I Did Not Know How To Be The Mother of a Black Son
I drove alone from New Orleans to Gary, Indiana — more than a thousand miles — to get him. I pulled up to the house in this strange neighborhood with the grey light that seemed to suffuse the city with dullness. There was a poverty of light, of joy, that could not be chalked up to simply the dark brown bricks, the winter gardens, the 14 degree cold, or the lack of one human being or animal on any of the streets I had driven on to get to this house. I got out of my truck, and swiftly walked to the front door and knocked. No answer. I knocked harder, still no answer. There was no noise inside or out.
As I waited in the cold, I was struck by how profound a week it had been. I had received the call on Friday from an adoption attorney: a baby boy needed a home; it was now Monday, one week to the day after my mother had died. I was still numb. I knocked again. I heard shuffling and the door opened. A petite woman with dirty blonde hair smiled. Her small teeth were stained brown. I saw flashes of movement behind her and then saw the dogs coming from the shadows of the foyer. She reached down and held back two large pitbulls and told me to come in. The air was lifeless and smelled like all of those homes where cigarette smokers, no matter the season, have never opened the windows.
“I’ll go get him,” she said. She went into the back. The dogs sniffed around at my legs. I stared ahead into the dark hallway. She appeared, grinning, holding a nine-month-old boy out to me. He wore only a diaper. In one hand, he had a bottle of Crystal Light and in the other his fingers gripped a mushed chicken nugget. Small dark brown eyes locked onto my blue eyes. I had never seen this boy before, but I knew him in that instant as my son.
I took the boy from her, brought him to my chest and held him there.
Now three small puppies emerged from the same dark hallway. They danced around my ankles and calves. I moved to the living room where a large TV was broadcasting news. The sofa had a threadbare brown fleece blanket draped over the back. I sat down. I smelled the milk breath of the puppies. I swung my backpack on the floor and reached in to take out a pink fleece snuggie, pink socks, and a pink tee shirt. These were my friend’s daughter’s clothes. She had given them to me only the night before when I arrived, exhausted, at her house. My friend lived an hour and a half away from Gary. The 12 hours I had been with her was a crash course in what a nine-month-old baby needs, wears, and eats. I wiped the food off his small hand and pulled the Crystal Light from him. I put the pink socks on his small feet, toes curled like doodle bugs. The larger pitbulls were sniffing the action. One puppy continued to jump on me, on my backpack, trying to tug at the clothing I was pulling out. There was formula and infant oatmeal at the bottom, under the clothes. I did not see where the other puppies had gone.
The boy stared into my eyes with such intensity a crease deepened between his brows. I could not look away from him. Shelley, the woman, was speaking to me in an endless stream of chatter. It was just this boy, just him and me. I put the tee shirt on him. I changed his diaper. He had one tooth. I tucked his thin legs inside the pink snuggie one at a time, and then I zipped him up and pulled him to me. I held him tight to my chest. He didn’t resist my touch, my embrace.
Shelley told me to follow her to the clinic. I zipped my backpack, picked the boy up and anchored him on my hip. I stood up trying to get my balance around the dogs. The dogs, the puppies, and Shelley followed me to the front door. Then we were outside in the bracing cold, and I opened the back door of the truck and put the boy into the car seat. I smiled at him. His tranquility and intense observation made every movement I made more deliberate, intentional and indelible. I checked the safety belts and then checked them again. I tugged on the car seat, also a loan, to make sure it would not slip. I whispered, “Okay,” to him and took a blanket, and wrapped it around his lower body and tucked it into the car seat. Then I closed the door gently, signaled to Shelley I was ready.
We were the only ones on the street with bare trees and gold grass. The dark brick houses with steep pitched roofs and curtained windows all lent an air of desolation. I started up the truck and the radio came on too loud. I apologized to the boy. “Sorry.” I could not see him because the seat was turned away from me. There was very little movement under the blanket where I could see the outline of his legs and feet. His arms were straight at his side and his hands clenched into tiny fists.
