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.
I came across a mention that got my attention yesterday in a book I am reading that is titled White Tears, Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad. “Some of these children were sent on tour with famous Abolitionist persons like the Rev Henry Ward Beecher who adopted 6 yr old Fanny Lawrence.” But in looking into it, Rev Beecher (the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin) did not adopt Fannie, Catherine did. Beecher baptized her. This is longer than most of my blogs but I do love when history and adoption walk alongside one another.
I don’t know about you but her adoptive mother certain does not look like a happy woman to me and she appears rather stern. The best source for information on Fannie that I found was a pdf from The Fare Facs Gazette titled A Sad Story of Redemption by William Page Johnson II. There is a lot in that link about the backstory but I want to pick up the story of Fannie where it intersects Rev Beecher.
Mary Fletcher was Fannie’s mulatto mother. Her owner (Fannie’s white father) had set her mother and Fannie free in his will but her mother rejected that possibility. She describes the choice she made and the reasons why: “[She] was born and raised in the County of Fauquier and that all her kindred and friends are now living in the county. That she is married and her husband is a slave who could not accompany her. That she has several children, besides those provided for by the will of her late master, all of whom are young and helpless, and that if she goes away she parts from all whom she has ever known and goes, a friendless stranger, to a new state encumbered by helpless children. Your petitioner declares that she deliberately prefers slavery in Virginia to freedom outside of it.”
Later, under the custody of their deceased owner’s mother, the slaves under the advice of that woman sought to make their way to Union lines (the Civil War had begun by now). The large group of slaves included Mary Fletcher, Jane Payne, Ann Gleaves, and their children, Viana, Sallie, and Fanny (Fletcher) Ayres; Bettie (Payne) Ayres; and, Selina (Gleaves) Ayres. The group likely included Jane Payne’s other daughters, Ellen and Rachael Payne, along with several other unknown slaves. They were all led by a slave by the name of Uncle Ben, who had been with their deceased owner, Rufus Ayres, as his personal body servant. Taking only what possessions they could carry and a small amount of food, they walked east toward Fairfax County and Union lines. They took turns carrying Fanny, Selena, and the other children who were too young to walk on their own. They kept off the roads for fear that they would be captured by the Rebs.
They were also fearful of vicious wild hogs, which then freely roamed the countryside. After walking all night, an estimated seventeen miles, they stopped the next morning to rest in a thicket. They ate a meager breakfast and lay down on the ground and slept. Several hours later, Uncle Ben woke with a start. He had been sleeping with his ear pressed to the ground and thought he had heard the sound of approaching horsemen.
Panic ensued. Belongings and children were quickly gathered up and everybody ran headlong through the woods. After they had gone a couple of miles, they slowed when they realized they were not being pursed. It was then discovered that little three-year-old Fanny was not among them. There was significant debate about what to do. All were still fearful of being captured and would not agree to turn back. Someone suggested that Fanny had probably already been eaten by hogs by this time. Hearing this, Viana and Sallie began to cry for their baby sister. Uncle Ben would later say, “Their cries were more than I could bear.” So, Uncle Ben agreed to go back for Fanny. He called out softly to her, “Fanny? Fanny?” his voice barely a whisper, fearful that either the rebels or the hogs would get him too. He was about to turn and leave when he saw some bushes moving a little ways off. He moved cautiously forward not knowing who, or what, it might be. On drawing nearer he saw the child, Fanny, rising and crying softly. Uncle Ben gathered her in his arms and asked her why she did not answer him when he called. She replied, “Cause, I was afraid the hogs would hear me!” Ben lifted the child onto his shoulders and raced back towards the rest of the slaves.
Just before Christmas 1862, Viana, Sallie, and Fanny met Catherine S Lawrence, a Union Army Nurse from New York who was working in the Convalescent Hospital at the Episcopal Seminary near Alexandria. Catherine Lawrence, who was unmarried, was a staunch abolitionist. One day she happened to see several white girls amongst a group of freed slaves. In her autobiography Catherine Lawrence described the smallest child: “The little girl had flaxen hair and dark blue eyes, but dark complexion, or terribly sunburned.” Catherine asked her servant woman, “Helen, see there, where did that white child come from?” Helen replied, “Well missus, they come, a company of them, here a short time ago. The family all died and left the three children to the care of the slaves and were told to go into Union lines, and that one is the youngest of them.
Catherine was shocked to learn that the girls were actually light-skinned slaves. Helen then pleaded with Catherine, “…[she] has no one to see to her…I’ll go with you to the other two girls, if you will take her.” Catherine responded, “Oh, Helen, not now, I am going away tomorrow, and I have no time now.” The following day Catherine was visited by Helen and twelve-year-old, Viana Ayres. With a trembling voice, Viana said to Catherine, “This one [Fanny] you can have as your own. I have no home for myself, nor for her. I reckon she’ll be better off with you, than with me. I have a sister [Sallie] younger than I am. I reckon I must look after her some.” Catherine agreed. She was certain she could find a home for Fanny with a family in New York. She promised that she would come back and do the same for Viana and Sallie, as well.
In the spring of 1863, Catherine and Fanny traveled to Brooklyn, New York. On the way, Catherine determined that she would adopt Fanny as her own daughter and see that she was baptized and properly educated. In Brooklyn, Catherine met with the abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher. Reverend Beecher was a famous evangelical abolitionist. He had recently held a mock slave auction and conducted a baptism for a redeemed slave in his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Reverend Beecher took one look at Fanny and immediately asked Catherine Lawrence if he could baptize her in his church.
