Wade in

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took our children to the Winter Wonderland display at the Maine Mall. The online ad promised a festive array of merry-making activities, and we weren’t disappointed on that end. The massive train table, holiday movie lounge, wall drawing stations, and jumbo chess and checker boards were impressive, all wrapped up in a North Pole Workshop ambiance. It was lovely to exhale for a moment and let the little people explore an open and engaging public space meant for them—or so we thought at first.

Moments after we arrived and set our tiny adventurers free to roam, however, I overheard a comment that sucked every ounce of holiday cheer from the air and pierced my gut with a visceral reminder of the unceasing vulnerability wrapped up in being black. It was a joke, told by a middle-aged white man, to and about the only other Black person in the room. The two men were coworkers, dressed up like workshop helpers, laughing and chatting with professional familiarity and with the pleasantness created for the benefit of customers—white customers as a matter of default, I suppose.

The Black man was tall, his voice was deep and warm. He wore dreadlocks and a disarming smile as he ran the trains, offering peppermints and other treats to children passing by. I was glad to see him. I felt an immediate modicum of relief in not being the only one.

Then the white man called out to him, nonchalantly, “My mother always told me to stay away from big, Black men giving away candy!” To which the Black man only chuckled. I felt my hands go numb and my insides begin to shake. I wanted to respond, nonchalantly, “Then I guess your mom was a racist bitch!” But with the fire of rage steadily building in my chest, I knew I would never pull off nonchalant. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would not end up on YouTube, a screaming, angry Black woman coming unhinged before a crowd of confounded white shoppers, suddenly devastated and aghast at me for exposing their sheltered babies to the subject of racism and to the use of the b-word.

Yet, here my own babies played in a room full of grown people who collectively failed to blink the moment blackness was openly equated with danger and suspicion. Where everyone could let a racist comment slide because it was just a joke, and (under the surface) because the premise of the joke hit a raw nerve of hideous truth, as jokes often do—the truth that white society is terrified of blackness. Which would be funny, in a twisted, satirical, “laugh so you don’t cry” kind of way, if this terrified bigotry didn’t end Black lives on a regular basis. It might even bring a wry smile to my face if race and systematic racism were not violently denied as factors in the death of innocent Black humans daily. But they are. And the blackness that’s so frightening to a society built on the assumed superiority and innocence of whiteness, is the same blackness beautifully carried by my children’s own gentle, affectionate Haitian grandfather, with whom they had just reconnected over Thanksgiving. It is worn proudly by their intensely sensitive, creative, protective mother. And by extension, this blackness lies quietly in the intricate foundation of who my children are.

And before you step in to remind me that it is, in fact, wise to teach your children not to take candy from strange men, let me remind you that the premise of the joke wasn’t, “Strange men are scary / dangerous.” It was “strange, Black men are scary / dangerous.” And whether you are comfortable acknowledging it or not, the fact that this qualifier had to be included, makes the joke racist.

So, this is how I came to stand in the middle of the Winter Wonderland display at the mall, debating whether to become an instant YouTube sensation, and more problematically, whether to create a hostile work environment for the subject of this racist joke in the process, or to be compliant in the silent violence that leaves deadly bigotry unchecked, only occasionally acknowledged by this sort of satirical ribbing which functions as complicity.

This particular incident ended with my white husband stepping in. Having chased our darting threenager to another corner of the holiday playland, he had escaped the pleasure of the spontaneous comedy show starring Santa’s helper. But when the Mr. wandered closer again, he could tell from my facial expression and body language that something wasn’t right. When he found out what it was, he said, “I’m going to go talk to him.” Calmly, but unwaveringly, he explained how damaging it is for children to absorb these kind of messages about Black men. When the white man explained that he and his coworker “joked like that all the time,” my husband just responded that it didn’t matter, because jokes can be harmful. Several apologies were given, and we left to let our children ride the carousel.

But the larger story doesn’t end there. In fact, there is no end in sight. Because, as much as I wish implicit, deadly lies about blackness lived and died in a single corner of the Maine Mall, and that we could all shield our children from their damage by simply avoiding such a place, this is not the case. These lies continue to thrive in the word choices and tone of news anchors, in speeches given by our elected officials, and in jokes told around the table at holiday feasts. And while some parents are busy making sure their children’s tiny feet remain untouched by the dingy waves of the moral crisis still flooding our nation, the rest of us are fighting to stay afloat with our babies. It’s time for more allies to wade in.


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Adoptees adopting themselves

Family is a word on everyone’s tongue. It is no doubt that family can be a difficult thing across the board.  For some of us though, it tends to be more complicated. I am teaching myself how to cry. How to really let out the grief that has lived in my body since time before remembering. Last week, I found myself on a sidewalk crouched in the fetal position, weeping. It was in that moment which I realized with a profound certainty that there are people on this planet who belong to me.

