It’s a privilege reading and reviewing adoptee work. I do this not just for myself, but for all of you who struggle to find relatable resources and portraits of adopted life. No one can possibly know everything, so books and art help enrich our knowledge-base. I review adoptee writing not on the literary quality, but on its earnest storytelling and its balanced perspective.
I chose this post’s work since I know embarrassingly little about black adoptees, beyond what’s been explored in the academic literature and on social media. Like other adoptees, they struggle with separation trauma and attachment issues, but their race adds a deep complexity that isn’t discussed as often as I’d like (hint: keep producing content, black adoptees!).
Living My Shadows: Dreams Do Come True (Kevin I. J. A. Barnett, Sr.) reads like a conversation with a friend over email. Barnett employs a casually engaging writing style, sharing his journey through a clear and linear lens. Such a style keeps his memories fresh and raw.
It a fairly quick read. Where it lacks in deeper introspective analysis, it makes up for in sometimes-painful vignettes that will keep readers nodding their heads in either agreement or disgust. As a memoir divided into three parts, Barnett traces his life from foster care, adoption, and finally, reunification with his biological family. Such a timeline fits most adoptee’s adoptee typical life paths. Typical, though, doesn’t mean unoriginal.
What surprised me wasn’t the physical abuse and emotional abuse Barnett experienced, but the colorism Barnett suffered from within his first same-race foster family. Though I speak heavily on the impact racism has on transracial adoption, Barnett’s account brought to life the colorism spoken about in Lori T. Tharps’ Same Family, Different Colors. Of his foster family, Barnett writes:
They called me “Negro.” They called me “Black Nigger.” They called me “Ugly,” and “No-Good.”
Colorism within foster and adoptive families needs a closer look overall, but Barnett doesn’t reflect on this abuse. Instead, Barnett shares the impact of this poor treatment with further anecdotes. For example, the day his foster father died—his main abuser—the last meal eaten by the now-dead man was black-eyed peas. To this day, Barnett avoids the beans, because when he “sees ’em that’s the only time I think about [my foster father].” A poignant statement as many adoptees and abuse victims can understand these triggering associations. Hopefully, Barnett’s account will inspire in-race adoptees to reflect upon their own similar experiences.
After being adopted by a black family, Barnett slowly discovers personal security (or at least security as an adoptee can manage). It’s after his adoption and foray into adulthood that Barnett begins his search for his biological mother. After many discouraging false leads, Barnett soldiers on and eventually finds the woman who birthed him almost sixty years prior.
It’s at this point I felt both inspired and envious: Inspired, because Barnett shares a letter he wrote to his birth mother, which I read at a point of my own birth family considerations. Pulling back from Barnett’s memoir, I was struggling with disappointment that my own biological mother had died only a few years after my adoption; seeing Barnett’s process admittedly made me step away for a bit. Still, this is the life of an adoptee–a few steps back and then forward into a conflicted present.
But back to Barnett. After tentatively making contact with this biological siblings, he composed a sweetly vulnerable letter to his birth mother:
I understand the circumstances that surrounded the reason why I was put up for adoption and have no hard feelings…I sincerely hope I didn’t cause any problems with the [earlier] phone call and I wish in my heart we can meet. My contact number is listed below if you decide to want to chat.
Take care and God Bless.
My heart broke. As an adoptee, such hesitancy and forgiveness is part of a daily push-pull cycle as we attempt identity reclamation. At this point, I started really rooting for Barnett, despite knowing his story’s outcome (spoiler alert: it’s good). I suspect many adoptees and former foster youth reading this will feel a bittersweet sense of camaraderie.
For some reason, I emotionally struggled through this section. Perhaps it was his straight-shooting writing style; or maybe, it was here that Barnett truly let the reader in so I could be in his story with him. It’s here the story truly shines.
The last section reveals current information about his reunion with his birth family, an overall enviable experience for many adoptees. From Barnett’s telling, he was welcomed with open arms into his biological family, serving almost as a center from which life radiated around him.
Still (and I won’t give away too much), Barnett’s story shouldn’t be considered “just more adoption reunion porn.” Like many adoptees, not everyone shows up for his re-arrival, but there is a gut-wrenching scene where someone did come looking for him–and never came back again.
Living My Shadows draws strength from its humanity. After a long military career, Barnett is now a motivational speaker, a profession I initially feared would color his adoption story as yet another hope-spun tale of adoption’s great wonders, despite a few pesky hardships. But no, Barnett left me inspired, not patronized—a feeling many adoptees encounter. Many readers will find this refreshing.
Barnett simply asks readers to “push harder,” and if “you’ve got a passion, or something or somebody that’s missing in your life, don’t give up the hunt.” Barnett faced doubt, a foster family who told him no one could ever love him and he’d never amount to anything. But he realized as I hope so many others who read his book do, to recognize those doubts but move forward anyway.
You are the author of your own life. You can change the plot, and rewrite your story any way you choose. -Kevin Barnett, Sr.
And you know what?
Thank you, Kevin, for the honor of reading your book and reviewing it.