I was fortunate enough to be asked to come on board as a “Storyteller” for Pillsbury House Theatre (www.pillsburyhousetheater.org) via a partnership with the LARK Consortium. Basically, over the course of 10 months, I have been chronicling issues surrounding Marcus Garley’s provocative new play “The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry,” which Pillsbury House will produce later this year.
This is a creative and exciting approach to audience and community engagement, as the Consortium is working with five theaters across the country, in order to bring this play, about a Black Seminole community struggling with their past and present, to a variety of audiences, and allow each center to present a unique interpretation of the work.
Learn more about the LARK Consortium, and this partnership by visiting: http://roadweeps.org/about/
You can also read up on the storytellers, at theaters and in communities around the country (including moi), on the site:
Check out Vol. I (Nov.-Dec. 2011) of THE ROAD WEEPS BULLETIN here. It gives an overview of Pillsbury House’s involvement in the LARK Initiative, and its upcoming production of “The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry.”
Vol. II (Jan.-Feb. 2012) can be accessed below. It is a short video of playwright Marcus Gardley describing some themes and ideas in the play.
Vol. III (Mar.-Apr. 2012) is an exploration
I am now in the process of assembling Vol. 4, which will explore the possible role that education can play in the Twin Cities, in terms of raising awareness of Native-Black encounters like “The Road Weeps…” explores. It should be posted on the Bulletin (roadweeps.org) by mid-May.
Stay tuned…And please visit past and recent bulletins to share your thoughts. I am really interested to hear what folks think about all of this.
Towards a Black Transracial Adoptee Consciousness: A Critical Examination of Representations of African American Adoptees in Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Ann Patchett’s Run, and Nicole Opper’s Off and Running
By Shannon Gibney
*An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 4th Annual Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture Conference, on Saturday, March 24, 2012, on the Scripps College Campus, Claremont, CA.
At the end of Lorrie Moore’s critically acclaimed 2009 novel A Gate At the Stairs, Tassie, the book’s college student narrator, reflects on whose story she has been telling. Is it Sarah’s, the upper middle-class white adoptive mother to be? Is it Bonnie, the birthmother’s story? Or rather, would it be Lynette’s, a former foster parent? Ultimately, Tassie decides that the book’s Master Narrative belongs to Mary-Emma, the two-year-old mixed black girl who was Tassie’s charge while she was in Sarah’s custody. She says,
…it wasn’t, strictly speaking, Sarah’s story. In the end I felt
it belonged as much or more to Mary-Emma, whom, I realized,
I had never stopped unconsciously to seek, riveted by little
girls who would be her age in stores and malls and parks. I would
do a double-take every time I saw some dark, lively girl of
three or four or five or six – the years plied on. I would get
close and look close, which is what I realized Sarah somewhere
must surely be doing. And Bonnie. If she was alive. And even
Lynette McKowen. Emmie! A little girl with four women
wandering after her, looking for her, sort of, without her
even knowing. That was love of the most useless kind, unless
you believed in love’s power to waft in from a burning sky to
the unseen grass it had designated as its beloved, unless you
believed in the prayers of faraway nuns, unless you believed
in miracles and magic, rapture and dice and Sufic chants and
charms behind curtains and skillful clouds at smoky, unfathomable
Although this passage claims on the one hand to give Mary-Emma, the book’s one black transracial adoptee, narrative ownership, it is only ownership in the sense that the “other mothers” in the book – the white adoptive mother, white birthmother, and white nanny – are each in some way searching for redemption through her. Mary-Emma is the object, rather than the subject of the story. She has no voice nor no agency, as the governing consciousness of the book, although sharply critical of whiteness itself, is still white, and at the same time, both riefes and troubles conventional notions of adoption and kinship. This trope of deploying black transracial adoptee characters to signal a path of redemption (whether or not they choose it) for white characters may be viewed as a subset of the overarching trend to use black characters in general as tools of white redemption in (white) American literature. Although A Gate At the Stairs simultaneously resists and reinforces this project, Ann Patchett’s bestselling 2007 novel Run unabashedly embraces it. The acclaimed 2010 documentary film Off And Running, however, successfully abandons this trope altogether, and presents instead a layered but pervasive black transracial adoptee governing consciousness.