Several weeks later, on Sunday, May 10, 1863, Catherine and Fanny were waiting patiently at the end of a long line of parents inside Plymouth Church. This Sunday was the regular day of baptismal of infants. Reverend Beecher was concluding his baptismal duties before an immense crowd. Reverend Beecher, a skilled and gifted preacher, had carefully staged the day’s events for maximum dramatic effect. After he baptized the last child, he turned to his audience and stated that there was one more child to be christened. A flutter of excited murmuring rippled through the congregation. Beecher stepped off the pulpit and walked over and gathered up Fanny in his arms and carried her, alone, to the center of the altar. Fanny, her head nestled against his chest, timidly eyed the crowd. Beecher addressed his congregation, “This child was born a slave, and is redeemed from slavery!” He added – “Look upon this child. Tell me have you ever seen a fairer, sweeter face? This is a sample of the slavery which absorbs into itself everything fair and attractive. The loveliness of this child would only make her so much more valuable as a chattel (of being sold as Fancy Girls, a 19th century euphemism for light skinned slave prostitutes, which were then common in New Orleans.); For while your children are brought up to fear and serve the Lord, this little one, just as beautiful, would be made, through slavery, a child of damnation.”
Reverend Beecher then baptized her Fanny Virginia Casseopia Lawrence. Fanny, for her birth name; Virginia, for where she came from; Cassiopeia, for the mythological Greek Queen of unrivaled beauty; and, Lawrence, the surname of her adoptive mother. After her baptism, Reverend Beecher arranged to have Fanny photographed. In fact, Fanny posed for photographs at least seventeen different times, sometimes with her adoptive mother, Catherine Lawrence. The truth is Reverend Henry Ward Beecher exploited Fanny from the pulpit, and later with her image, as propaganda to further his abolitionist aims. It worked. Fanny’s photographs were distributed widely. The little carte-devista (CDV) photographs of Fanny were wildly popular in the North, making Fanny the most photographed slave child in history (enter her full name into google images to see the variety of photographs taken of her). Sadly, Catherine S. Lawrence used similar exploitive tactics with her adoptive daughter. Ostensibly, this was to raise money for Fanny’s education. Fanny sang at church gatherings and Sunday schools at which, donations were encouraged.
There is a note that Catherine Lawrence wrote and all I can find about the later life of Fanny – “The little one that I adopted and educated, married one whom I opposed, knowing his reckless life rendered him wholly unfit for one like her. When sick and among strangers, he deserted her and an infant daughter and eloped with a woman, who left her husband and two small children. My three Southern children are all laid away . . .” (seems to indicate all 3 had died.)
The essay that led me to the pdf is here – The ‘Redeemed Slave Child’ at the Appetite4History WordPress Blog by Suzanne Ramsey. The Rev Henry Ward Beecher was colorfully described in an article in Brownstoner titled – Walkabout: By Justice Possessed, Part 1 by Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris) this way – “He was an amazingly complex man, with the religious zeal of a Billy Graham, the oratorical gifts of a Martin Luther King, Jr., the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum, and the marital infidelity and scandalous downfall of a Tiger Woods.”
When Jennifer Teege, a German-Nigerian woman, randomly picked up a library book off a shelf, her life changed forever. Recognizing images of her mother and grandmother in the book, she discovered a horrifying fact that no one had ever shared with her: Her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the vicious Nazi commandant depicted by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, a man known and despised the world over.
Although raised in an orphanage and eventually adopted, Teege had some contact with her biological mother and grandmother as a child. Yet neither revealed that Teege’s grandfather was the Nazi “butcher of Plaszów,” executed for crimes against humanity in 1946. The more Teege reads about Amon Goeth, the more certain she becomes: If her grandfather had met her—a black woman—he would have killed her.
Teege’s discovery sends her, at age 38, into a severe depression. My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past details her quest to unearth and fully comprehend her family’s haunted history. Her research takes her to Krakow—to the sites of the Jewish ghetto her grandfather “cleared” in 1943 and the Plaszów concentration camp he then commanded—and back to Israel, where she herself once attended college, learned fluent Hebrew and formed lasting friendships. Teege struggles to reconnect with her estranged mother, and to accept that her beloved grandmother once lived in luxury as Goeth’s mistress at Plaszów.
Ultimately, Teege’s resolute search for the truth leads her, step by step, to the possibility of her own liberation. The chronicle of her struggle with her haunted past unfolds in her memoir My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, co-written with journalist Nikola Sellmair and newly translated from German.
Teege visits her grandparents’ house in the Płaszów neighborhood of Krakow, Poland. It is the only dilapidated house on quiet Heltmana Street. And she writes – there is a coldness that creeps into your bones. And a stench.
Over a year has gone by since I first found the book about my mother in the library. Since then I have read everything I could find about my grandfather and the Nazi era. I am haunted by the thought of him, I think about him constantly. Do I see him as a grandfather or as a historical character? He is both to me: Płaszów commandant Amon Goeth and my grandfather.
When I was young I was very interested in the Holocaust. I went on a school trip from Munich to the Dachau concentration camp, and I devoured one book about the Nazi era after another, such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, A Square of Sky and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. I saw the world through Anne Frank’s eyes; I felt her fear but also her optimism and her hope.
You can read the entire piece my blog came from in – my Jewish Detroit. I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew in my DNA and have always felt drawn to Jewish culture. I would like to read her book sometime. Also because I am interested in learning more about the experience of Black people. In the USA, we have much to learn and white supremacy is a threat, slavery still exists only now the plantations have been replaced by prisons.
Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved was mentioned on Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday night. I had no idea why it was even mentioned but I checked my Netflix list and saw that we had not seen the movie, so I added it. Then, this morning I read on article in The Guardian titled – The Republicans’ racial culture war is reaching new heights in Virginia by Sidney Blumenthal and my interest was peaked.
My mom was born in Virginia. You could almost say it was an accident but it was not. My mom was adopted and for my entire growing up years, I thought she was born in Memphis TN and was adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. That latter part is correct but Memphis was not her birthplace. That is what my adoptive grandparents were led to believe and then later the TCHS muddled their way through an explanation. My mom’s grandfather’s family did immigrate into the US at Virginia from Scotland prior to the Revolutionary War which some of our kin actually fought in. My grandmother’s father sent her there to Virginia to give birth to my mom away from gossiping locals in their small rural town East of Memphis. I suspect there were still some family ties living there at the time. My mom’s father seemed to my grandmother’s family to have abandoned her at 4 months pregnant. I prefer to keep a kinder perspective on that man, full of sorrow after losing a wife and a son to untimely deaths, and this perspective was softened after meeting my cousin who shares with me this man as a grandfather. I cannot ever really know the reason why he left (though I do have theories) or why he didn’t come to my grandmother’s aid when she returned to Memphis with my baby mom. I just have to let the questions be forever unanswered.
It turns out that Glenn Youngkin who is running for governor on the Republican side of things has made this novel by Morrison his last campaign stand. Of course, there is more to the story than that and the “more” has to do with Virginia history (which I will admit that I am still somewhat ignorant regarding). Youngkin’s campaign has contrived a brand-new enemy within, a specter of doom to stir voters’ anxieties that only he can dispel: the Black Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and her novel Beloved.
Youngkin waded into the murky waters of racial politics. He offered himself as the defender of schoolchildren from the menace of critical race theory, even though the abstruse legal doctrine is not taught in any Virginia public school. Youngkin then seized upon a novel racial symbol. The Pulitzer prize-winning novel is about the psychological toll and loss of slavery, especially its sexual abuse, and considered one of the most important American literary works. And there is a history to the issue in Virginia.
Somewhat disingenuously Youngkin has explained it in a campaign ad this way. “When my son showed me his reading material, my heart sunk,” Laura Murphy, identified as “Fairfax County Mother”, said in the Youngkin ad. “It was some of the most explicit reading material you can imagine.” She claimed that her son had nightmares from reading the assignment in his advanced placement literature class. “It was disgusting and gross,” her son, Blake, said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” As it happens, in 2016 Murphy had lobbied a Republican-majority general assembly to pass a bill enabling students to exempt themselves from class if they felt the material was sexually explicit. Governor McAuliffe vetoed what became known as “the Beloved bill”.
“This Mom knows – she lived through it. It’s a powerful story,” tweeted Youngkin. Ms Murphy, the “Mom”, is in fact a longtime rightwing Republican activist. Her husband, Daniel Murphy, is a lawyer-lobbyist in Washington and a large contributor to Republican candidates and organizations. Their delicate son, Blake Murphy, who complained of “night terrors”, was a Trump White House aide and is now associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which sends out fundraising emails.
The offending novel is a fictional treatment of a true story with a Virginia background, a history that ought to be taught in Virginia schools along with the reading of Beloved. In 1850, Senator James M Mason, of Virginia, sponsored the Fugitive Slave Act. “The safety and integrity of the Southern States (to say nothing of their dignity and honor) are indissolubly bound up with domestic slavery,” he wrote. In 1856, Margaret Garner escaped from her Kentucky plantation into the free state of Ohio. She was the daughter of her owner and had been repeatedly raped by his brother, her uncle, and gave birth to four children. When she was cornered by slave hunters operating under the Fugitive Slave Act, she killed her two-year-old and attempted to kill her other children to spare them their fate. Garner was returned to slavery, where she died from typhus.
In the aftermath of her capture, Senator Charles Sumner, the abolitionist from Massachusetts, denounced Mason on the floor of the Senate for his authorship of the bill, “a special act of inhumanity and tyranny”. He also cited the case of a “pious matron who teaches little children to relieve their bondage”, sentenced to “a dungeon”. He was referring to Margaret Douglass, a southern white woman who established a school for Black children in Norfolk, Virginia. She was arrested and sent to prison for a month “as an example”, according to the judge. When she was released, she wrote a book on the cause of Black education and the culture of southern rape. “How important, then,” she wrote, “for these Southern sultans, that the objects of their criminal passions should be kept in utter ignorance and degradation.”
Virginia’s racial caste system existed for a century after the civil war. In 1956, after the supreme court’s decision in Brown v Brown of Education ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, Virginia’s general assembly, with Confederate flags flying in the gallery, declared a policy of massive resistance that shut down all public schools for two years. The growth of all-white Christian academies and new patterns of segregation date from that period. Only in 1971 did Virginia revise its state constitution to include a strong provision for public education.
Youngkin well understands the inflammatory atmosphere in Virginia in which he is dousing gasoline and lighting matches. Branding Beloved as sexually obscene was always an abstracted effort to avoid coming to terms with slavery, especially its sexual coercion. Parental control is Youngkin’s abstract slogan for his racial divisiveness. Beloved is his signifier to the Trump base that he is a safe member of the cult, no longer an untrustworthy corporate type. Youngkin’s reflexive dependence on the strategy reveals more than the harsh imperatives of being a candidate in the current Republican party. It places him, whether he knows or not, cares or not, objects or not, in a long tradition in the history of Virginia that the Commonwealth has spent decades seeking to overcome.
To this political post, I add an admission. My maternal line roots are ALL Confederate – on both her mother’s and her father’s side. It is a fact that I am personally not proud of, even if I had nothing to do with it. I still own that it is a part of my personal family history – sadly.
