The Truth About Louis Armstrong’s Adoption Story

I saw this story –

A Jewish family named Karnofsky, who immigrated from Lithuania to the United States, took pity on a 7-year-old boy and brought him to their home. There he stayed and spent the night in this Jewish family home, where for the first time in his life he was treated with kindness and tenderness. When he went to bed, Mrs. Karnovski sang him Russian lullabies, which he sang with her. Later he learned to sing and play several Russian and Jewish songs. Over time, this boy became the adopted son of this family. Mr. Karnofsky gave him money to buy his first musical instrument, as was the custom in Jewish families. Later, when he became a professional musician and composer, he used these Jewish melodies in compositions such as St. James’s Hospital and Go Down Moses. The little boy grew up and wrote a book about this Jewish family, who adopted him in 1907. And proudly spoke Yiddish fluently. In memory of this family and until the end of his life, he wore the Star of David and said that in this family he learned “to live a real life and determination. “This little boy’s name was Louis Armstrong.

It’s a very sweet story and has some factual basis but I have NOT been able to prove the adoption story. In fact, Louis Armstrong’s life – while filled with poverty and hardship – was more complicated than this simple story. The “adopted” allegation isn’t of the legal sort, though definitely the family was special to him and helpful at a critical point in Armstrong’s young life. Louis Armstrong’s actual family was always in his life to some degree, though at one time he was sent as a punishment to the Colored Waif’s Home for borrowing – without permission and recklessly firing – his stepfather’s gun.

Armstrong worked for Mr Karnofsky and the money “given” was actually an advance against what he earned. In fact, it was Louis playing a little tin horn that was intended to attract attention to Mr Karnofsky’s trade. Louis Armstrong did indeed write a memoir titled Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907. It has long been true that the Black and Jewish communities have recognized the discrimination that both races have suffered and have experienced some common ground due to their treatment by other members of society.

Louis Armstrong did adopt – he adopted the 3 yr old son of his cousin Flora. She had died shortly after giving birth. Clarence Armstrong was mentally disabled, the result of a head injury at an early age (forgive me, but this does give me pause without knowing how it happened). Louis Armstrong spent the rest of his life taking care of his son. He also accepted the paternity claim of Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a dancer at the Cotton Club. He had his manager pay a monthly allowance of $400 (US$4,830 in 2020 dollars) to the mother and child.

When asked about his religion, Armstrong answered that he was raised a Baptist, always wore a Star of David, and was friends with the pope. He wore the Star of David in honor of the Karnoffsky family, who took him in as a child and lent him money to buy his first cornet. He was baptized a Catholic in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans, and met both Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI.

I love this song but watching Armstrong sing it brings up conflicted feelings. Some parts appear as deep reflection and other parts almost feel strained. No doubt, he had much to be grateful for but considering the times during which he was performing, I would not be surprised at honest and genuine feelings that were indeed conflicted.

Why It Can’t Satisfy

For my family’s movie last night, I chose the only one in our dvd library that has a story centered on the mother. AI and robotics are already a part of our modern time and the the movie – AI Artificial Intelligence released in 2001 – envisions where that world may be headed. The movie credits the short story – Supertoys Last All Summer Long – by author Brian Aldiss. SPOILER ALERT (if there is anyone who would want to see the movie and actually still has not).

When one considers possible alternatives to adoption for couples experiencing the emotional pain of infertility and longing for a child’s love, which is what motivates them to take another woman’s child to raise as their own, a sentient child robot might appear to offer that solace. However, at least in the imaginings of this movie, there is made the point about all of the ways a robotic child, no matter how life like and responsive, will never be the same as a child a woman gives birth to.

A robotic (mecha in the movie) child will never grow old, cannot share in the family meal. The parents will age and eventually die, what becomes of such a frozen in time child ? That is an early question that the sentient robot child asks early on which reveals a fear many children have and not without reason that their parents may die and leave them orphaned.

When the mother’s comatose biological child awakens from a long coma and starts down the long road of recovery, there is a clear sibling jealousy between the two forms of children. Eventually, the issues become so serious, the mother abandons the child in the forest (this blog’s image is from that scene). Like Pinocchio in the story his adoptive mother reads to him, David wants to become “real” so that he can regain his mother’s love. This abandonment, rejection and the desire for reunion is at the heart of many adoptee stories.

The movie does a good job of conveying the complexities of creating such a child substitute. In the movie, climate change has first drown the coastal cities of Earth, wrecking such destruction that after a long period of suffering that ends humanity, the Earth enters another ice age. After 2,000 years, an alien race that is a sophisticated blend of sentient, powerful beings arrives and discovers the frozen robotic child in a thawing world.

For only one day, these powerful beings are able to observe human mother/child interactions drawn from the memory banks of the robotic child and are also able to recreate his long-deceased mother from a lock of hair once taken from her and saved by the supertoy Teddy bear that accompanies the robotic child on his quest to become real so his mother can love him or at the least, so he can feel loved by her again. As his mother falls asleep at the end of the one day granted the android child, she tells David that she has always loved him and this is the moment he had been seeking throughout his quest. David is able to go to sleep next to his recreated mother at the end of the movie, having satisfied his quest, and allow his own robotic self to enter a kind of permanent sleep state lying beside her in her bed, holding her hand.

And this is why this can’t actually be the love that drives couples to adopt someone else’s child . . .