living in my shadows; emerging into truth

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!).

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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.

Kevin Hodge.

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?

He’s right.

 

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Barnett at a recent book signing and speaking event in Easton, PA.

Thank you, Kevin, for the honor of reading your book and reviewing it.

For those interested in Kevin’s work, follow him on Twitter and learn more about him on his website, Living My Shadows.

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move over, primal wound: same family, different colors is transracial adoption’s new guidebook

“Skin color matters because we are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present.”

I’ve mentioned Lori L. Tharps’ book in several other articles, but I’ve finally decided that it needs its own feature.

In light of the recent “white woman drives her and her black adopted children off cliff and kills them” story and the “Indian adoptee beaten to death by her white family” event and the many other documented cases of transracial adoption gone horribly awry, I can’t think of a better time to discuss this book.

To be clear, I’m referring to transracial adoption as white families adopting children of color.

When I initially started writing, I took an ambivalent stance on transracial adoption. Specifically, I said

I am “adopt transracially with extreme prejudice.”

But several months ago, I read Same Family, Different Colors and have been sitting with Tharps’ findings ever since, carefully weighing her honest accounts of interfamilial colorism among non-adoptive families with my transracial adoption experience and research. Tharps examines how African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and bi-racial Americans confront color in their own families, questioning her own child’s light skin tone against her own, wondering how society perceives a dark-skinned mother with an almost-white daughter.

Through extensive conversations with ethnic families, Tharps found that even “microscopic” skin color variances can “impact everything from interactions among family members, parenting practices, and sibling relationships to racial identity formation.”

Tharps continues, saying what all adoptees (especially transracial adoptees) know:

[E]ven in the twentieth century, the general public does not understand that families don’t match.

“People expect families to match,” Tharps writes, “despite the fact that interracial marriage has been legal in all 50 states since 1967.”

My aim here is to position Tharps’ work within the scope of transracial adoption and ask: If same-race, non-adoptive families experience colorism, how are transracial adoptive families expected to succeed?

In her chapter discussing black colorism, Tharps states that “[b]lack family parenting might look different than white family parenting.” Specifically, Tharps points out “raising Black children adds an additional layer of responsibility for parents.” This me wonder if white parents are aware of these issues and can adequately prepare transracially adopted children for such survival.

Other academics tentatively suggest that no, white parents cannot prepare black children (or, I’d argue, other children of color) for a racially-colored life. Since, as Tharps makes clear, much of this parental racial “training” is done via “osmosis–meaning most children simply pick up on the opinions and attitudes of their parents–some of the lessons are more overt.” In a transracial family, discussion of race would be anecdotal at best. And, when viewed through a “white” lens, racial attitudes are formed less on colored experiences and more on moralistic views.

One woman Tharps interviewed, Linda, enjoyed playing outside as a child, but recalls her mother’s admonishments that doing so was making her “Black.” Because of the colorism within the family, Linda came to understand that “Black was not something she wanted to be.” Her sisters, meanwhile, were praised for their light skin and straight hair, with her father’s dark skin causing internal family strife so bad it eventually tore the family apart.

In a Latina example, a woman’s lifetime of teasing from her family about her “African nose and springy hair” drove her to straighten her hair and undergo a nose job.

Another interesting finding was that some

“[b]lack parents treat their children differently based on the shade of their skin.”

Current transracial adoptive parents have spoken with me, doing their best to navigate their child’s color and race. I don’t have easy answers but the best ones are those who acknowledge their limitations. There isn’t an easy answer, but my hope is transracial adoptive parents and adoptees read this book now (yes, I’m that excited about it) because it’ll help spotlight the real truth:

  • Color matters.
  • Society will judge non-matching families.
  • You won’t be able to figure it out.

Instead, let’s focus on understanding and admitting our chosen family’s inherent boundaries. Perhaps from within that framework, and with ongoing education, we’ll dispel the hope of a white saving grace, embracing our differences while constantly advocating for deeper conversations on color, family, and the myth of the homogeneous family.

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I can’t emphasize enough how highly I recommend this book. If you’ve already adopted transracially, it’ll give you an amazingly genuine insight into the difficulties color creates, hopefully motivating you to continue learning from, speaking to, and truly listening to transracial adoptees.

If you’re considering transracial adoption, Tharps’ work will prepare you for the intense struggle monoracial and interracial families endure. Consider their perspectives when adding a transracial adoptee to your home.

march book discussion: Heft

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Liz Moore

Spoiler Alert: Unmarked spoilers ahead. Be warned.

I’ve always preferred literature about outsiders. Outsiders who, when caught in a grapple with internal and external forces designed for failure, establish with me a comforting little kinship. These characters usually follow the same type: Alone or cast aside with problems partially of their own making and partially born from disappointments bestowed by adults sworn to protect them.