We teach our children to keep themselves safe from strangers.
Why do we as a society think it’s better to give a child away to strangers than to offer emotional, financial, and logistical support to the child’s first families in order to allow them to parent? Why is it seen as a good thing to permanently separate a child from their first family (in the absence of abuse)? What’s with the racist, classist belief that adoptive parents are more likely to raise healthy happy children, when all statistical evidence from studies on abuse in adoptive homes contradicts it?
There is a reason adoptees represent a larger percentage of people needing mental health treatment or committing suicide. There is a higher incidence of cancer, gut, and other diseases caused by toxic levels of years of cortisol. Birth moms, due to separation from their babies, tend to die 20 years sooner than mothers who remain with their children.
Complex Traumatic Stress – an over activated fight flight body response.
That child taken from its mother will try to save that child but has no power to help that child. That child is born with a “mom-operating system”. This never shuts down (cue adoptee reunions, if you doubt this).
Allowing complete strangers to raise a child is dangerous to that child.
So why is adoption promoted and not family preservation ? Because there is a ton of money to be made in selling children (which is what adoption actually is in most cases) but no money, only expense coming out of tax dollars, in keeping a family together.
Adoption is trauma. There’s no way around it. Even if you were to be the most incredible adoptive parent in the entire world, the trauma and hurt isn’t negated. Society needs to try to understand why the mom feels she can’t parent her child and give that mom the support she needs. You can love a child without taking them away from their parents.
This is true in infant adoptions, where altering birth certificates is standard procedure. The procedure may be different with a teen who has been in the foster care system for years and without being coerced, asks to be adopted. However, even then legal guardianship is still the best case procedure.
The truth about adoption trauma may be hard to accept because most people have been spoon fed what society wants us to believe about adoption. the difference between a viewpoint (for profit adoption narrative) and lived experiences (adoptees) can cause cognitive dissonance.
So to say, “…adopting a child can be a good option…” is actually an admission that adoption isn’t always good, and actually for anyone involved. Surprisingly, adoptive parents do not often have the happily ever after experience they bought into. So their “lived” experience as well because the traumatized child is more difficult to parent than a biological, genetic child – and most parents would admit that isn’t always easy either. Add in that layer of adoption and it is exponentially harder (check it out with some trauma informed therapist who works on adoption issues).
While it is true that some adoptees will tell you that they had good outcomes, I’ve read significantly more horror stories than happy outcomes… That is because I spend time in a space where it is safe for an adoptee to honestly express their own truth. Yes, there are cases where the biological family could have been as much (or even more) of a nightmare as an abusive adoptive family. The answer is to try and treat the issues in the biological, genetic family – addiction, poverty, poor parenting role models, etc.
And on the issue of mother/child separations – this story is indicative.
My grandmother started caring for me full time the day after I was born. I didn’t really spend time with my parents until I was 3-4 years old. I feel the trauma from that and its not even close to what someone who has been adopted must feel….I just remember feeling so strongly that all I wanted was to be with my mom when I was little. My grandmother is an amazing woman but its not the same. I still experience extreme anxiety and went through really bad PPD after I gave birth bceause I couldn’t understand why my mom couldn’t be there for me when I was that little. Anyway, my story isn’t really important I’m only trying to illustrate how deep the trauma goes when you’re separated as a child from your birth parents.
Just for good measure – what is the mainstream narrative ?
1) first is the idea that biological parents are incapable of parenting and don’t deserve to parent their own children, 2) that those saviors, the grace of willing adopters stepping forward, have prevented an abortion, or abuse, or neglect, or abandonment, and of course 3) that anyone who adopts will simply provide a “Better Life” and a “Forever Family” for these poor unwanted souls. These things are not the truth for the majority of people who end up adopted. These are the myths of the adoption industry.
Regardless of varying lived experiences – every single adoptee has experienced a traumatic loss: the separation from their mother.
And wrapping up – What is missing?
Better mental health services, care and protection for pregnant women, support for families and their communities could really improve many families’ situations. In many cases, it could do more that – actually enable them to parent adequately by most average standards.
No person should have their true identity and family erased for the rest of their life, simply in order to be cared for in a safe, loving, secure home during their childhood.
Adoption, at its core, is a legal construct that transfers ownership of a person. This is done by cancelling the adopted persons birth certificate and issuing a new one, falsely stating the adoptive parents (not actually related ie strangers) are the biological parents, and replacing the adoptee’s name and identity with a new false one.
If this sounds way to close to slavery, you are not mistaken.
The legal construct forces legal recognition and legitimacy of biological falsification for the adopted person’s lifetime, and that of all their descendants, and erases all legal ties and rights to their own family (parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins etc). All without the adopted person’s consent. Ask me, I know, I’m one of those descendants.
Moving a child to a “loving stable home” is not best if the adoptive parents seek to erase the birth parents 100% and “love the child AS IF it is their own.” (Say this sentence… “I’m going to love this a cat AS IF it is a dog.”) This will convey the idea.
It’s ridiculous isn’t it? “as if” is the Adoptive Parent theme song. Adoptive parents think they can buy an infant, and nurture it into becoming something it’s not— but this belief only causes more trauma to the child. The bottom line is this – it is ALWAYS unsafe for a child to be their authentic self in an adoptive home. The love received is conditional but the child must pretend to be something they are not in order to keep that love flowing.
I don’t really want to be redundant – there will be another blog tomorrow and the next day . . . in the meantime, my family history attracted to me this video (yep, adoption would appear to have been a “family tradition” in my own family of birth – but it also appears that our children may have broken the cycle with their own children – thankfully !!).
