Black Baby White Hands: A View from the Crib by Jaiya John was on a list of recommended books provided to us by our home study agency. After learning that it is a memoir of a man who was the first ever African-American child adopted by a Caucasian family in the state of New Mexico, it was one of the first books I picked up. I want to learn as much as I can about the issues our child will face as a black child in a white family, and I figured this would be a great help in understanding the situation from the perspective of the child.
I started the book back in October, and I have to say, it took me about six months to get through it. Of course, I was interspersing other reading in there – book club selections, magazines, high quality writings such as the Andre Agassi autobiography – but there was something about it that just didn’t make it my first choice when I’d sit down to read. I was fascinated by the story and I feel like I learned quite a bit, but perhaps it was the writing style (although I can’t really pinpoint that, either). Maybe it was because it wasn’t exactly light reading. But then again, I didn’t expect it to be.
Anyway, I finished the book several weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been meaning to post a book review here on the blog. The book has been sitting on my desk as a reminder. And just like I had a hard time picking up the book to read, I just couldn’t bring myself to write about it. I think I was waiting for something profound and meaningful to write to come to me. It never came, though. Even today, when I decided that today was The Day I would blog about this honest and helpful book, I managed to first write another post for later in the week.
I really don’t want this lead-in to dissuade anyone from reading the book. In fact, I would recommend the book to anyone with a transracial adoptive family. We can read all we can get our hands on about racial identity and transracial adoption from the “experts”, but what we learn from them just doesn’t compare to getting a first-hand account from someone who has lived it. And that’s what this is.
As I mentioned, Jaiya John (a name he chose as an adult; his given name was John Potter) was the first ever black child adopted by a white family in New Mexico. That alone says a lot about the atmosphere he grew up in. It was the 1960s. He grew up in a white family (although he did have a black adopted brother among other siblings) in a white town. He went to a white school. Everyone was white.
In addition to talking about being a black child in a white world, John is quite clear in emphasizing the fact that there was never any discussion about his race. None whatsoever. In an effort to make sure he fit in and didn’t feel any different from the rest of the family or community, his parents never discussed his adoption, and they never discussed the fact that he was black and they were white. This – the lack of conversation and acknowledgment – was the part of John’s story that really struck me. Race is a huge part of any person’s identity, and to simply ignore it is incredible.
The author notes that his feelings of insecurity based on race grew into significant concerns about not fitting in and not being accepted. He further acknowledges that he probably thought more about this than those in his family did – to the point where he wasn’t realizing how accepted he was, simply because nobody would talk about it.
As I read through the book, I dog-eared many pages where there were passages that really jumped out at me. Here is a brief sampling, to give you a taste of John’s thoughts and words:
- “I lived as a freakish alien, wondering what planet I had come from and whether I would ever truly be accepted… I was a minority of two in a family of seven, in a broader family of dozens. I was a token in a community of thousands, an object of scorn for too many in a nation of millions. That weight had my spine bent near to the ground, far too warped to be able to see much of anything clearly…” (p116)
- “My personal culture of pensive and reflective searching required a more substantive address by others. I needed honest and textured conversation about these issues. I wanted racial prejudice to be directly spoken to, for it to be worked out verbally and sincerely. Not just with my parents, but with my friends as well.” (p169)
- “Maybe what I really wanted, in those moments when I returned home from the day’s blue skies and rain, was to have honest and explicit conversation with my parents – where I could ask questions and they could explain humanity, as they understood it. Conversation about why people are prejudiced; why so many White people have the kinds of feelings and ideas about Black people that they do; why Black people are not what those prejudices claim; what was it about being Black that I should be feeling good about. I wanted us to walk verbally through that unfortunate valley, together, turning over the rocks that revealed ugliness, kicking clutter from my path.” (p205)
As a young adult, after a frank discussion with his parents, John realizes that they – in an effort to treat everyone in the family equally – essentially wiped out the fact that he and his brother were black and adopted to the point where they really were just like all of the other kids in the family. John found solace and understanding in this. As I read his story, I was happy to know that he reached some peace with the way his family handled the situation, even if it was clear that it wasn’t done in the way he needed.
There is much, much more I could say about this book and this one man’s story. This post is already at record length, though, and the key notion that I pulled from it is what I have noted: We simply must talk about something as important as race with our children. I think now, in 2010, we know so much more about how to handle issues surrounding adoption and race, and we are taught ways to incorporate discussions about adoption and race at an early age with our children. We can’t simply ignore it or wipe it away from our thoughts.
Craig and I plan to make race a part of the conversation before there is even a real conversation to be had. Our child will not remember the time when we told him or her that he or she was adopted, or started to discuss the differences in the color of our skin, because the conversations will start from day one. Obviously the conversations will be age-appropriate and will grow from being simple and generalized to more in-depth. We will take the lead on some issues and we will follow our child’s lead on others. Surely we don’t yet know exactly how we will do this. But we’re learning and we’re thinking about it, and we’re going to do it, one way or another.
One of the next books I plan to read is I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World. This will be a book in which an expert tells us what we should do and gives us examples and guidance in terms of addressing racial identity. I’m glad I will be reading that book with the perspective gained from Black Baby White Hands.