Sunday, November 19, 2006

Black Baby, White Hands; A View From the Crib

by Jaiya Johns. I have written about this book a few times in the past month, as I was reading it. Last weekend I had some friends over and we were talking about it. They are adoptive parents from two other families like mine: white parents and a mixture of white biological and black adopted children. Each of these families have four kids, with toddlers the same age as Punkin and black sons the same age as Buddy Boy. What a great group to discuss this book with! We had all been reading it and a couple of them had the opportunity to hear Johns speak a few months ago. They said he was a wonderful speaker and he shared his poetry with them, which was powerful and beautiful.

I was glad to hear that about the poetry because as I was reading this book I really didn’t like his prose style. It is what my high school English teacher would call “verbose”. The first third of the book was a struggle for me because his flowery descriptions and overdone similes drove me crazy. He needs an editor – bad. I had to re-read the first couple of chapters several times to understand what he was talking about as he describes his family’s loss of their house to a fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico. After a while I got the hang of his style and it started to make more sense. By half way through the book it was no longer distracting. He is repetitive and works the central themes continually, so that helped me get his points.

He was the first African American baby to be adopted by white parents in New Mexico. He was born in 1965. He grew up in a white community and sorely missed the African American role models, friendships, history, cultural heritage and extended family that he should have known. His book is his autobiography of his journey to find his identity as a black man. It is painful for me to read as a person, an American, a mother, and as a white adoptive mother of black sons. It is good for me to read for the same reasons. I hope I have learned enough from this book and other books and my own experience not to repeat the mistakes his parents, teachers and community made for him, even in all their love and with the best intentions.

One of the points we discussed the other night was the very real need for our black sons to have black community. The role models of how to become a black man and how to deal with racism must come from other black families, adults and children. My friends’ families both live in the city and their children attend schools where there are many other Black, Hispanic and Asian children. My son’s school is all white, and my school, where he will attend next year, is mostly white. He might go through it being the only or nearly only Black boy in his class. This is not a good thing and I want that to change.

We talked about our churches being mixed race, and how important that is. The other families mentioned several black friends they knew from church that had offered suggestions about hair styles and skin care that were helpful and supportive. I told about how I have changed churches to belong to a mixed-race church, and how good that has been for us.

We talked about hair cuts too. Both of the other mothers cut their son’s hair, just like me. We talked about the possibility of taking them to the barber shop and how hard it is to find a good one where we would be comfortable. I told them how I had gone to two places in the past week to see if I could find a barber to cut my son’s hair. I place I thought was a neighborhood barber where Black men and boys go turned out to be under new ownership and now is being remodeled into a chrome and woodwork salon. The barber is an Italian guy with a toupee and he wanted cash only so I excused myself. For now I am going to continue to cut them myself, at least until they are out of daycare and I have a more balanced budget.

We also talked about how although John’s teacher could offer him no information about African American historical heroic figures, our boys were already being exposed to Black history. Their sons and daughters are getting it in their schools and I told them how I reacted to John’s story about being in the Thomas Jefferson play and my determination to read and provide African American literature and history for myself and my sons.

My friends laughed at me because my copy of the book is stuck full of sticky notes for all the passages I thought were important. I told them that is one of the strategies we use to teach reading and that I wanted to be able to remember where different points were discussed. Some of the ideas I thought were central to the book are:

When Johns is talking about his great-grandfather’s love for him but general prejudice against the Black race he says: “My great grandfather saw no contradiction between his attitudes toward Blacks as a group and his feelings for Greg (adopted Black brother) and me. This was a perceptual dichotomy that would prove one of my central sources of wounding.” He says as a child he was extraordinarily sensitive to the subtle shading of love and acceptance coming from the adults around him. When someone said they loved him but underneath they didn’t acknowledge his Blackness, it hurt him. When white adults tried to be colorblind and see him as good-but-not-Black it felt to him like a central part of him was annihilated. “The racial ingredient of my persona was blotted out. But thinking they were only blotting out a portion, a fragment of me that I could exist independently from, they committed an erasure of my entirety.” He says he knows they loved him and weren’t trying to hurt him, but by their inability to recognize, name, claim, and celebrate his Blackness he was deeply, deeply traumatized. He touches on this theme over and over through out the book. Anyone who thinks they are doing well to be colorblind should read this and consider how it feels to hear statements like “He’s just a great guy to me, I don’t think of him as Black” or “you are my friend, I don’t think of you at Black” or “you are not like other Black people, you are just a regular guy”….