Moore’s decision to write A Gate At the Stairs from the perspective of Tassie, the nanny, offers the reader with enough narrative distance from Sarah and Edward, Mary-Emma’s prospective white adoptive parents, to clearly glimpse their glaring racial contradictions and problematic understanding of the labor this child will do for them. As Edward says once Mary-Emma’s foster placement is cleared: ‘The future’s going to be a little different now. We have a horse in the race,” (118). What he means, of course, is that the couple will now be seen as somehow “legitimate” in the eyes of their friends, neighbors, and colleagues, coming one step closer to embodying the mythical American family: mom, dad, and child. Mary-Emma is seen as the site of social capital in this context, rather than a complex human being with her own wants, needs, desires, thoughts, and unfolding role to play within the family. After a group of white teenagers call Mary-Emma a “nigger” while hanging out the window of their speeding car, Sarah decides to create a Wednesday night “support group” of sorts at their home, in order to “plot collective action,” (155) as she calls it. Tassie does note, however, that most of these “families of color” as Sarah calls them, consist of white parents with transracially adopted children. And their “support group” discussions, produce wine and hors d’oeuvres, but no action:
‘Racial blindness is a white idea.’
‘How dare we think of ourselves as a social experiment?’
‘How dare we not?’
‘How dare we use our children to try to feel good about ourselves!’
‘How dare we not?’
‘I’m in despair.’
‘Despair is making a small world for a large one and a large one for a small,’ (156).
While showcasing Moore’s signature sardonic and absurdist humor, this passage also shows the contradictions and ongoing unresolved clash of idea inherent in upper middle-class white people adopting and attempting to raise children of color. While well-meaning, these parents are often better equipped to analyze and theorize racial oppression than they are to actually combat it, or to train their children to do so. In fact, they are performing resistance instead of resisting, and in this way, actually furthering the commodification of black and brown histories of resistance. There is an air of inevitability in their dialog, a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” ethos that conveniently lets them off the hook. And never, in one of the many pages of scenes of these discussions, do these parents entertain the notion that a viable place to start in terms of organizing against racial oppression might be to engage with communities of color. The novel’s governing consciousness clearly critiques this orientation of whiteness and white adoptive parents to reify their power and positionality vis-à-vis closed-loop social interactions like this.
A Gate At the Stairs is equally critical of the adoption industry, and its collusion in reinforcing class differences and commodifying the bodies of black and brown children. At the adoption agency, while they are picking up Mary-Emma, Edward tells Tassie,
‘One shouldn’t buy babies, of course. As a society we all agree.
And mothers shouldn’t sell them. But that is what we keep telling
ourselves as these middlemen get richer and richer and the birth
mother continues to empty bedpans while wearing her new
wristwatch….They’re only allowed to receive tokens, like a watch.
Nothing real, like a car. The nothing-but-a-watch law is considered
progressive, since babies must not be sold, or exchanged for cars.
And so they are exchanged for watches,” (114).
In adoption, Edward articulates clearly, there are winners and there are losers. Birthmothers tend to be the losers, since the middle class need to give the appearance of morality is of more value in the “exchange” than equity or fairness. And later, when Tassie is pulling Mary-Emma around a park on her bike, she begins to see how the relative economic privilege that Mary-Emma will gain through her adoption may very well further separate her from those who look like her, by creating a class wall:
I would pass the town’s few black and Latino kids fishing in the pond
for dinner, and I would think of the absurd disparities of everyone,
how Mary-Emma was now a little African American princess while
these poor kids at the pond were the casualties of a new pull-away-
and-don’t-look society, (185).
Furthermore, Tassie sees that, besides adoption’s individual effects on Mary-Emma, its larger unctionings only exacerbate existing structural oppressions overall.
