Choosing One’s Ancestors

Because I didn’t have any genetic ancestors most of my lifetime, knowing who they were and where they came from filled a void in me that my two adoptee parents were never given the opportunity to receive.  They both died knowing next to nothing and within a year of my dad dying (four months after my mom died), I knew who all 4 of them were – including my dad’s unnamed father (his mother was unwed and he was given her surname at birth).

Because thoughts about race and identity are currently prominent in the United States and because of the horrendous injustice that has occurred here all too often (so that even in other countries, the protests have also grown in awareness of the issue), I was drawn to a conversation that took place between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead in 1970 as shared by Brain Pickings.

During the week I spent in Jean Houston’s home in Oregon, she spoke frequently about her dear friend and mentor, Margaret Mead.  She even has a larger than life portrait in her front door drawing room that she suggest’s Margaret insisted be painted and delivered to her after Mead’s death.  Houston writes about the influence of Mead frequently in her book A Mythic Life.

In this conversation between Baldwin and Mead, Margaret says – “I think we have to get rid of people being proud of their ancestors, because after all they didn’t do a thing about it. What right have I to be proud of my grandfather? I can be proud of my child if I didn’t ruin her, but nobody has any right to be proud of his ancestors.”

She goes on to add – “The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors.  We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.”

Mead notes that there are very few black people in America who don’t have some white ancestors, with which Baldwin agrees, and they go on to explore why the “melting pot” metaphor is deeply problematic in honoring the actual architecture of identity.

Before I knew who my parents biological/genetic parents were, I made up my racial identity.  Since my mom was born in Virginia, I thought she ended up being given up for adoption because she was half-black.  I find it interesting now as I steep myself in issues of racial identity, that I believed my dad was half-Mexican because of his coloration and how well he related to the people in that country when he crossed the border at Juarez/El Paso.

Neither of these was actually the truth.  Turns out my mom does have a bit of Mali in her DNA and that on her mother’s Scottish side there were slave owners, a fact that I am not proud of.  Yet, until I knew better, I would say I was an Albino African (and said it quite proudly as I tried to recover a sense of identity that adoption had robbed me of).

My dad’s father was a Danish immigrant and quite dark complected.  I don’t know enough about the Danish people to know why that was their skin color or why their eyes were brown.  Maybe someday, I will explore that aspect of my own racial identity.

I found this story which Baldwin conveyed in that discussion quite illuminating –

“I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”

“Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.”

So it is for adoptees who’s rights are second-class, some basic rights of knowing where they came from often denied them.  Over decades worth of time, they have been robbed of that sense of identity that so many people take for granted.  However, as a woman who’s skin is white, I am grateful that racial identity was not emphasized in my childhood home and that as a white person growing up on the Mexican border, I was definitely part of a minority race.  I will admit that I didn’t suffer the slings and arrows that the black race has in this country but I could not fully embrace any idea that I was somehow superior because of the color of my skin.  I consider that one of the few blessings of being ignorant for most of my life about my racial identity.

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.

Who Am I ?

“Whose tummy did I grow in ?”

Consider this.  Most of us take for granted that we grew inside our mother’s womb.  A child that has always been told they were adopted will eventually reach a point where this question will arise in their own mind.  In closed adoptions, the child will never be given an answer.  In fact, great care has been taken to erase every fact related to their beginning in life.

Georgia Tann often falsified birth certificates and original parental data so that even after records were allowed to be opened for “qualified” persons (the adoptee or their direct descendants) one had to view the information skeptically.  I am fortunate that for the most part, the information in my mom’s adoption file seems to have been accurate.

But there was fudging about the nature of her parents who were presented to my adoptive grandmother (who thought very highly of advanced education) as two unfortunate college students who were caught by pregnancy.  That was hardly the truth.  My grandmother never went to college and my grandfather was a widower 20 years older than her who had already fathered 5 children.

Adoptees in a closed adoption will have their birth certificates falsified (as both of my parents did) to appear that their adoptive parents gave birth to them when they did not.  They will have their original name changed to something the adoptive parents want.  In my dad’s case, it happened twice, because my Granny divorced the husband she was married to when she adopted my dad.  The second husband objected to my dad carrying the vanquished man’s name and so at an age of already 8 years, my dad was given a new name.

Is it any wonder that adoptees often struggle with an identity crisis ?  Many adult adoptees believe that adoption should be ended.  The children should be given guardians and keep all of their original identity information.  Much like in the case of slavery, a child is not something one owns but a human being we are privileged to protect and provide for.