I have found my birth mother and I am filled with fear and confusion with no clear end in sight. And I couldn’t be happier. Despite the questions. Despite the emotions which are clogged in my body. I had given my mother up for dead. Maybe it was the fatalist in me. Maybe it was the realist. Or maybe it was me trying to reconcile my place in the world, and understand that I may never know my origins. Not truly.

I’m clicking my heart back into place. I’ve found my birth mother. I’ve heard her voice. I know there is someone in this world who belongs to me. Who I belong to. I love her, and I barely know her; nevertheless, I’ve loved her all my life. She is a constant steady flame burning in the center of me, guiding my way and lighting my path in even the darkest of times. Before now, loving her was complex. Truth be told, it still is. The difference now is that I know she exists.

I’m on a quest to reclaim my narrative. Twice robbed of my history—first when my ancestors were enslaved and shipped here, and again when I was shipped up here and then cut off from my birth mother. As a child, I had no say. Despite wanting desperately to meet my mother. See her in more than just a photograph.

This is the hardest piece I’ve ever written, and I don’t even know what it’s about. I feel compelled to write it down. Perhaps it’s because I know that many of the people who will read these words will hold a small dark child in their arms. Maybe it’s because I want them to know what it is to be a transracial adoptee in a white state. To have to adapt perceptions and stop looking for oneself in the face of those who love them. To understand the deep need which sits at the base of their being. A deep throbbing wound waiting to be filled by someone who looks like them. Sounds like them. Feels like them.  Last week, I heard my birth mother’s voice and I finally, finally, finally, felt kinship.

My story is unfinished one, scattered and uncertain. Until now it has been filled with the struggle of a child brought into a family who did not truly understand the magnitude of what it means to adopt a Black child. A family who felt an occasional Black babysitter, Black baby doll, kwanza ball would make up for the deficit of being without one’s history.

I know that there are children in this state who feel alone right now. Who are wondering where they come from. Who are sitting around their kitchen tables staring at faces which are paler and stranger than their own. There are children who have a deep and unquenchable longing to connect with someone who shares their blood, shares their face. Beautiful dark children who long to understand where they come from and to hear their own voice reflected to them.

I am writing this because I need adoptive parents to do better. I need adoptive parents to understand the importance of origin. Don’t buy into a color-blind love. It doesn’t exist. Not really.  If you are a white parent who has taken a Black child into your home, I need you to talk to them. Often. I need you to press them when they tell you that nothing is wrong. I need you to listen to their silences. To try to understand their grief. I need you to understand that to be given up is to inflict a wound so deep that it penetrates everything. I need you to understand that an adoptive child constantly questions their intrinsic self-worth. I need adoptive parents to understand that terror of rejection lives at the heart of that wound. As a child, I remember being constantly fearful that I would be given away. Given back after being found wanting. Being found ungrateful.

What I mean to say is, you cannot take a small dark child into your home, remove them from their blood, then expect them to naturally thrive. Expect them to forget. This shit is deep. It may be instinct to boil this down to my own sad experience. To reduce my story to an isolated incident. An unfortunate case of an adoption turned foul.

The thing is, my journey began with the best, if not hazy of intentions. I have deep love for my family. And begrudging though it may be, after a childhood demanding my gratitude, I have come to make some concessions. I’m not grateful for my adoption; I’m not there yet and may never be, but I am grateful for my life path, because I am proud of where I landed. I am proud of where I have carried myself on spirit, at times kicking and screaming. In this, my 28th year, I have given birth to myself. I am grateful that I had the strength and the faith to reach across my fear and find the woman who created me.

My birth mother was my first heartbeat. My first breath. My first love and my first question. After years of coming up short, I am now on a path to discovering answers to my own whispered questions. Finally, I will have more than a box of birth records and cards and photographs get me through; to connect me to where I come from. I have adopted myself. Adoption is deep. Adoption is painful. And some adoptees never can give birth to themselves.

If I can have only one wish for adopted babies, specifically, transracial adoptees, then I will break it into two parts, and in no particular order:

I wish that transracial adoptees are placed with adoptive parents who strive every day to understand the complexities of adoption. I wish that they recognize and address the significance of loving a child who lives in a home which does not reflect them. In a country which does not value them, and in a world which does not love them. This is my wish, and I pray to whoever is listening, that it come true.


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Everything in this country is about race

“Everything in this country is about race.”

Even though it’s a cliché at this point, you’ve probably heard that and said to yourself, “Well, not everything.”

Now, look, I’m obviously not going to itemize every single thing that’s racist. But to give you the single best example I can, to give you just a peek at how deep it goes, I’m to talk about something so basic, so omnipresent and so eternal that you would think it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with race.

But first, let me start at the beginning:

How we experience time is relative, but generally, we all have a similar sense of how it passes. Things start of as simple and as time goes on, they become more complex. Seeds, babies, ideas, technology all grow in complexity with the passing of time.