I followed Shelley’s car. My heart was now beating fast. Shelley drove slowly, I lost the feel of where I was, as the houses, cars, intersections, trees, grass rolled by us outside the truck window. I turned the radio down lower and began to sing to the boy:
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
I followed Shelley’s car as she pulled into the parking lot. I took the boy out of the car seat, held him to my chest, and draped the blanket around him. Shelley pushed the heavy glass door of the clinic and held it open for us. She was still talking. She said the boy had not had a bottle in four months. “She just stopped getting formula for him,” Shelley said.
The waiting room had window walls on one side looking out to the parking lot. I put my name on the list, while I held the boy who felt weightless in my arm. There were two women sitting on the fiberglass chairs. There was a third woman, a young expectant mother with a full, rounded belly sitting with her legs apart near the check in counter. I sat down near Shelley who was already seated and watching the news on the flat screen TV on the wall. I rummaged in the backpack looking for the oatmeal. I put a few tablespoons in the plastic bowl and poured water into it. I stirred the dry into the wet making a paste, the bowl balanced on my knee, with the rubber-coated spoon. I propped the boy up on my lap.
I put a cloth bib around his neck. The bib had green palm trees stitched on a sky blue background. I placed the spoon to his bottom lip and he opened slowly, taking in the spoonful and moving his mouth as his eyes narrowed. He looked down at the bowl when he finished his first bite. I put another spoonful in his mouth. Then another. It was the most animated I had seen him. He ate and ate until the oatmeal was finished. I began to search for the bottle and found it. Shelley said, “He hasn’t taken a bottle in months.”
The nurse called my name. Shelley stood up with me. I followed the nurse with the boy in one arm propped up by my hip and the backpack perched on my other shoulder. She guided us into an examining room. Shelley plopped down in the metal chair. I stood near the examination table. The nurse knew I was adopting the boy and here for his well baby report. I told the woman when I checked in.
There was a knock on the door and the doctor came in.
“Well hello,” the doctor said to the boy. “Let’s have a look at you.”
I sat him up on the examination table, supporting his back, as the doctor unzipped his snuggie. I helped her take his legs out. She pulled out her stethoscope and showed it to him. He showed no interest in her or the stethoscope. I noticed that he had not even once looked at Shelley since I had taken him from her.
The doctor spoke directly to him, narrated to him what she was doing, and assured him everything was okay. She spoke in a calm and soothing voice. She turned his thin arms over and inspected each one closely. She did the same with his legs. She untaped his diaper and lifted his leg. She asked me to come out in the hallway with her a moment. I did not want to leave him, but the nurse moved to the table to take my place.
The doctor took off her eyeglasses. “He is underweight.”
I said: “I know. I understand the mother stopped feeding him formula a few months ago.”
The doctor looked at me as if taking it all in in, doing an assessment of me, of us. The doctor was Black. I’m white. The boy is Black.
“He has marks on his arm and legs. Fingernail marks,” she said.
I nodded. “She [I gestured to the door] told me she had to get the boy away from the mother.” I didn’t tell her Shelley had actually said Jesus came to her in the middle of the night and told her: “Go get that boy.”
“The good news is he’ll be fine,” the doctor said. “He won’t remember any of this. The bad news is he may never take a bottle.”
I nodded again. I wanted to get back to him.
The doctor told me she would send the paperwork to the front desk. She said it would take a few minutes.
I walked back into the room where Shelley, the nurse and the boy were exactly as I had left them. They looked at me as I entered. I slipped the boy back into the snuggie and picked him up.
“We need to wait for the paperwork,” I said, grabbing the backpack.
When we took our same seats in the waiting room, I found the bottle again in the bottom of the pack. I took out a can of formula, shook it hard and poured it into the bottle. Shelley watched the television. I pulled the boy to me, cradling his head in the crook of my arm, and put the nipple near his lips. He stared at me, deep into my eyes. I tapped his lip with the nipple. He opened his mouth tentatively; I gently pushed the nipple between his lips, pursing my own lips to model what I wanted. He began sucking. I wrapped the blanket around him and sat back, making myself comfortable. I rocked back and forth gently as he drank. I breathed out. I breathed in.
