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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the COLORSBIND BOX: a monthly journey to a not-so-colorblind transracial adoption community

Subscription boxes are one of those things people either love or don’t care about. I always fell into the latter category, because I found them pricey and/or hard to cancel…until, of course, I discovered ipsy. That’s a story for a different blog!

As a transracial adoptee, I’m flummoxed by the lack of ongoing transracial adoption education provided by adoption agencies. Perplexed and frustrated, but not surprised. What COLORSBIND boxes–lanched by Nedra L. and Bryan K. Hotchkins–nobly set out to accomplish is both admirable and massive; through a monthly subscription box, transracial adoptive families of black adoptees will receive a package of themed items (from t-shirts to books). Opening small worlds and forming community connections is the clear goal, offering education and interactions where societal gaps remain.

COLORSBIND boxes help your children see Black people as beautiful, smart and valuable, exposing your family to things that make you laugh and think. -The COLORSBIND website

Unboxing Transracial Adoptive Families

When I discovered COLORSBIND, my first instinct as a Korean adoptee was a slightly bitter, “Why just black transracial adoptive families?” It’s true Asians are routinely forgotten in racial discourse, and in the COLORSBIND box, it overlooks a key fact: Asians are among the most common transracial adoptee, as well as the most common intercountry adoptee, as well.

I got over my knee-jerk reaction quickly, especially after I offered to review one of boxes. Upon arrival, what appeared as a missed opportunity is actually an open door for inclusivity. The COLORSBIND box is a beautifully simple and scalable idea. Its creators, one of whom is a black transracial adoptee, launched the project in 2018 to promote child-centered culturally-competent transracial adoptive families. For Asians, Indians, Native Americans, and other groups feeling left out, don’t: The founders have loose plans for expansion and I know I’d be willing and able to help create a similar box for Korean transracial adoptive families.

The Beauty on the Inside

colorsbind june 2018 box
Look how gorgeous this box is printed! Take that, Amazon.

I was struck by the care and resources invested in this small, yet powerful, box. Here’s what was under the attractively-printed, full-color box lid (that’s never making its way to my recycling bin–ever):

A book!
A t-shirt!
A beautiful photo of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man printed across the author’s face!
A glossy magazine!
A flag!
Fancy shredded paper that my almost-four-year-old son adored!

The commitment, love, and care invested in this box’s contents (and its mission) were palpable. Each item was nestled on top of the other, carefully folded and arranged in an organized, professional presentation. I couldn’t believe how much it contained, delivering item after informative item.

A themed cultural experience

Each month’s COLORSBIND box is, as I said before, tied into some theme. For June, it was Juneteenth, an event I’d heard of but (shamefully) couldn’t articulate. As I move through each of the items provided, you’ll learn how they’re connected to the theme and transracial adoption.

Let’s go through its contents and I’ll provide the play-by-play of my thoughts.

Note: Due to my excitement, I forgot the actual order in which the items were packed. Sorry!

  1. An actual full copy of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.colorsbind june 2018 book
    • “Are you freaking kidding me!? I LOVE books and can’t believe they sent this to me. Holy crap. I never read this book! I still need to read Invisible Man! I’m so behind in my reading! It’s like these people READ. MY. MIND.
      “What is Juneteenth though? I’m so embarrassed, I should know this…if I don’t know this, others surely don’t, too. Good thing they sent it.”I wonder if people will take the time to read it. They better.”
  2. A t-shirt!

    • “OMG they asked my size and really did send me a t-shirt. It’s gorgeous and actually not some crappy CafePress screenprint. Holy heck. But my readers still won’t get a picture of me in it so here’s a piture of some happy dude wearing it in what looks like a BJ’s.”
      guy wearing juneteenth shirt
  3. The full-color, glossy magazine, COLORSBIND Us Magazine 

    colorsbind box 2018 magazine.jpg

    • “Wow, this is legit. There’s a table of contents, a feature story, an Editorial section and…wait? What’s this? They actually featured an area of the USA and represented upcoming black cultural events? That’s a TON of effort. Go them. Respect.colorsbind 2018 events
      “Let’s see, what else…book recommendations for kids and adults, definite plus. Shows they’re thinking more deeply than ‘make this recipe and call it a day.’ An art section featuring drawings by black adoptees, pretty cool. Way to generate inclusion.

      “But what’s this Feature? An article by a white man calling transracial adoption ‘interracial’ adoption? Hmm…okay, common error. But wow, he’s admitting adopting black doesn’t make him ‘woke.’ I wish more people were like him. I hope the COLORSBIND people feature more parents like this, but you know what’s missing? A feature about a black transracial adoptee. That would slay.

      “Totally digging their thoroughness here. And…wow! They explain Juneteenth to me! They honestly did their work here to make sure nothing would be missed. Wow.”

  4. A mission statement and contact card
    colorsbind june 2018 mission cardTotally fridge-worthy. Should be sent to transracial groups all over.

    • “This is going on my fridge so anyone who comes over will ask me about it. Do they make car magnets? I’d totally rock a car magnet.”
  5. This gorgeous image

    ralph ellison
    I’m that person who doesn’t remove anything out of its factory wrappings, including the sticky plastic covers on new phones, remote controls, etc. I know, I know.
    • “I don’t know how decided to make this picture of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man transposed over his face, but this is awesome and I hope someday someone creates a portrait of my face with my words. I’m framing this.”
  6. The official Juneteenth flag!
    colorsbind juneteenth flag

    • “Have they literally thought of everything I needed to decorate my barren home office? I didn’t even know a Juneteenth flag existed. COLORSBIND is education and functional. These people are so invested in this project. I freaking love it.”

Is a COLORSBIND Box subscription worth it?

Yes.

I’m a discerning person, but this is an easy (literally, all transracial families have to do is subscribe) way to involve your entire family in your child’s racial tapestry. I

It’s not condescending, it’s not preachy, it’s not corny. And a portion of the proceeds go to the Think Positionality Education Foundation, an organization offering adoptee-led transracial post-adoption education (finally!).

It’s modern, it’s applicable to families no matter where they’re residing in the USA, it’s interactive, it’s accessible.

But again, it’s currently targeted at transracial adoptive families with black children. This limits its reach and might turn off families who already feel isolated. Obviously, with its co-founder being a black adoptee this totally makes sense. On the upside, COLORBIND’s attention to detail and reproducible model makes easily expandable for transracial adoptive families of all colors. And I totally wish I’d thought of it.

Is a COLORSBIND Box enough?

Like other post-adoption education and cultural trainings, signing up is voluntary. The folks who really need COLORSBIND likely won’t ever consider this (or anything else) as a resource, but for those families in the middle–you know, the ones who don’t know it all but are open to learning–will benefit and should subscribe (prices here). So, it’s an excellent start.

I want this idea to take off. I want it to work. I want others to initiate similar projects, not to steal COLORBIND’s thunder but to emphasize and fill in the gaps where adoption agencies leave off. Adoption is filled with memoirs and blogs and social media accounts promising and working for change, but COLORSBIND is taking that activism offline and bringing transracial adoptees’ voices to life through tangible objects and valuable keepsakes.

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Receiving a box for review was an honor and I hope to review their future boxes. This is a novel concept, whose creators embraced a monumentally difficult task (making cultural immersion family-friendly, informational, yet fun) and are, so far, doing it right.

No matter where you’re at in the adoption community, I urge you to purchase at least one box and support the COLORSBIND mission and a transracial adoptee’s work. And please let me know when you get yours–I’d love to hear from you!

Want to order a July 2018 box? They’re taking orders until July 5! New subscribers get 5% off.