In Search of Other Mothers’ Gardens : Can Creative Kinships repair the modern debt of Transracial Adoptees?

Brimmer at Marcus Books in Oakland, CA in October. Photo Credit: Shannon E. Gibney.


I. Introduction : The Flower Debt

Whatever she planted grew as if by magic, and her fame as a grower of flowers spread over three counties. Because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms — sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spirea, dephiniums, verbena… and on and on.” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (241)

Throughout her many works, Alice Walker’s writing often speaks of processes of generational transference. The perennial and annual tending that makes for generational springtime. Bloom. The generative act of living and black social life.

Her 1971 collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: A Womanist Prose leveraged personal and collective narratives- within an Africanist and Feminist world — in order to tell the story of how generations can work to mend the ruptures and resuscitate the victims of chattel slavery.

A generalized notion also percieved by Terrion Williamson discusses the sense of being “unhinged” from blackness in her book on black sociality, Scandalize my Name, (2017). Author Heidi Durrow cultivates creative kinships across generations in her essay and fiction work: especially focused on bridging the bi-racial and mixed-race experience, kinship care/adoption, and a distinct agenda of imagining other mothers, and ‘another room’ within the African American literary tradition.

Transracial adoption in black America is a process that is intended to fracture kinship connections that consummate the black community and that these consummate ties are both familial and racial-diasporic, and probably more than that.

I’m curious what reparative measures can be provided for the transracial adoptee and wonder how those methods enjoin the broader diaspora. Whether or not cultural production can repair the debt of narrative loss, the loss of kinship and culture?

Earlier iterations of this essay considered healing as the product of creative kinships for the transracial adoptee and scholar Mette Larsen (a Korean Adoptee living in Denmark) advised me on how this too narrow approach siphons adoptees into healed or malignant categories that are not accurate nor otherwise helpful. And while that may be something that needs expounding on from a queer, neurodivergent, black, transracial adoptee, witch, and artist but that is not this essay. I am looking beyond a healing framework which delimits the condition of the adoptee to a pathological, wounded, victimized position.

Here, I am interested in the Transracial Adoptee (TRA)’s inheritance of debt. A debt adjacent and included in that signified by Fred Moten and Stephano Harney in The Undercommons. I’m wondering if creative kinships can repair the adoptee’s cultural credit score? Can undo the fractures and ruptures of familial and racial-diasporic kinships?

I want to wonder if other mother’s gardens can provide the transformative magic that made Walker’s “memories of poverty” be remembered through a “screen of blooms”. There is something palliative in making beauty out of what might be conventionally considered painful/traumatic/shameful, of making useful something an aspect of identity that has been stigmatized, or seperated. And sometimes we need palliative, useful measures to repair ourselves — our hearts, and spirits. Sometimes we need a sense of magic.

II. Slashed connections have historical roots

Transracial adoption slashes the woven connections of heritage, narrative, and the geographic in ways not at all dissimilar by the very institutionalized slavery, and reproductive exploitation, upon which the United States are founded. This perspective demonstrates kinship as a means of revisioning and reconstituting categories and connections.

I’m interested in thinking of the TRAs loss, absence, and lack as a situation of debt. Through transracial adoption, the diminishment of cultural practices, knowledges, and biological and fictive kinships are a fractal of the cultural decimation practices of the U.S. Government against Indigenous and Native American communities: in step with methods intended and demonstrated to diminish populations as with a means and end towards political control across the geographical space stripped from first nation — indigenous peoples.

Transracial adoption, and the sorting kinship into a matter of legal fiction, is part of a broader United States, colonialist project. A project in which there is mutual struggle with Native/Indigenous deterritorialization and black/African/American denaturalization. I connect these struggles here to think through the grander design of this country, with its pointed agenda of cultural erasure.

The Louisiana Purchase, facilitated by sitting President Thomas Jefferson, was enacted at the dawn of the 19thcentury hailed a major expansion of agrarian slavery in the United States. This move caused the removal of vast amounts of indigenous peoples and was responsible for an multi-regional economic period of prosperity known as the Cotton Boom.[1]

This is a period of United States history in which increased demand for cotton created an increased demand for slave labor that had residual implications on the African/African American family: the promotion of the reproductive exploitation of black women by the slave holding class and the framing of black children as product and ‘an addition to capital’[2].

Historically, the United States has seen fit to protect its’ sovereign and economic interests from the perceived danger of the Indigenous and black communities: reacting to the sense that ‘it’ had been ‘surrounded’[3].