I had come for the boy, but I had not wanted to adopt a Black boy. When I was approaching my 50th birthday, single and childless, never able to carry any of my pregnancies to term, I wanted to adopt a child. I had two adoptions that failed, both girls, both African American. The experience sent me into deep autodidact mode, reading books, watching videos, joining online transracial parenting groups, and having conversations with other white parents who had adopted Black or brown children. When I thought I was adopting an African American girl, I had decorated her bedroom with lamps whose base were carved wooden busts of African girls with braids. There was a light switch cover of African women dancing with their hands in the air. Near the window was hanging a cloth from South Africa alongside a blown up photograph of a coal-black skinned woman from Cuba smoking a cigar. I had purchased a plastic bust with coarse hair to practice braiding Black hair from a beauty supply store. I bought a tiny Black baby doll. I was preparing for a Black girl.
I lived in New Orleans and Black boys were in the news daily being killed by Black boys or killing other Black boys. It’s a tragic story that is never ending, never explained except in statistics and news flashes across the television screen. I was terrified of the world I lived in where Black boys are devoured inside New Orleans’ sludgy maw. I had not said it out loud, but I knew inside that I did not want to adopt a Black boy. After the two failed adoptions, I gave up. My mother was dying and I had turned 50. Then a call came from a Connecticut attorney in the private adoption network. “Rachel,” the attorney said, “Do you want to hear a sad story? There is a nine-month-old boy who needs a home yesterday. Interested?” I only heard “a boy needs a home yesterday.”
I named my son Constantin. It is a strong name. It is a leader’s name. It’s also the city my grandparents were born in, Constantinople, Turkey. I knew then my son needed every talisman working in his favor. I nicknamed him Tin. Looking back on what I knew when I first met Tin, and what I know eight years later, I knew so little. In the 70’s, the National Association of Black Social workers had come out against transracial adoption because of the damage done by white parents who do not know Black culture and who have less understanding of how racism penetrates every crevice in this country. As I stepped up my learning I observed other white parents of Black and brown children. I wondered how some who I knew personally were doing this job without putting in the work. I felt woefully unprepared, but my questions to these parents were often dismissed. Do you know how to insulate your child from racism, do you know how to fill in the gaps not taught in school of the Black experience, do you know how to foster self-esteem into your child when every message they receive tells them they are unworthy? I didn’t. I began to believe the Black Social Workers were right.
I realized that all of the books I had read about transracial adoption were Band-Aids over a larger insidious problem; it was reading about African American history, systemic racism, the personal narratives of Black lives, the Great Migration, and Black movements alongside resistance in this country that revealed a world virtually unknown to me before I met my son. I had not realized this information was purposefully obscured. At the beginning, I was so focused on the smaller narrative, the one of me and my son. I had brought Tin home to his bedroom that I had decorated for an African American girl and for a couple of years I did not see the absurdity of its arrangement in our home.
I fell deeply in love with my son. The way Tin smelled, the curl of his hair, and the intensity of his stare. I remember the joy of walking with Tin in the Ergobaby that attached him to my body. I fed him his bottle with our shirts off so that our skin would touch. I loved holding his little hands in mine. The first time someone verbalized what I did not see was on the playground; that day, I had put Tin in the baby swing and was gently pushing him. A young African American girl wearing thick braids walked over and stood near us, watching. She put one hand on her hip and said, “Are you his mama?” Yes, I said and smiled proudly. “How can you be his mama when you white?” This became a familiar refrain that continues even today in playgrounds, in grocery stores, and always it is a question posed by a Black child. When my son was in nursery school, a mother asked me if we had experienced racism when I mentioned that I wrote about it. Dumbfounded, I looked at her. “Every day,” I said. She was dumbfounded. I told her about my neighbor, a friend, who had always been so kind and helpful before I brought home my son. But I had heard him refer to little Black boys walking in front of his house with racial slurs. I told her this same neighbor asked if my son could be part of his Mardi Gras costume. He said, “I’m thinking of going as an organ grinder, and Tin could be my monkey. What d’ya say?”