February is officially what is known as Black History Month. Some of my black friends joke about there being a month for something that has been going on all along – that being “history.” Never-the-less, after all the consciousness raising of last summer’s protests and my own significant efforts at self-education regarding racial inequality, as this month comes to an end, a story came into my awareness that seems to fit my blog’s topics and themes.
Here is the post that brought this story to my attention – “Today I watched The Long Song on PBS. **spoiler alert** When the recently freed black slave mother’s baby is stolen by her white master and his wife, I cried. So many thoughts came over me. My brain made a correlation. So many mothers get their kid’s ripped away. Sure, it may be due to drugs, neglect, violence and/or abuse. But I believe for most of these mothers, exposure to these things all come with ‘normal’ life in their world.”
“Often times, when their kids are taken, they don’t understand why. They were never rescued. Why do their kids need rescuing ? And despite all their parenting issues, I believe they most often deeply love their children. I do believe losing them, regardless of the state they are in, cripples them further. So, whether it’s right or wrong on the kid’s behalf, they are removed. It’s always a tragedy. It’s always traumatic. And there is always sorrow and grief. And today this 3 part series made me feel my sympathy for these mothers. Losing a child has to be one of the worst and longest lasting pains known to humankind.”
That true – one of the worst and longest lasting pains known to humankind.
Told through the eyes of July, a slave and spirited survivor, The Long Song is set in the 19th century and explores the last days of slavery in British-ruled Jamaica. The story is about injustices humans inflict on each other and the unexpected ways in which people’s humanity can overcome harsh circumstances.
Born into slavery at the Amity sugarcane plantation, July gets taken from her mother as a child simply because the owner’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, spots her out in the fields and thinks she’s cute. There are many painful scenes yet to come, but this one is particularly crushing in its simplicity. Her kidnapping, which alters the course of her life and devastates her mother, is nothing more than a casual whim from people who have no awareness of their own cruelty.
The story unfolds with the strong-willed July working as a lady’s maid for Caroline . When Robert Goodwin, a new overseer at Amity arrives, both July and Caroline are intrigued by his revolutionary spirit and intent to improve the working conditions on the plantation. But the winds of change across the hot plantation fields end up not being without consequences.
Robert Goodwin is a white Brit who initially sweeps July off her feet with promises of fidelity and fair wages for all the recently freed slaves on the plantation. And yet, he sours the second the Black people in his employ stand up for themselves, twisting into a hard, gnarled version of the idealistic man July fell for.
Based on the award-winning novel by the late Andrea Levy, the fictional story is inspired by Levy’s family history. Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents who arrived in Britain in 1948. “I’ve always used my books as a personal journey to understand my Caribbean heritage – and with that sooner or later you have to confront slavery,” Levy said.
After the book was released, research by a family member proved just how personal The Long Song truly was. “It was all done and then my niece found out a lot about our own family history,” Levy explained. “She found out that my great grandfather was born a slave. His mother was a housekeeper on a plantation called Mesopotamia and her mother was a field slave called Minnie. We found out that my great, great-grandfather was from Gainsborough in Britain, his name was William Ridsguard and he was the attorney on the plantation, and he had a child with his house keeper…that child, Richard Ridsguard was my great grandfather.”
Regarding the 3 main characters it is said – “Andrea Levy really created three people who can be complete contradictions – I think you will find yourself doubting, hating, loving them. They are complete human beings.” The novel which was published in 2010 was the recipient of the Walter Scott Prize.
I was over the age of 60 when I began to learn about my own genetic/cultural heritage. I have a lot of Danish, some Scottish, a lot of English and some Irish. I got excited when my husband showed a piece of woven textile to me that was odd in shape. He had picked it up long before he met me at a second hand shop when he was living briefly in Denmark at a Peace College. Of course, I fell in love with it and claimed it as my own and guessed and then with google images proved it is a shawl. Probably homemade but someone who wasn’t wealthy. As I draped it over my shoulders, I did feel warmer.
I learned about my Scottish heritage all the way back to an incident with the King of England who was saved from an aggressive animal attack and so named the family Stark. Christmas two years ago, my husband gave me a Pendleton Black Watch plaid wood shirt. I love that it connects me to my roots. My dad’s maternal great-grandmother was full blooded Irish. He was born one day off St Patrick’s Day. His natural mother didn’t name him Patrick but his adoptive mother did and he really did love beer.
When someone has NOT been robbed of their genetic/cultural heritage by adoption, they struggle to understand why it matters so much to one who has. I used to tell people I was an albino African because who could prove differently ? including my own self. I once did the National Genographic DNA test for my maternal line and sure enough we originated in African – actually because ALL human beings did. Our appearance and various genetic characteristics developed over time due to environmental factors.
Today, in my all things adoption group, I read this –
I’m part of a couple DNA test related groups, and there is a pretty outspoken group of people who think that if you’re only learning about your genetic heritage as an adult, and weren’t raised in it, you don’t get to claim it. Basically, the thought process is that if you weren’t raised in a culture, then trying to join it later in life is similar to appropriation.
I’m usually the only displaced adoptee/former foster care youth in these conversations and generally get ignored. I don’t consider myself a person of color on account of being very white, but I’m half Iranian, and was hidden from my birth father because my birth mother was convinced he would steal me and “go back to his country”, so a lot of my experiences are very much based in racism.