Another of his themes is that of our cultural fear of Blackness and Black men. One of his Grandfathers had a special love for him that included and embraced his Blackness. He says “Grandpa Potter was engaged in loving me in that moment in a way that bypassed my race and swallowed my being, whole and unconditional…His love had rushed through me like a freight train, but not because he was colorblind. He was very aware of what I was. Grandpa reached through to my essence so cleanly and unencumbered for another reason. His comfort with me was composed of two ingredients. One part was a natural human respect for Blackness in its broader self, even those people extending beyond me, his grandchild. The other part was a lack of fear of that greater Blackness..” In another chapter he tells of the last Halloween he goes trick or treating, when he is nine years old. He goes out happy and confident, a child looking eagerly for candy. He encounters an old lady at one house who tells him he is too old to be trick or treating, and slams the door clearly in fear of him. He realized then that in becoming a Black man he is becoming an object of fear and loathing in our country. It is a devastating realization. He says several times that he always tries to present himself as happy, good, friendly and non-threatening because he doesn’t want people to be afraid of his Blackness. He says he hated himself. He felt like a balloon stuck on the faucet too long, about to explode. I am very aware of this in our culture too. Black men are shown in the media as criminals, rude, ignorant, lazy, violent, uneducated, abusive, and dishonest. This is what I hate most of my son’s inheritance as growing Black young men. When they are babies they are cute to strangers in the grocery store. When they are teenagers they will be feared and suspected no matter how strong and wonderful their character. Is there any way to prepare them for that?

He doesn’t start to have Black friendships and role models until he goes to college. Finally he begins to connect with the Black community and builds his Black identity. Although he still struggles with finding his way and still feels turmoil, he is able to form significant friendships and mentoring relationships that enable him to love being Black. In adulthood he meets his first mother’s family and biological siblings, and then his biological father and that whole extended family. He is delighted to find those connections and revels in spending time with them. He is filled with joy and relief to see how they are similar and to learn the history of his original grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I want so much for my sons to know those connections. I pray they don’t have to wait until they are adults. If anyone doubts that knowledge and relationship with one’s first, biological roots is important they should read his testimony and take it to heart.

By the end of the book Johns is sharing his vision of what foster care and adoption should look like. He has a vision of the child welfare system as honoring familial and cultural roots. It is a “model of concentric placement. There is a circle of life, through which a child and all living things come to the world. That circle has purpose. The closer to the circle center a child is – womb, woman, family, community – the higher the concentration of those ingredients crucial to healthy development.” I have to agree with him. I think those circles are exactly the way God built families and to honor that pattern is to care for all of us. That is why I think in our family, connections to the African American community – and by that I mean real, significant, living relationships with all sorts of people – are essential. I also feel strongly that my son’s need to have connections and really know their first, biological families. I will do whatever I can to encourage and support that.

All through his growing up in the white community and family Johns feels lost, alone, not understood, and as if he doesn’t really belong. This in spite of him knowing he was loved and never questioning that his parents were doing their best for him. He says many positive things about his adoptive parent’s love and care, but it was not enough. This book is not bitter, and not a diatribe to white parents adopting Black children. It is just one man’s story of the love, family, separation, struggle, trauma, pain and healing he lived through. It has much to teach us if we can accept it and really listen.


Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Thank you for this post. It makes me revisit my well-intentioned thoughts and perceptions over the years.

While Seattle is statistically one of the whitest cities in the country, I live in one of the few neighborhoods that has a mixture of different races. However, "mixture" is such a misnomer. With the high levels of drug use and robbery that affect everyone, plus the fears of gentrification (not unfounded), there's not a lot of hanging out on front porches and getting to know each other. The rain may have something to do with that, too.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. We're waiting to adopt from China and I think about these racial/cultural issues a lot.