I could see the horror in her eyes and watched it diminish as she collected her white children from the playground, waved goodbye to the other white mothers, and got into her Volvo SUV to head to her white neighborhood. She would never know, I thought to myself. My son was at this private school for three years. My response to my neighbor’s costume suggestion was, “I don’t like that!” I had no radical response to racism, emotional or intellectual. I was swept up in a code of whiteness that elevated politeness over progress. It would take the constant droning of racism to make me vocal. It would take an enormous amount of learning. In the early years, I would get up in the morning and read yet another book on racism, and feel overwhelmed. What could I do? What could anyone do? How could I make white parents see what I was seeing? The part of me that wanted to close the books, take a walk, and think of better things was silenced by the mother in me who knew my son would never be able to opt out of racism.
As I learned from my reading and personal experience, I started feeling more confident in my parenting. Tin wore his hair in an Afro, a throwback style that many older Black women still question. One woman at Home Depot told me that I needed to clip my son’s hair short like other boys wore. Another woman told me I had to make sure to put cream on him everyday. She walked right up to me and told me this without hesitation. Many Black people told me I needed to put cream on him as if I didn’t know about dry skin. I have dry skin. I put lotion all over myself every day. I had put lotion on Tin everyday because it’s what I do. What I don’t have though is ashy skin, which is how dead skin looks on Black skin. White people shed dead skin too, but you don’t see it. I stopped bristling at what, at first, felt like intrusions into my parenting.
Another mother and I took our pre-K sons on an hour and half train ride to Picayune, Mississippi for a day. Both Tin and his friend were crazy for Thomas the Train like all boys their age. When we arrived in Picayune and were crossing the railroad tracks, Tin, excited to be standing on real railroad tracks, lay down across them and would not get up. The train had left the station and there was not another scheduled till that afternoon so I watched with amusement. From behind me, came two, over six feet tall, white policemen stomping towards us in large shiny black boots. Instead of stooping down to a child’s level, they both peered from their imposing height, hands on gun holsters, and the tallest one said in a gruff voice, “Boy, you better get up and keep moving.” Tin instantly started crying. I snatched him up in my arms. I was shaken at first and then became spitting mad. My friend, who is white, said, “It’s always good to have a healthy fear of the PoPo.” I bit my tongue. Did she not just witness a white Mississippi policeman walk up and scare my son, a Black boy, for no damn good reason and as if to add insult to injury, call him boy in that tone?
When Trayvon Martin died, I became the frightened mother of a Black son. A friend emailed me there was to be a meeting. I went to what was deemed a teach-in, held at a teahouse on Banks Street. In the front room, while white people sat at small square tables eating scones and sipping tea from antique cups and saucers, Black people crowded into the back room in folding chairs. A slide show was projected onto the wall with images of a lynching. Then in the second frame was Emmett Till’s battered body in his coffin with his mother leaning into him. Third frame: media shots of Black men killed by police officers over the last dozen years. The organizers compared Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till. They talked about how Black male bodies have always been projected as threatening and menacing in this country. They talked about how this led to the school-to-prison pipeline. They talked about how this got them killed. They were talking about my son, who sat in my lap, moving his head left to right to see the baby girl on her mother’s lap behind us. I went home wondering how to leave this city, this country, how to get the hell out of here and run for our lives. Where could my son grow up free?
When Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, was found not guilty, I took Tin to an impromptu rally at the State Supreme Court steps on Poydras Street. There I was with the other parents of Black children. We were scared. We were angry. Unlike these parents, I was new to the outrage. They had learned racism first hand. It had taken looking through my son’s eyes to see what was always there. The other parents had learned at their parent’s knees to be Black, to think Black, to be activist, to resist, to love Black, to be parents of Black children, and to be so loud so they could be heard over the deafening silence of white people. They had learned to shatter their children’s illusions to teach them the hard facts about reality. Illusion — we are all equal in this country. Fact — if you are Black you have to be double good and still may not be equal. Illusion — magazines, books, television and movies reflect who we are. Fact — magazines, books, television and movies reflect white people and who they are. Illusion — the American dream, anyone can have it. Fact — the system is rigged against Black people in favor of white people all for the love of money.