So, in my case I get “well you weren’t raised Iranian so what makes you think that you can claim it as your culture”. And on one hand I get it, because it’s not like I grew up with immigrant parents like I would have had I been raised by my birth father. I didn’t grow up speaking Farsi or experiencing any of it. So my ‘claim’ to any of it will always be bastardized because I’m only able to absorb what I can and integrate it into my life. But it feeds into an imposter syndrome that adoptees already deal with.
An adoptive father who is white replied – in general culture is more complicated than this. Heritage still makes up part of who you are, whether you know about it or not. As does DNA.
Someone else wrote – I have found similar issues in some (not all) groups on anti-racism and cultural appropriation. Some people have a huge lack of knowledge about the experience of transracial or transethnic adoptees or others with unknown or misattributed parentage (I am donor conceived and am half of a completely different ethnicity than I thought).
Then there is this heart-felt account – I still struggle with this. I’m half black and I have the worst imposter syndrome because I was raised by white people and I pass relatively well (I’ll get clocked as mixed or not quite white often, but I would never be seen as straight up black). I think how you claim culture depends on if it’s… ok? For lack of a better word? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to claim your culture that was taken from you, and it’s not fair to claim otherwise. But on the other hand if you’re not going to respect the culture and engage in it in a meaningful respectful way, I could see why people would be upset about that. But in reality I think they’re talking more about people who found out they’re 5% Native American, who have white biological parents and who want to start claiming Native status, than they are about people like us. I still call myself mixed instead of black because I don’t present as black (even though all of my black friends and family say it’s fine and that I AM black and I SHOULD claim it since it’s a part of me). It’s a really difficult conversation though, with a lot of nuance and in this case, I feel like adoptees should be able to claim whatever heritage feels like the best fit and this applies especially to trans-racial adoptees.
I 100% agree with this perspective based on my own experiences shared above – There’s a difference between stealing something and taking back something that was stolen from you.
And yet another perspective – I’m not adopted, but I found out as an adult I’m a lot more Jewish than I was told, and much to the identity crisis of my brothers, we aren’t as Italian as we thought. For me, I use it as a bonding thing with my stepfather and a few Jewish friends that I participate with in some cultural activities, but I don’t feel I can claim ownership of it because I’m so far removed from the family that was Jewish (they are all long passed away). Everyone I’ve opened up to about my DNA test has been welcoming, and I want to learn and respect the culture, but I doubt I’ll ever confidently claim it as my own.
To which this response was received – Someone with a maternal Jewish line is as much Jewish as any other, whether he was raised Jewish or found out after retirement (it happens!).
Another sad experience was this one – I struggle with my identity a lot, both race & ethnicity. But, fuck them! I was raised in a white family. My adoptive parents did their best to raise me around my culture (I’m Paraguayan). But racist fucks (my adoptive brothers included) helped to push me away from my culture and make me feel very unwelcome in this country. It’s definitely not appropriation to reconnect with a culture you were TAKEN from without your consent.
Though my own experiences are far different, I can seriously relate to this one !! I grew up White on the Mexican border. A true minority there.
I’m a half-adoptee, daughter of a fatherless woman, granddaughter of a fatherless woman, great granddaughter of an adoptee. My whole maternal line is very fractured and we have no idea who or what we are. Until recently, when my mom DNA tested and came back with significant percentages (like, 20ish) of Black and “Eastern European”. My grandmother responded to this news with “oh, he told me he was Black and Gypsy but I thought he was kidding, he just looked Indian.” My mother has an unusual hair texture and features for a White woman, as well as the pigment condition vitiligo. Being part Black and Romani answered so much for us. As to me: I reconnected with my genetic father at 23. Apparently his mother was an enrolled Choctaw woman! So now, I’m a few shades of White, Black, Romani and American Indigenous. Nearly 50% of me is nonwhite. I have never in my life felt a part of Whiteness, nor have I felt like Whiteness wanted me. The culture, the appearances, never. I got bullied for being “ugly” most of my life, I’m pale as snow but I don’t look like other White people. I can see now that the reason I was bullied by White, Black, and Brown folks all the same pretty much came down to “Well you don’t look like us, but you don’t look like them either”. So now I’m adrift, a mixed breed without enough claim to anything to belong anywhere. My only mirror is my mother and grandmothers.
This is also how it feels to be an adoptee with DNA testing now so inexpensive and accessible – I have found out recently (I’m 67) that I’m 52% Italian. Funny thing is I’ve always been enamored with the Italian ethnicity. If someone said to me that I have appropriated any culture, I would tell them to fuck off. All my life I had to pretend I was someone, something else. I’ll be damned but I’m not taking any shit from anyone about cultural appropriation. I had to live in a culture that was not mine from the beginning.
Another one – It isn’t cultural appropriation to connect back with what you were taken from. Slaves were taken from their country to this one. Then they had kids here and sold off and forced into American/Western customs. Them wanting to explore their ancestry and know where they came from and reverse the damage of colonizers isn’t appropriation. It’s normal to want to undo the brainwashing.
I have a good friend who recently discovered her father wasn’t who she had been told all of her life he was and that she is half-Puerto Rican. As I read this next one, I thought of my friend –
There’s a difference between race and ethnicity. Race has more to do with if you’re white passing or not. You can’t claim to be a race you aren’t. Your ethnicity is something that can’t be seen unless you get a test done. For example, also displaced and white. My biological father is Puerto Rican and Spanish but I’m white, just with a Latino background. I absolutely think being connected to your roots will bring you healing. I was disconnected from them and am currently trying to get in touch. It’s very hard and I know for me, I always felt like there were missing pieces. I’m in the same boat as you. I don’t think it’s appropriation.
