond biology,” Bill Partyka Gerber President and CEO said in a press release.

Magnolia’s parents, Courtney and Russell Earl, have two other daughters, Whitney age 12 and Charlotte age 8 (who is also adopted).

It would appear that Gerber has been actively seeking more diversity. Past winners have included the first Gerber Baby with Down Syndrome and the first of Hmong descent. Ann Turner Cook, the very first Gerber baby, is still featured in the iconic charcoal sketch done by her mother in 1928 and seen on most Gerber packaging since 1931.

The issue of trans-racial adoption remains highly controversial and images of Magnolia in a headwrap set off divisive debates on social media. I know this because I wandered into one that has kept my heart’s attention since last night.  So, this morning I wanted to educate myself about what seems to be the contentious aspect of the baby being photographed in a headwrap.  Truly, the adoption issues should be front and center, though it does appear that aspect is part of the marketing effort by Gerber.

So, regarding the headwrap.  This usually completely covers the hair, being held in place by tying the ends into knots close to the skull. As a form of apparel in the United States, the headwrap has been exclusive to women of African descent.

The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and serves similar functions for both African and African American women. In style, the African American woman’s headwrap exhibits the features of sub-Saharan aesthetics and worldview. In the United States, however, the headwrap acquired a paradox of meaning not customary on the ancestral continent. During slavery, white overlords imposed its wear as a badge of enslavement and afterwards, during Jim Crow it was part of the regulations.  Over time, it evolved into the stereotype that whites held of the “Black Mammy” servant.

The enslaved persons and their descendants have regarded the headwrap as a helmet of courage that evoked an image of true homeland-be that ancient Africa or the newer homeland, America. The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity.  At its most elaborate, the African American woman’s headwrap has functioned as a “uniform of rebellion” signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.  Which gives me pause in the case of a black baby adopted into a white family.

Tying a piece of cloth around the head is not specific to any one cultural group. Men and women have worn and continue to wear some type of fabric head covering in many societies. What does appear to be culturally specific, however, is the way the fabric is worn; in other words, the style in which the fabric is worn is the ultimate cultural marker and a studied way of presenting the self based upon an idea of how one ought to appear to others.

A woman of African ancestry folds the fabric into a rectilinear shape usually ties the knots somewhere on the crown of her head, either at the top or on the sides, often tucking the ends into the wrap. African and African American women wear the headwrap as a queen might wear a crown.  Some African American women played with the white “code”.  Flaunting the headwrap by converting it from something which might be construed as shameful into an anti-style uniquely their own.

African American women demonstrate their recognition that they alone possessed this particular style of head ornamentation.  Donning the headwrap is an acknowledgment of their membership in an unique American social group. Whites have often misunderstood the self-empowering and defiant intent, seeing the headwrap only as the stereotypic “Aunt Jemima” image of the black woman as domestic servant (putting the image of the Gerber baby alongside the iconic one on social media has set off discussions related to race rather than adoption and that was the predominant energy in the discussion I found myself in last night).

The more complicated truth regarding the headwrap is that it acquired significance for the enslaved women as a form of self and communal identity and as a badge of resistance against the servitude imposed by whites.  The headwrap worn by African American women was forged in the crucible of American slavery and its aftermath.  Modern African Americans consciously adopt the headwrap to mark their cultural identity and in solidarity with the black women who were often forced to wear it in the past.

The research paper I read was based on comments made by approximately two thousand formerly enslaved African Americans who recounted their experiences and contributed their oral histories to the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936 to 1938.  There is much more about the symbolism and history of headwraps at this link – http://char.txa.cornell.edu/Griebel.htm

Robbed Of Heritage

The symbolism in this painting calls to something very deep within me.  It is a painting by Barbara Taffet. In 1973, she reinvented herself as Maria Alquilar, a Latina artist whose fictive back story included a Sephardic Jewish father from Argentina. Drawing on her deep knowledge of world myths and spiritual traditions, filtered through her own personal mythology, she began creating idiosyncratic works inspired by the work of the California Sacramento-Davis area narrative expressionist, outsider and funk artists she admired and collected.

Adoption robs us of our actual cultural heritage.  All my life until very recently, I believed my dad was half-Mexican and my mom possibly half-African American.  They were both adoptees and for what little we knew about our familial roots, we could claim any story we wanted and not even our own selves knew whether it was true or not.

So along came inexpensive DNA testing.  Both my mom and I had ours done at Ancestry.  Later on, I had mine also tested at 23 and Me.  My mom has some Mali in her and so, I suspect slavery had something to do with that.  My dad’s dark complexion actually came by way of his Danish immigrant father.  I have learned there is some Ashkenazi Jew in me and suspect that comes via a family that lived for generations on Long Island New York.

Why does this painting call so deeply to my soul – there is that Jewish symbol and there is the Southwestern symbols as well.  There is a predator protecting it’s prey – my maternal grandmother was preyed upon by Georgia Tann, the famous baby thief of Memphis Tennessee.  And it is always about the bunnies in my household.  The angelic image at the top is more like a Jackrabbit which fits nicely with my New Mexican birth.

In many transracial adoptions, the very young child is not only cut off from their cultural heritage but loses contact with their native language.  It may be difficult to understand how disorienting that is but I get it.  It’s time to change the rules of the adoption game.

Transracial Adoptions

This is not a topic I’ve discussed here before because I really don’t have any experience with it but Angela Tucker, an adoptee (raised by the white parents you see in the image above) has been speaking out about her experience of growing up among people who did not look like her.

Angela was able to achieve what many adoptees hope for – a reunion with her original parents.  She found her father on Facebook in 2010.  He is known as “Sandy the Flower Man” in Chattanooga TN.  His actual name is Oterious Bell.  What Angela noticed first was his smile – which matched hers.

Born in Chattanooga TN, Angela was adopted as a 1-year-old by David and Teresa Burt in Bellingham WA. Eventually, this Caucasian couple would adopt seven of their eight children, drawing together a family of diverse ethnicity.

“I’m an African American who ‘fits in’ within Caucasian areas, better than in predominantly African American areas,” says Angela. “That is confusing and interesting at the same time.”

She wanted to understand her ethnic background, her personality and character traits. Where did her athletic skill come from ? Who did she look like — her original mom or original dad ? At the age of 12, she began expressing interest in finding her original parents. But her adoptive parents flinched at the thought they might be replaced.

“On my part,” says Angela, “there was a need to explain what my motives were — not to replace anyone, but simply to figure out who I am. What are my roots ? How did I get from Tennessee to Washington — and why?”  This question mirrors my own mother’s question – how did I get from Virginia to Tennessee ?

I love that her original mother’s name matches my own – Deborah.  When Angela first found Deborah, she denied any familial connection. That rejection was a devastating blow for Angela.  Deborah’s resistance did slowly give way to acceptance and embrace.  Eventually, Deborah spoke for the first time ever about the pain she experienced regarding Angela’s birth.

“It is wonderful to ‘not see color,’ and to want to adopt any race,” Angela says. “But there is a difference in parenting a child from another race. … If you aren’t Caucasian, then you do see color. You have to. You can feel it.  It instilled in me an attitude of humility and a genuine openness towards accepting and understanding complex situations.”

Angela’s quest to find her birth family shows that reconciliation is possible, even when the deepest of hurts becomes an obstacle.  Her husband, Bryan Tucker, has made a documentary about her journey titled Closure.  You can watch a trailer at – https://youtu.be/g__N9YW78XU.