When my son was four years old, I was laid off from the company I had been with for two decades. For financial reasons, we moved to a more affordable house and neighborhood, which are by no coincidence predominantly Black and Hispanic. Our neighbors on the right had lived in their house for 27 years and raised three sons there. After we moved in, Tin became fond of locking the interior doors in the house. One time he locked us out of the rest of the house. Luckily, I had my neighbor’s telephone number and was able to call and have him help me. The man guided me through dismantling the doorknob with a pen and paperclip, MacGyver-style, while Tin looked on. My neighbors’ sons are now all married, two with sons of their own. I met the middle son first and we were instant friends. He told me one day that they had never had a white neighbor, much less a white friend next door to them. The youngest son is 6’6” and he helped change the light bulbs in my 12’ ceilings, fix my outdoor light that was too high to reach and even offered to pick up the dead stray kitten run over in front of my house. I was standing in my neighbor’s backyard when this young man got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend.
To the left of our house lives a man who works all hours holding down two jobs. He has three godchildren, two of which are twins. They visit him on weekends and sometimes jump on the trampoline with my son. Across the street is a woman who has lived there for 25 years. She raised three boys as a single mother. She cleans houses for a living. One house belongs to my friend’s parents uptown. All of these neighbors look like my son. They see him, but more importantly, I see them. They are fathers, mothers, grandma and grandpas, uncles, aunts, godfathers, and sons. These days I take long looks at young Black men I come across in my daily life, the ones that our society has taught us to look away from, to walk away from, to cross the street when we see them, because I am looking to see how my son will look as a young man.
When my son started first grade at the community school next door to us, we met his teacher. She was the first Black teacher he had had. I was thrilled. I told his teacher how excited I was after having two cocktails during a school fundraiser, and I think my exuberance might have alarmed her. Tin’s time in first grade was an interesting development for him in coming to understand himself as Black and me as white. We were sitting at our kitchen counter one day after school, having a snack, and he turned to me and said, “I wish you were Black.” Behind me was a Jazz Fest poster of Irma Thomas stepping with white pumps into a fecund swamp with a record player near her feet. Irma is New Orleans’ Queen of Soul. In back of him was a painting of an African talking drum by an Atlanta artist I had met at Jazz Fest. On the kitchen shelf was an African nut woman made from shells and nuts. There was also a sculpture of an African woman sitting cross-legged with a tea candle cradled in her lap. We were listening to a playlist I had compiled of 99% Black music: a mix of West African and African American, a fusion of jazz, R&B, soul and gospel blending into our airwaves.
I looked at my son, whose skin is a rich mahogany hue. A Black friend had said, “good color,” when he first met him. I told Tin, “You know something sometimes I do too. I have had moments since we met where I have wished to be Black so that our skin color would match. And I’m sorry I’m not Black. But I can tell you something. I have never, not once, wished you were white.” He had stopped dipping his apple slices in honey and had been waiting for my reply. He did not say anything, but he dipped the slice into the thick honey and chewed it thoughtfully.
His silence continued, so I added, “You know what is funny. When you were a baby, I had a video monitor with a camera directed at your crib. It was odd because the camera was infrared. So in the dark what I saw on the screen was transposed. You were white. It really startled me the first time I saw it and unsettled me each time I passed the monitor on my way to the bathroom in the darkness of the night.” Tin munched on his apple, and wiped the honey from his lips. He asked if he could watch a movie. Discussion over for now, I thought, but I knew by now that we would never exhaust this topic. I also had learned to respond to his questions with clear and honest answers.
The information I give Tin is most of the time developmentally appropriate, but sometimes I hedged upwards on what I think he can handle. Tin asked me in second grade, “Who am I?” because he was once again unclear on why his mother had to give him up. I charted out on the Blackboard in his bedroom how capitalism, sexism, racism, the war on drugs, and the collapse of American manufacturing in his birth city are all the brick and mortar of our society and who we are as a family. As the mother of a Black son, I pierce the fairy bubble of his childhood each day. With every conversation, I mourn the loss of my little boy’s innocence. I mourn the loss of my own. What I don’t mourn is the loss of the myth that America is a country without malice.
There are too many myths about Black people that could be easily dispelled by facts, but they are not. When I knew I would be adopting transracially I heard the Black community in New Orleans was anti-adoption. This is a distortion of the facts. The New Orleans Black community like many around this country has a history of taking care of Black children when the parent cannot; it could be a grandmother, an auntie, a neighbor, or even an older sibling who will take the child in and raise them as their own. It is not that the community is against adoption; it is they are for taking care of the children. There is another myth that my son is lucky I adopted him. As if it is lucky that your birth mother lacked a decent education, resources or the necessary support to help her raise her child. As if any child would not want to look in his parent’s face and see himself reflected back. White people and even some Black ones have suggested to me that I saved Tin. This I’ve come to realize is a classic American myth where white people are set up as the self-appointed savior to rescue people from the very same predicament the white people themselves created.