Black babies separated from slave mothers. Native American children separated from their families to indoctrinate them into white standards of living. White babies separated from their mothers in the 1930’s through the 1960’s because they were a profitable and valuable commodity in the adoption market (if you were a black unwed mother you could keep your baby as it was no longer a financially lucrative commodity after the Emancipation Proclamation). And most recently, Hispanic babies separated from their mothers at the southern border of the United States.
These may seem wildly different situations but actually they are the same. Society does not value natural families nor do we support keeping children in the families they were born into. We do this at great harm to the children and equally emotional and psychological harm for their mothers.
In regard to Africans enslaved in America, though they most definitely experienced an assault on their personhood, but never yielded. Because misogyny has been dominate until recently, it is no surprise that women’s voices, both in their own time and in later scholarship, remained largely silent. They reproduced, labored, and died in near anonymity. Slave women did not have ready access to birth control and experienced great pressure to bear children. After the abolition of the international slave trade in 1808, the South’s dependence upon natural reproduction increased. Slave women experienced pressure to bear children from a culture that gloried motherhood and from masters who personally benefited from slave offspring due to their financial value.
In 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania was a government-backed institution that forcibly separated Native American children from their parents in order to kill the Indian in him, and save the man. For decades, this effort continued. Native American boarding schools were a method of forced assimilation. The end goal of these measures was to make Native people more like the white Anglo-Americans who had taken over their land. By removing them from their homes, the schools disrupted students’ relationships with their families and other members of their tribe. Once they returned home, children struggled to relate to their families after being taught that it was wrong to speak their language or practice their religion.
The Baby Scoop Era was a period in the history of the United States, starting after the end of World War II and ending in the early 1970s, My parents adoptions were just a little bit ahead of their time but Georgia Tann, through whom my mom was adopted was certainly already profiting when my mom turned up, 5 mos old with blond hair and blue eyes, Tann’s most desired commodity. This time period was characterized by an increased rate of pre-marital pregnancies over the preceding period, along with a higher rate of newborn adoption. It is estimated that up to 4 million parents in the United States had children placed for adoption, with 2 million during the 1960s alone. Annual numbers for non-relative adoptions increased from an estimated 33,800 in 1951 to a peak of 89,200 in 1970, then quickly declined to an estimated 47,700 in 1975. By 2003, only 14,000 infants were placed for adoption. The number of hopeful adoptive parents remains far beyond the number of babies available which set off the international adoption boom and the abuses and exploitations in that field.
Most recently has been the horrendous treatment of Hispanic families at our southern border.
Long before the Trump administration implemented its “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy in 2018, it was already separating children from their parents as part of a “pilot program” conducted in the El Paso, Texas, area (where I spent my childhood, I am familiar with border issues and politics). Under the El Paso program, begun in mid-2017, adults who crossed the border without permission – a misdemeanor for a first-time offender – were detained and criminally charged. No exceptions were made for parents arriving with young children. The children were taken from them, and parents were unable to track or reunite with their children because the government failed to create a system to facilitate reunification. By late 2017, the government was separating families along the length of the US-Mexico border, including families arriving through official ports of entry. It is suspected that many of these children were placed in foster homes and may have even been placed into adoption as it has proven almost impossible for some parents to relocate their children.
Within adoption reform communities, there is a deep commitment and ongoing effort to do adoptive relationships in a manner that is focused on the well-being of the adopted child, who through no choice of their own is not with the parents who conceived nor the mother who gave birth to them.
So, here’s the story of two conflicting perspectives on “doing it right”.
My husband and I live in West Africa with our 5 children. We recently adopted twin 4 year old girls in December. These children were being raised by their single Aunt who could not take care of them any longer since she was also raising 6 additional children (her own and also from other siblings), so she surrendered them to an orphanage because their mother had nothing to do with them since they were 1 year old. Unfortunately, this is a pretty common scenario here in West Africa.
We talk often about their “first mom,” allow the twins to miss her and express sadness, assure them they are loved and wanted. We keep in contact with their Aunt and have recently developed an online relationship with their mother. I send pictures and video to their family several times a week so they are able to know how the twins are doing. The twins have been able to talk with their aunt, cousins, and mother on two occasions. My husband and I had hoped to keep this relationship alive so the girls always had a connection to their African family.
Recently I received very harsh criticism from an adult Native American adoptee who was adopted into a privileged white family at birth. She has no connection with her biological family and claims she has never had any questions about them because “her parents did it right.” She insisted that the way we are referring to their mother as “first mom” and the ongoing connection we are attempting to foster will create an identity crisis and undermine my parental authority as their adoptive mother. We are a Christian missionary family (as is she) and she also told me that she believes our behavior and language will cause them to question God and fall away from their faith because of the uncertainty we’ll cause. In her opinion, we need to “squash” the connection with their mother and start referring to her as “the woman who gave birth to you” and to me as your “only mom.” She was also concerned that the girls have “romanticized” their memories of their mom, making her seem better than she was to them.
There is so much attention now being paid to issues of racial inequality and identity that I am not surprised that the first comment was somewhat harsh but here goes –
You are the definition of white saviorism. The very fact that you are missionaries in another country trying to recruit locals to your culture and belief system is white colonization. I find it disgusting and harmful. As to your adoption, it’s sad for all those involved, especially for the twins.
And the original woman’s response –
I teach at an American Christian school for North American children who have parents living abroad either as missionaries, humanitarian workers, or for business. We actually do not interact with locals in the manner you are assuming. But, let me educate you on what happens here in West Africa to children whose parents cannot take care of them…. the lucky ones are given to “schools” that use these children as slaves, abuse them, and force them to beg on the streets for money usually shoeless and hungry. Others are taken out to remote villages and left to starve or sold as human sacrifices or into human trafficking. The fact that you make such a bold statement without knowing anything about what happens here just shows your own ignorance and first world privilege.