Heft combines elements of mild self-loathing and isolation, a sneaky type of solitude that creeps along so slowly it bewilders even the narrators.  Unsure if it’s self-imposed or something else, Liz Moore skillfully reveals pieces of the main narrator’s life, making it uncertain if the 500-pound recluse is happy or a victim of his pain.

This uncertainty is a familiar mind state for many adoptees. Are we happy with our adoptions, or do we create false comforts, surrounding ourselves with objects (as does our main narrator, Arthur Opp) and eating until morbid obesity? What subconscious actions help us regain control over stolen lives?

Throughout the novel, Moore weaves a bit of a familial mystery into the threads of the characters’ histories. We are asked who parented one of the novel’s secondary characters—Kel Keller—a young man whose life was born of broken adults and bad choices. After his mother’s death, Kel frantically searches for his father, a man who disappeared early and was painted into life by his mother’s descriptions.

These stories, however, turn out to be false. Kel’s mother wanted to believe they were abandoned by a man greater than the sum of his disappointments. In the end, Kel finds someone less a father and more a disappointment. He also receives a letter–one that I will keep secret until you read it–providing advice many of us may have wished to receive.

Heft’s lesson is one from which we’d all benefit. Maybe it’s sometimes better never knowing the truth about our parentage, accepting that the people we want most are better left behind.

Why Heft is March 2018’s Adoptee Required Reading

Adoptees will find a reassuring comfort in Moore’s characters, relating perhaps too closely to the suffering of each of her brilliantly believable players. Everyone is searching for someone or something. If we find the it, we tell ourselves, we’ll be complete.

But sometimes answers are beyond our reach. And Moore’s Heft shows that, even in the absence of logical reasoning, we may find peace and build a life based on our decisions, no longer subjecting ourselves to others’ whims.

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Discussion Time!

Have you read Heft or are you planning to add it to your to-be-read pile? Let me know in the comments or share your thoughts on Facebook!

If we generate enough interest, we can start an online book group, focusing specifically on works that contain themes on loss, family, and disconnect.

white like me

When I was twelve, my mother – who loved surprising me with books – brought me Black Like Me.  Until then, she’d never shown any interest in racial studies.

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Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

Because of her unusual book choice, the story stuck with me. Although John Howard Griffin’s experiment gets the side eye today, at the time his work validated my struggle. Griffin felt the stares, got asked the probing personal questions, and experienced society’s subtle way of disenfranchising minorities. To me, he was the first White person who got it.

Of course, minorities can speak for themselves now, eliminating the need for a White male translator (though some still try). However, transracial adoptees occupy a unique space in racial conversations. Since we’ve lived as racial others within our families and communities, we know that sometimes it is what’s outside that counts.

But what does being Asian feel like? Or White? Does it feel like…anything? I believe the question should really be: What does not being White feel like?

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Dr. Anna R. McPhatter, Dean of Social Work at Morgan State University,  suggests that  “[w]e are all burdened with the Eurocentric bias that is the foundation of our formal and informal education.” I’d also apply this to family structure: We assume that families in the United States are racially homogenous. Anything different still raises eyebrows.

Transracial adoptees, though, challenge that belief: We take on our White family’s identity despite our visual appearance.

Korean adoptees desire to perform a White identity, but these performances are disrupted when others initiate communication about their Asian identities. – Sarah Docan-Morgan

But identities are fragile. In 2010, Sara Docan-Morgan reported that adoptees often find their family status challenged.  Questions like “Now who is this?” and “Is she really yours?” frustrate adoptees; as noted above, these remind us of the “exclusive conceptualization of families as biologically related and also [cause] confusion about how people could question the bonds between [the adoptee] and the only people [s/he] knew as family.”

Intrusive interactions, defined as “interpersonal encounters wherein people outside the immediate family question or comment on the adoptee and/or the adoptive members’ relationships with one another,” threaten an adoptee’s sense of security, as both a family member and an ethnic individual.

As McPhatter says: “People of color are adept at reading the slightest nuance or cue that carries even the most carefully concealed message of disapproval, discomfort, or nonacceptance because of one’s race, culture, or ethnicity.” Transracial adoptees are no different and in fact, may be slightly hypersensitive because of our constant racialization by others.

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In any case, transracial adoptees spend their lives as outsiders, regardless of how well-accepted they were by their families. Our status as both immigrants and racial minorities makes us particularly vulnerable to how others perceive us.

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I think this is an important start to a larger conversation that could truly benefit transracial adoptive parents. Many TRAps ask how they can support their children in racial identity development, so I’ll be continuing this topic in my next post!

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All references can be found here.

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