As such, the United States has seen fit to create an embankment of protection between itself and the Indigenous and Black people taking the form in anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity[4]from boarding school practices to transracial adoption.

But how are these practices forms of anti-family values? How do we get to kinship from geographic and economic matters? Particularly anti-black/indigenous family values. concurrent with the efforts to further disempower first nations and black/African/american communities the newly forged United States was attempting to stabilize and emergent and expanded settler colony and with this came the acknowledgement of threat from powerful institution of the American family.

This motif is excellently captured in scholar Holly Jackson’s American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American Literature, 1850–1900.Jackson characterizes the 19thcentury -particularly 1790–1850- as “marking a watershed in Americans’ relationship to genealogy and also in conceptions of individual citizens’ relationship to national history,” (Jackson 5).

The genealogical and citizenship focused kinships concretized a budding national myth in America: that of american heroism, nobility, and inheritance. This was the American aristocracy taking formation across and inclusive of class. Jackson writes “White Americanness emerged as a modern form of citizenship by excluding peoples constructed as genealogically determined, even while the conceptual roots of nationalism in ancestry and blood relation were disavowed.” (13) While a “modern blood identity” was intended to ensure the illegitimacy of institutionally enslaved kin did not inherit the property and wealth of their progenitors, it did make for the inheritance of something.

Jackson’s core agenda is to describe kinship as literary and fictional: and we can see legal, personal, communal, and national fictions imbricated in her argument. I am interested in making a connection between Jackson’s observation on the centrality of inheritance for non white subjects, an inheritance of cultural debt ala Stephano Harney and Fred Moten’s conception in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study.

Harney and Moten explore power functions of the state and the academy as a system of debt which is quickly described by Jack Halberstam in the introduction as “sometimes a history of giving, at other times a history of taking, at all times a history of capitalism” (Moten and Harney 4). In the American system of heteronormative, patrilineal, kinship-based inheritance, and logic of modern blood identity, there is a cultural economy of capitalism which advances an American plot of black/indigenous exploitation (debt).

If someone is inheriting credit, someone is most certainly experiencing debt. How are we to conceive of repairing the socio-cultural, historical, and fictive inheritance as indigenous people of color? How are to spatialize an arena of kinship in order to repair the debt of adoption? And is there a common Afro-diasporic experience of loss, and generational distance?

III. The Garden

In the essay, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: The Creativity of Black Women in the South (1974), Black Womanist scholar Alice articulated the ways in which kinship was associated with the survival of black culture through the means of artistic and creative production. Particularly as a means of both matrilineal and generational cultural exchange. Walker places readers “in the still heat of the post-Reconstruction South” through the eyes of Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer, whose poetic work illustrates the particular condition of black women of a certain generation. This was a generation of women accustomed to hard physical labor, in addition to the severance of the connective tissue between head and heart that this type of appropriative, abusive, and exploitative work produces.

Walker asks critical questions in her work about the generational impacts of institutionalized slavery and its racial and gender-based abuses. She makes important connections between the constraints on her mother’s and grandmother’s position: “For these grandmothers and mothers were…but Artists driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release.” (233) For these women, creativity was a palliative repair for their own experience, in their own time, and generation.

Walker herself, takes up a fictive kinship in order to honor creative legacy in literary mode and as part of a black social life. On a trip to Eatonville, Florida Walker takes the fictive position of Zora Neal Hurston’s niece. In the essay describing these events, “Looking for Zora”, Walker seeks to honor her literary mother figure, and creative kin, as a novelist by placing a marker on Hurston’s unmarked grave. In doing so, Walker stumbles upon a “profoundly useful” tool for gaining more information in her interview subjects, gaining more access to the mother’s narrative, relationships, and lifestyle/sociality.

This lie, this fiction, this creative kinship, helped Walker repair Hurston’s cultural and literary legacies. Within the African American literary canons the generational differences do bind the two writers together in rich territorialities of the south, the experience of black diaspora women, and the fate of black diaspora women as writers and creative figures. But do literary and social kinships associated with black cultural production offer a futurity otherwise not afforded in the black American diasporic social landscape?

Interestingly this pattern is mimicked by Heidi Durrow of creating an other mother, a creative kinship. Jennifer Freeman Marshall makes connections to Walker, Hurston, and Toni Morrison in her essay “In Search of Heidi Durrow within a Black Woman’s Literary Tradition: On Reading The Girl Who Fell from the Sky”. Marshall engages with both the text and the author as moments of genealogical forging and she reports that like Walker’s Looking for Zora, Durrow also writes an essay, and engages in this ritual of headstone placement that promotes the forging of creative kinship as a means of repair.

