black baby white hands

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.

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17 Responses to black baby white hands

  1. Sounds like such a wonderful book Kelly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as well as excerpts from the book. I agree with everything said and hope you and Craig get to begin telling your child’s life story very, very soon.

  2. Meg B says:

    This was one of the first books I read after our decision to adopt and I too had mixed feelings. Something about the writing style didn’t work for me…too overdone maybe (?), I can’t quite put my finger on it. But I agree that it was worth reading as it demonstrated how very well-meaning parents can do real damage by not addressing race, racism and culture head on. My husband it about to start reading this one and it will be interesting to see what he thinks of it. I really liked “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla” and I look forward to hearing what you think about it!

  3. Megan says:

    I’ve had this book on my nightstand for months….well actually closer to over a year! I wasn’t sure why it always fell to the bottom….I just couldn’t seem to get into either. I’m glad you finished it….maybe I’ll have more motivation to pick it up. I loved I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla…I think you will find it is easier to read than this book. Thanks for the post and your thoughts!

  4. Emily says:

    Haven’t read this one yet.. but it has been on my list for some time.

  5. sue says:

    i’m so glad you shared about this book and your thoughts. i, too agree that adoption should be shared from day one and we should embrace the different races in our families. great post!

  6. Kelly, thank you *so* much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful post about such an important book. I know the feeling of trying to tackle something so deep, wanting to do it justice, and being overwhelmed by the task. I think you did wonderfully!
    It’s funny… we’ve never quite openly talked about race with our kids. Olive knows she’s Korean, but we have never said, “hey… we’re white and you’re Asian. We look different.” We have plenty of kids’ books that address the issue (god bless Todd Parr!) but the conversations haven’t been regular. We often tell her about her birth mom and foster mom, but rarely discuss the color of our skin, our hair, our features…
    Thanks for inspiring me to bring it up!

  7. Doug says:

    I definitely think you and Craig have the right philosophy on this. Like many things in life, open communication will make a world of difference.

    It scares me sometimes that even with sincere, open communcation about race, adoption, etc. I someday may not have the answers that Spencer needs.

    But I am also thankful in a way that as adoptive families we are forced to be proactive about what we discuss and how we communicate. In the end, it will bring us closer together with our children and ultimately build a level of trust that hopefully extends to any problem or challenge they may face in life.

  8. Zoe says:

    Congrats on finishing the book! And thanks for the thoughtful comments about it — I’ll have to put it on my list.

  9. kim young says:

    awesome. added both of those books to my list of toreads

  10. Jessica says:

    I’ve also been part way through this book for some time. The writing is difficult, but he has such an interesting perspective. I think you will like “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla”. It’s a very different type of book, but excellent.

  11. Kelly says:

    I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time reading this book! But I’m glad I pushed myself to finish it, because I did gain a lot from it.

  12. Beth says:

    This was really interesting– and it sounds like a challenging book. I was thinking of you the other day while reading a book to Ally called “The Lamberoo.” Have you heard of it? It is the sweetest, cutest children’s book that also addresses some of the points in your post. It would be a wonderful book to share with your little one!

  13. A.J. says:

    I had a hard time getting through this book, as well. But I think it was better that I read it slowly because it gave me time to reflect and accept it. It would have been easy to dismiss the author’s viewpoint with “Well, that won’t happen to us because now we know better.” It was hard to accept that even when transracially adoptive parents think they’re doing the best that they can possibly do, it can still hurt their children. And I think that’s still true, because children are unique and what may make one child feel loved and accepted, may make another child feel alienated. The hardest part will be trying to figure out what our child will need from us.

  14. inventingliz says:

    This has been on my list for a while too, thanks for the review!

    After you read I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla, you might want to do a search for reviews of it – it gets mixed reviews from the anti-racist parenting experts.

  15. Christine says:

    OK – I’ve started my response like 8 times now. What I’m trying to say is that this sounds like a really interesting read… and I might actually try to pick it up myself once life calms down a little.

    It actually reminds me of the speaker I saw last fall. While his situation was different, I was incredibly moved and stunned by some of the things he said. Statements, prior to him shedding his viewpoint on them, that were harmless enough in my eyes. UGH.

    This also relates very closely to a post I have drafted but not yet posted…

  16. Kelly Cole says:

    Kelly, I enjoyed this post very much. I agree with what you said that these days we are (hopefully) much better equipped as transracial adoptive parents to discuss race and adoption with our children (than, say, the last generation). I just hope that Jon and I have the right words at our finger tips when the time is right. I think just being honest, candid and open to our child’s questions will be key. I’m also glad we all have each other since we’ll likely all run into similar issues at some point, right?

  17. Janet says:

    When we originally thought we’d adopt from Ethiopia, our social worker suggested we read this book. It was on my list of things to read, but then when we switched programs I didn’t read it. I’m glad you got through it…it is tough to read things like this, but important for us all to be prepared. I’ve received a few questions/comments from strangers already and hope I am handling them well. I agree with Kelly: I think we are better prepared for the questions from our children or other people…but it still doesn’t make it easy.

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