The criticism was gently affirmed by another woman –
What was brought up is a valid point. I think your heart is in the right place, but you should always be mindful of how your actions have potentially negatively affected your adopted daughters’ natural family.
In adoption reform circles, financial and other resource support for natural families and keeping children within their birth culture (which means ending transracial adoption, which is not the same is a mixed race family birthing mixed race children, to be clear on this point) is the direction that reformers are seeking in an effort to end the need for removing children from the biological and genetic families.
And finally, an adoptee shares –
As an adoptee ALL I wanted my entire childhood was to know who and where I came from. Since I had no answers I would make up stories about how my first mom was a famous actress etc etc. I found out later in life that many adoptees made up elaborate stories about their bio families. It was literally torturous to not know. I feel now that SO much was straight out stolen from me as a child. And for what purpose???
Since I had no answers about my own parents’ origins, I “made up” stories. My mom was half African-American – she was not. My dad was half Mexican – he was not. I would have preferred the reality and an opportunity to know those persons who I was genetically related to. My parent died without ever having that opportunity. Since I have recovered the knowledge of my genetic origins, I am thankful also to now know people I am actually related to by blood. It has healed to wholeness something that was previously broken within me – without denying the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins I knew as a child due solely to the adoptions of my parents.
I was listening to an African-American group called Sweet Honey in the Rock sing acapella the old spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and read it dates back to the days of slavery when children were often sold off away from their parents and siblings. My heart ached listening.
These lyrics caught my attention –
I’m a motherless child,
I can hear my mother calling me,
I can hear my mother’s voice calling me home.
Across the waters, come on home across the waters.
Of course, my thoughts immediately went to adoption and I guess not surprisingly to my own mother. She yearned to find and connect with her mother. She had a complicated relationship with the woman who adopted her. Never felt like she quite measured up to the expectations.
She felt the loss keenly. Especially when she learned the Georgia Tann story. She never could reconcile the fact that she was born near Richmond Virginia but had been adopted in Memphis Tennessee as an infant. She always believed that her adoption was somehow “inappropriate” as she politely worded it in a letter she wrote to the State of Tennessee trying to get her own adoption file. She was denied on more than one technicality and although some years later a law was passed to allow her to receive that file, that information never reached her.
After her death, I did receive that file from Tennessee. My mom’s belief that a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann had stolen her in Virginia and transported her to Tennessee wasn’t quite the true story. But that kind of story did happen all too frequently with Tann’s baby stealing and selling scandal.
The real story is sad and my grandmother was definitely exploited in the midst of an impossible situation. Her widowed father still raising some of his children as a poor sharecropper refused my grandmother support with her baby when she returned to Memphis. She was a married woman. Why she was estranged from her husband I’ll never know. I have some theories.
He was WPA and the large hospital project that brought him to Memphis had ended. He was widowed too and his mother had his children in her care in Arkansas. His first wife had died 8 months pregnant on a cold and rainy December morning and her baby in the womb died with her. The image shared with me by my cousin haunts me still. A Phil Collins song The Roof Is Leaking makes me think of my grandfather. These lyrics caught my attention –
The roof is leaking and the wind is howling,
The kids are crying cause the sheets are so cold.
I woke this morning and my hands were frozen
My wife’s expecting but I hope she can wait
Cause there’s been signs it will be another bad one
But Spring will soon be here.
Too many sad maternal deaths. My grandmother lost her own mother at the age of 11 with four other younger siblings, including the baby one, in the household at that time.
His employment ended, my grandmother was already 4 months pregnant and due in January. My heart believes my grandfather feared for her and the baby’s well-being as he had no certain shelter to offer her come winter. It may be that his own mother wasn’t happy he had married such a young woman, as young as his oldest sons. She may not have been welcoming either. Then came the Superflood on the Mississippi River in 1937 (at the same time my mom was born) and he was out shoring up the levees in Arkansas, when my grandmother arrived back in Memphis.
Whatever the real story is, that I can never know, my grandmother went to the Juvenile Court in Memphis trying to reach him. No response. Desperate, she took my mom to the storied Porter Leath Orphanage for temporary care. The superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to my mom’s presence. My mom was the blond, blue eyed kind of baby girl that Tann most coveted for her clients. And so began the pressure on my grandmother to separate her from my mom.
Four days after signing the surrender papers, my grandmother called Georgia Tann’s office trying to get my mother back. “I have friends in New Orleans who will take us in,” she told them. It was to no avail because Tann’s paying customer was already on her way by train from Nogales Arizona to pick up my mom.
My image today comes from a Facebook page titled Memoirs of a Motherless Child. She relates a story about Brooklyn and it’s connection to her own mother there. After her mother’s death, she writes –
I later blamed myself for never being able to meet her, know her, experience her because I didn’t go look for her, as if that would have done any good. She didn’t want to be found not because she didn’t love me (took me years to realize that but my inner child still can’t accept it wholeheartedly) but because she loved me so much she didn’t want to hurt or disappoint me. My inner child could very well be making that up too in order to spare me more hurt and trauma. What still hurts the most is I’ll never know what part of me was/is that part of you. So I’ll continue to travel this endless journey of uncertainty until our energies meet somehow.
I believe that is how my mom felt too because by the time she tried to find her mother, her mother was only somewhat recently deceased. That devastated my mom. Now that my own mom has also died, I believe she was reunited with the mother who never gave up hoping she would see her precious daughter again as well. So much sadness when a mother and her child are separated.