But if A Gate At the Stairs is often a refreshing departure from the staid and true narratives of rescue and redemption into a colorblind utopia through transracial adoption, it simultaneously reinforces whiteness in sometimes disturbing ways. In most scenes, the characters’ races are only stated if they are non-white, a stylistic choice that reifies whiteness as “normal” and brownness as “abnormal,” or “exceptional.” In doing so, it also assumes that the reader is white, something that caused this reader of color to be jarringly pulled out of the narrative in these sections. Another instance of this narrative dissonance occurred in one of Moore’s first descriptions of Mary-Emma, which I found positively Orientalist. “She had silky dark hair, skin that was a mix of biscuit and taupe, and eyes that were black and bright: she looked like a savvy Indian rug merchant,” (103). Personally, I was flummoxed, as I have no idea what an Indian rug merchant in the body of a two-year-old girl might look like. And at times, this white consciousness is impenetrable in A Gate At the Stairs, as in this scene towards the middle of the book, when Sarah and Tassie travel to the courthouse with Mary-Emma, “…to pick up copies of the provisional adoption papers from the judge’s office…On our way in we passed a bench in the corridor on which sat a row of young boys awaiting hearings of various sorts. Some of the boys were as young as nine. They were all black. We carried Mary-Emma past them and they all looked at her and she at them, everyone entranced and baffled,” (144). The book’s governing consciousness is entirely unable to conceive of what these black boys could possibly be thinking, what messages, ideas, or questions might be passing between them and Mary-Emma. I posit that a black transracial adoptee governing consciousness would offer a much richer, fuller picture of this psychology, because it would be able to understand it, and therefore, represent it.
If A Gate At the Stairs seeks to unseat whiteness’ power by exposing its contradictions, Run works hard to uphold this power by masking them. Indeed, it is hard to read Patchett’s novel about a black birth mother who sacrifices herself so that her adult son can live and his white adoptive father can be “saved” by adopting her daughter, as anything other than a fantasy of white redemption through transracial adoption. The arc of the story serves to undergird this trope, situating black bodies as lacking meaning in and of themselves. It is only through interacting with white ones that they gain meaning (that is, to move the story forward) – but still, never for their own sake. Tip and Teddy, the two adult black male transracial adoptees in the book, exemplify this approach, as do Tennessee, their birth mother, and Kenya, Tennessee’s daughter. Tip and Teddy were adopted by Bernadette (who is deceased) and Doyle, a former mayor of Boston, now obsessed with ensuring that Tip and/or Teddy follow in his footsteps and go into politics. Sullivan, Bernadette and Doyle’s biological son, is a disappointment, having killed his girlfriend some years back in an unfortunate car crash that also effectively ended Doyle’s political career. One night, while walking to a Jesse Jackson speech that Doyle has pushed his sons to attend, a car almost hits Tip, but then Tennessee jumps in front of it and gets hit instead. This lands Tennessee in the hospital, and her daughter, Kenya, in the unexpected care of the Doyle family. At which point, the two transracially adopted brothers discover that Tennessee and Kenya have been literally and figuratively following them for years, keeping up with their physical, emotional, and psychological development, but of course, wanting nothing from them in the form of a relationship. The inevitability of Tennesse’s death, ostensibly due to negligence at the hospital, but at a symbolic level due to her black womanness, reveals the extent to which Patchett relies on the larger societal story of black sacrifice for white redemption in order create Run’s deepest meaning and resonance. It facilitates Kenya’s all-too-easy incorporation into the family of the White Father, who now, through mending the error of his original sin of pushing his black sons too far in his image, achieves redemption through the black mother’s gift of her daughter. All the loose ends are tied up, and meaning, as well as the dominant social order, are maintained through the lyricism of the prose. “Tip kept his head in his books, in the clouds, with the fishes,” (116-117).
The mythical mother is alive and well in Run, and she is white and the adoptive mother. Bernadette is the only mother that Tip and Teddy ever miss or think about, as Tennessee, as well as it seems, their black subjectivity, was erased at the moment of incorporation into the white family. Towards the beginning of the book, Doyle ponders,
And why was it the boys had never asked about her [their birth
mother] either, had never said, as children in similar circumstances
surely must, what about our real mother? Maybe because it was
natural to wonder about the one who was missing, the one who
left you, and for their family that would always be Bernadette. It
was enough to hold one absent mother in your mind, to love
completely and completely believe in the love of this woman you
never see. No one could be expected to hold up two empty places.
The weight of it would surely crush the life out of a child, (79).