A Black friend said when I moved Tin to the community school, “Don’t put Tin in that school with a bunch of Black kids, then he’ll be just another Black boy.” There is a myth that Black boys are different than white boys. There is a myth Black boys need harsher punishment in school and at home. The same friend admonished me to go “Black mama” on Tin, insinuating I use corporal punishment. Another Black friend said I needed to “get a hold of Tin before it’s too late.” Every day there are constant reminders to parents of Black sons that something is not right with our children. We have to parent them differently than white children. The truth that I’ve learned is parents of white children are the ones who need to parent differently. White parents need to proactively parent racism out of their children before it sets in.
As I learned more about racism, I took it upon myself to develop a workshop to offer tools I had acquired to raise my son. Originally, I believed the intended audience were white parents adopting Black or brown children. I held free workshops for the foster to adoptive parent groups, for the National Association of Social Workers, and for parent friends. I had ten tools parents could put in their toolkit. Because this work was all I could think about, a friend introduced me to her cousin in Chicago who did similar work. Her work had grown out of years of corporate diversity training. I was on one of her teach-in calls when a woman asked, “Kara, what age do you think is good to have the Talk with my son about the police?” Thirty seconds passed; seconds became a minute, 30 seconds more went by with deafening silence. Kara finally cleared her throat and said, “Wow. First, I want to acknowledge how sad it is you had to ask this question. I suggest when your son is of age to leave the house alone.” Tin was five years old, not close to leaving the house alone, but I started adding the years, when would that be? When would Tin leave the house alone and risk being killed by the police for being Black?
Kara recommended a five-day intensive workshop for me in Berkeley, California. It would be my first deep dive into anti-racist training with people who had been doing it all their lives. Filmmaker and diversity trainer Lee Mun Wah led the workshop. Since Berkeley, I have facilitated many dialogues on race including being a facilitator in a citywide effort to talk about race and equity in New Orleans. From that work, I was invited to New York to speak at a round table discussion about community policing hosted by the Department of Justice. I sat listening to police chiefs from major cities, as well as members of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, discuss how far modern policing has come. I said that as long as parents have to have the Talk with our children, we have not come far enough. I truly believed they would not invite me to speak again, but they have. The day the five Atlanta police officers were shot and killed, I pushed away from my desk and walked out to my front steps to breathe. My neighbor was outside sweeping the sidewalk. I asked if he had heard. He shook his head in disbelief. He is a retired New Orleans cop. I told him my brother is an Atlanta cop. We both, tears in our eyes, spoke with each other about our worlds colliding, me with my Black son and Atlanta cop brother, him a Black cop with Black sons. It reminded me of Warsan Shire’s poem:
Where does it hurt?
Later that same year, I spoke again at a DOJ panel in DC. I told the audience of mostly police officers and community faith leaders that my young son alternates from saying, “I want to be a policeman when I grow up” to declaring, “I hate the police.” He is a typical Black boy. I shared one of my parenting tools from my workshops. There will come a time when every parent of a Black child will have to have the Talk. This is sad but true, so before it happens, it is incumbent upon parents to introduce children to police officers that serve and protect. Racist cops are the exceptions, but sadly, they are not rare.