As an individual, being attached to a sense of time allows for growth and advancement and it defines expectations and practicalities. We’re taught this from the moment we learn to stand, as is evidenced by the children’s names and dates marked up and down our door frames.

As it works for the individual, so does it work for the society. In this country, there is a national sense of time to which we also attach ideas of growth and advancement as well as definitions of expectations and practicalities.

OK. Now, I’m going to need any old bigots reading this to get their CPT jokes (CPT is “colored people time” for the uninitiated or those living under rocks) out of the way because I’m about to explain how…

In the United States of America, even time is racist.

That’s right, white people are allowed to experience time in ways that Black people are not.

See, generally, white people experience time much in the way I just described. Things start off simple and become more complex as time passes. Black people, on the other hand, experience time in a much more disjointed and convoluted way.

When it comes to social problems, Black people generally live in the future—until white people catch up. Then Black people stay in the past while white people move ahead.

The opioid crisis is a current example of this. It’s hitting white people hard right now, and the solution that’s been presented is to treat addiction medically. I think that is the proper solution, but that is not how it went with the crack epidemic.

The crack epidemic was killing black people 30+ years before the opioid crisis arrived, and the solution presented was to treat addiction with prison sentences.

Black people live in the future, experiencing a social problem before white people and being punished for experiencing that problem. Once white people experience that problem, however, they are not punished. Instead a solution is presented that allows them to move ahead. This leaves black people stuck in the past with their future taken, and white people moving forward with a future protected.

The examples are everywhere. Just last week, a video was released showing Mesa, Arizona, police officer Philip Brailsford killing Daniel Shaver, a 26-year-old, unarmed, white man. Already, I am hearing new, white voices speak up that had been previously silent while Black Americans have had to relive the same moment countless times. While this has not played out yet, these new, white voices are much more likely to spark some sort of police reform, as the Black voices from the past remain unheard.

Too abstract? Well, so is time, so let’s keep going.

For white people, an effect of how they experience time is a fondness for the past. I see it constantly and am always puzzled by it, especially when they play that time machine fantasy game. You know the one:

“If you could go back to any era, which one would you pick?”

Professionally, I perform music inspired by Black American folk traditions, so “Wouldn’t it be great to go back to a time when this music was just starting out?” is how I am usually asked.

“Motherfucker, are you out of your goddamn mind?” is how I usually respond.

Would it be great to visit a time in which all white people were allowed to kill all the Black people in a neighborhood and burn the whole thing to the ground just because they felt like it?

No, I do not think that would not be great.

From kids playing cowboys & Indians to adults watching period-piece movies, so much of contemporary white culture tries to exist in the past. But that past is a fantasy in which, like so many real places in the actual past, people of color are just not allowed.

(By the way, seeing American kids playing cowboys & Indians should be just as disturbing as seeing German kids playing Nazis & Jews. But that’s a whole other conversation. But for now, let’s just talk about that cowboy…)

From John Wayne to Johnny Cash, the image of the cowboy is immeasurably important to American culture. The cowboy is America. He hearkens back to a time in which white nobility blanketed the countryside with the pleasant, stoic beauty of a winter’s first dusting of snow.

But there was no such time.

In reality John Wayne was an admitted white supremacist, one in four cowboys were Black and so was Johnny Cash’s first wife.

Black people are essentially erased from history, but it’s so much more than not having your story told, which is bad enough. No, being erased from history means not being allowed into the identity of a nation that would never have, and could not continue, to exist without you.

As a group, an effect of not being tethered to an historic past is that Black people create the cultural future. For example, look at all forms of popular music throughout American history. Blues, jazz, rock, funk, soul, R&B, rap, and yes, even country were created by Black people. Eventually white people catch up to us, at which point we create the next. On and on. This is evidenced by the fact that all of those forms of music are now primarily white. Except rap, but even that is changing in this very moment.

As an individual, an effect of being misplaced in time is that Black expectations and practicalities can be incomprehensible to white people.

For instance, the last presidential election…

Most of the Black people I know thought it would turn out how it did. And most of the white people I know are still baffled. This is because a Black expectation is that racism will continue to run this country, so it would only be practical to think that the loudest racist would win.

Now, I know that some white people still don’t believe that racism was why he won, so let me say this, plainly:

For five years, an obviously stupid man who was a known racist and admitted sexual predator got on TV at every opportunity, pointed to the Black president and talked that same, old, this-nigger-ain’t-from-around-here bullshit. Then, without any policy or experience, the obviously stupid, racist sexual predator attained the presidency by winning the white vote in every single category—including white women.

But, in the end it was the racist institution of the electoral college that gave us our common bigot of a president.

And most of the white people I know continue to be shocked at just how destructive he is. But that’s only because they’ve been living in Black peoples’ past. Black people have known the destruction caused by racist institutions and common bigots for a very long time, and I hate to tell you this, but, while it will certainly get more complex, it is not going to get any better.

Welcome to the future.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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