According to Freeman Marshall, “the powerful cultural meanings of kinship and lineage and funeral rights, across both essays, give this real and literary practice its rhetorical power, and Durrow’s use of these motifs reveal her very personal search for self, as a bi-racial woman within [the Black /African American women’s] literary tradition” (31). What makes this creative kinship so important in terms of transracial repair? To Afro-Diasporan and familial return? It is the expansive possibility of generational return.

IV. A Rich Remainder, A Rich Return

Terrion Williamson, in her new black feminist tome Scandalize My Name, discusses a conception of worthiness amongst black women that comes from its’ “representative configuraton”. (4) Defining black social life, she writes,

“Black social life is, fundamentally, the register of black experience that is not reducible to the terror that calls it into existence but is the rich remainder, the multifaceted artifact of black communal resistance and resilience that is expressed in black idioms, cultural forms, traditions, and ways of being.” (9)

Williamson discusses something like the debt we are considering in terms of a constructed, naturalized, loss/lack of black cultural identity, one that comes to fruit in terms of popular representations and responses to those representations of black women.

Williamson engages with Black social life with particular interest in how blackness functions in one’s interiority, from the inside out: in its investments, commitments and its’ own sense of self. She speaks of a blackness “unhinged from itself” as a condition of “missing tradition, the shared experiences and ways of life that establish blackness as something more than terror or isolation or death,” and in this condition, which is similar to the Transracial adoptee’s experience, this unhinged state functions as debt in the wider construction of the modern American blood identity in which, using Williamson’s words, “blackness becomes, in this view, as debased and pathological as it was already assumed to be (95). Here we could easily fall into the trap of thinking in terms of healing — or curing a pathology, right? But isn’t whiteness seen in this conventional model of repair in terms of blackness? How can creative kinships, across generations, repair this generalized unhinged and indebted state?

In the Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens Walker aims to make legible the genius of these dislocated dreamers of a generation removed themselves and their children’s generation. In this context, kinship- particularly matrilineal inheritance — becomes a conduit for repair. Walker writes, “Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength — in search of my mother’s garden, I found my own”. (243) In this way, creativity becomes a way back in: repairing one’s interiority, returning to and revisioning representative configurations of cultural debt. As transracial adoptees, perhaps the search is a repairative process in which we can create literary, textual, and genealogical fictions that repairs our individual and cultural memories.

5. Conclusion — An Inherited Credit

To Walker, a point of return, in which blackness is in fact beautiful, and something more than terror or isolation or death, is in the mother’s garden. In this way, Walker “remember[s] people coming to my [her] mother’s yard to be given cuttings from her flowers” and returns to the hearing person, a presence in memory who recounts “the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned into a garden”. (241) Naming what we learn through Walker and Durrow’s parralel story of headstone placement illuminates creative kinships as a means to bind generations of literary and cultural ties in order to produce an inherited credit: the act an honoring, and return formulate a repayment of debt.

Walker writes: “And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read”. (240) At the seed level, there can be distance between the intention (spiritual, interior, collective) of cultural reclamation, and repair, but the potential for literary and familial home and place becomes an almost blind opportunity for the transracial adoptee and broader Afro-Diasporan communities. Like dreams unknown or dislocated, adoptees contribute myriads of potential only now being unsilenced in broader literary and academic communities across discipline. These ‘other mothers’ are creative kin that offer gardens that offer familiar and racial-diasporic repair.

Works Cited:

Marshall, Jennifer Freeman. “In search of Heidi Durrow within a black woman’s literary tradition: on reading The Girl Who Fell from the Sky.” Forum for World Literature Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2013, p. 27+.

McMillan, Laurie. “Telling a Critical Story: Alice Walker’s ‘In Search of Our Mothers’

Gardens.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 28, no. 1, 2004, pp. 107–123.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens : Womanist Prose / Alice Walker. Harcourt, 2004.

Williamson, Terrion L. Scandalize My Name : Black Feminist Practice and the Making of Black

Social Life / Terrion L. Williamson.Fordham University Press, 2017.

[1]See Mississippi History Now. The number of enslaved persons in America grew from 700,000 in 1890 to 4,000,000 in 1860.

[2]See Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.

[3]See Moten and Harney “The politics of the surround”. The Undercommons.

[4]See Richard Pratt — Kill the Indian, Save the Man

Note from the author: this was a paper that took me to from Graz, Austria for the “Ethnicity and Kinship”: The Society for Multi-Ethnic Studies: Europe convention in May 2018 to Oakland, CA for the “Formations: Thinking Kinship through Adoption” Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture in October.