As a writer and blogger, I was blogging when Katrina hit and New Orleans flooded. I continued to blog for a decade afterwards. When I adopted Tin, I was also writing about my experience and soon started another blog, Transracial Parenting. I wrote about what I was experiencing as a white parent seeing life through the eyes of a Black child. My aim was to speak to other adoptive parents, and also to white parents who did not have insight into how different it was to raise brown and Black children. I woke one morning to comments so horrifically racist on my blog that I was sick when I read them. The posts were from different men, but one had commented multiple times. His comments ranged from “After I saw the picture of you with that little monkey, I had to bleach my eyes out” to threatening hate posts that scared me. My years as an investigative reporter helped me track down the name behind his pseudonym. I learned the main guy worked for the Michigan DMV and had summoned his white supremacist posse on Reddit to go after me. I felt exposed. More importantly, I felt Tin was possibly in danger. I called the FBI and police. When the officer came to my house to fill out a report, she asked to see the evidence. She sat reading each comment, while I watched over her shoulder. She was African American. I was embarrassed that she was reading this hate speech on my computer. I apologized many times. She seemed nonplussed. That night, still seething from it all, I posted the real name of the main guy on my blog, and warned there was an FBI investigation underway. The comments stopped immediately. He and his racist posse receded behind their digital white curtain.
As a transracial parent, I believe there is a way to parent radically different than we were raised. The readers for my writing morphed from white parents of brown and Black children to white parents of white children. This year, I finished a book, Meditations on Race and Parenting, which is the distillation of my writing on parenting. I have learned a lot, and mostly I have learned that despite all of the work that is going on, there are no experts in the field of anti-racism. Even those who have spent their lives fighting on the frontlines persevere with no end in sight. Lee Mun Wah said when he asked participants whether they thought racism would end in their lifetime, 80% said no, and 20% said only if white parents adopt children of color. I believe it will happen only if white parents raise white children radically differently than their parents raised them.
I am not claiming to be an expert. I have made many mistakes. I remember so vividly going to DC with a friend of mine and staying at her mom’s house. They are African American. I realized hours in I had never spent the night at a Black family’s home before. The first thing that registered was how every painting, photograph, tchotchke, magazine, and refrigerator magnet had the image of a Black person on it. I saw how this family saw themselves reflected in every image. When I went to bed in their guestroom, I had an epiphany. This is how Black people overcome whiteness! It is in their homes. Black families create an alternate world to fortify their children from the pervasive whiteness that white people have created for themselves. Another epiphany followed. Oh my God! How ignorant am I? I had confined all of Tin’s Blackness into his bedroom with the lamps, the photograph, African cloth, and all of it separate from the rest of our home.
My stumbling in the dark has yielded many aha moments like that one. Often my lessons come straight from the mouth of my son. I remember when Tin was still in nursery at the private school. I had put him in swimming classes down the street. The first day, I was annoyed to see that all of the children in the swim class were white, so I was beside myself with joy when I noticed of the two instructors in the pool, one was a Black woman. There were so few authority figures that Tin interacted with who were Black; there was Dr. Cleo, his dentist, who we drove to another town to see; there was his eye doctor, and that was pretty much it. When the next session came around, I insisted Tin be in the same class with this Black instructor, and on the day we arrived, the Black woman was not there. In the water was a tall, broad-shouldered, white guy. I was vexed and marched over to the administrators to find out what was going on. The Black instructor had contracted mono they told me and wouldn’t be in for the remaining season. They did have another Black instructor, but he was on a different schedule. The swimming lessons were five minutes from Tin’s school, but 40 minutes from our house. The new schedule would require us to wait two hours after school ended before the Black instructor’s class started. I did it. I switched him and thought to myself this is the price we have to pay. After the first lesson with the new Black instructor, as I pulled out of the parking lot, Tin said, “I like the white guy better.” I knew then I would always be learning how to be the mother of a Black son.
When we walked out of the clinic it was snowing. I felt mental and emotional exhaustion leaching out of my pores. I hugged Shelley goodbye with promises to call when we arrived home. I put the swaddled boy in the car seat and kissed his cheek. A sudden strong desire to get out of Gary energized me. As I waved to Shelley behind us in the rearview mirror, the snow started falling harder. I would need to drive to Indianapolis to stand before a judge to legally become the boy’s mother. The grey streets, buildings, and cars were dusted with white snow. At a red light, I reached out of my seat to see the boy’s face. His little head with his receding hairline was turned to the side buried in pink fleece. His eyes were closed; he was fast asleep. As I pulled onto the interstate ramp, cars began to slow down because of the snow and a few drivers were honking. The boy woke up and started crying. “Hush little baby,” I sang. I gripped the steering wheel and steeled myself. I was overcome with one singular desire — to get my son to safety.
photograph by Marc Pagani