After Tennessee is hospitalized, Teddy and Tip engage in a discussion about why they have apparently never really thought or yearned for their black mother, the figurative representation of a lost black family, and by extension, community. “The mother, whomever’s mother she might be: absolutely no concern of mine,” (94), Tip tells his brother, coldly. This is white female subjectivity at its most over-determined: Foreclosing even the mere possibility of some small expression of a black male transracial adoptee consciousness. What adopted person has never wondered about their origins, home community, and first family, I wondered, as I read this? And then, the clear answer: An adopted person created in the image of a white, non-adopted consciousness. The relative beauty of the prose serves to obscure the problematic nature of its content – that it reveals no insight into or truths about the experience of actually living as a black male adopted person in a white family and white-identified culture. This is further underscored by the fact that Tip and Teddy do not move through the world as any black male subjects the ordinary black reader would recognize. When walking through the city at night, Tip’s thoughts are completely consumed by his research on fish. At no time does he wonder if this is a safe time and place to be out, given the fact that there must be some kind of police presence in the neighborhood, which like all “good” police, have been trained to control and fear the black male body in public spaces. At no time do either he nor Teddy wonder about their role in the black community, how they are inevitably “read” as black by their peers, but find themselves embarrassingly revealed to be “inauthentic” and somehow lacking – a signature of the lived black transracial adoptee experience. All of these factors conspire to create an illusion that functions to obscure Run’s true project, which in fact, probably eluded even its author: to unproblematically uphold the process of racialization in America as “true,” “right,” “inevitable,” “beautiful,” and serving the interests of upholding the “rightness” of the white middle-class family.
Off and Running, Nicole Opper’s critically-acclaimed documentary about a transracially adopted black teenager adopted by white Jewish lesbians in Brooklyn, while problematic at times in terms of the mediation between filmmaker and filmic subjects, is a breath of fresh air in this context. Avery, the film’s protagonist, is in the fight of/for her life, struggling to define her personhood and positionality in a family structure and society that consistently strives to erase and simply it. At one point, writing to her birth mother, Avery narrates,
I have had this bottled up in me for so long, and the questions
just started pouring out of me. I wanted to write to you, but I
didn’t have the guts. I just want to know who I am and where
I come from.
Although she is a well-regarded runner, and has done quite well in school and socially as a child, Avery, now in adolescence, has hit a social and cultural wall, and is clearly at a turning point as the film progresses. Her white adoptive parents, while trying to “help,” clearly cannot step outside of their own subjectivity and whiteness, to offer Avery solace or direction in her quest. In one scene, Avery’s mother says, “I wish that you were a little girl again, so that I could help you.” Avery says, “I don’t know who I am.” Avery’s mother says, “I’ll tell you who you are. You’re his sister, and his sister,” pointing to her two transracially adopted brothers, both of whom are touchstones of safety and acceptance for Avery. Still, as the film progresses, it is clear that this will not be enough to help Avery successfully navigate her journey into adulthood and self-definition without perhaps significant personal and collateral damage. In addition, the film’s presentation of Rafi, Avery’s older, mixed black brother who is leaving for Harvard when the film opens, and Zay-Zay, her Asian American younger brother as “The Good Adoptees,” matches Avery’s adoptive mothers’ positioning of them the same way (and by extension, Avery’s position as “The Bad Adoptee”), serves to further dominant social narratives of black women. These troubling stereotypes include the notion that black women are unnecessarily “difficult,” do not do well in school, are lascivious, and unreasonable. The only real counternarrative to these ideas in the film is Avery’s own voice, which sometimes gets drowned out by the larger familial and societal “frame” (and I mean this both literally, in terms of the filmic frame, and figuratively) in which it is presented.
Still, I would argue that Off and Running is, overall, one of only a handful of contemporary alternative representations of the black transracial adoptee subject. The movie is exception because it explores of the complexities and contradictions embedded in the black female transracial adoptee experience by embracing one young woman’s voice and real experience. The fact that Opper asked Avery to write her frequent voiceovers throughout the film is significant, in this regard. Narrators really do wield a lot of power, in terms of their ability to shape the storyline, characterization, atmosphere, and point of view, as well as how the viewer/reader interprets all of this, and for all intents and purposes, Avery is Off and Running’s narrator. Perhaps part of the reason the filmic frame, on the whole, feels big enough to accommodate the depth, breadth, and challenge inherent in mediating Avery’s experience and identity as a black transracial adoptee is that Opper did not ostensibly set out to make a movie about transracial adoption, as such. She was actually making a film about The Hannah Senesh Community Day School, the Jewish Secondary School Avery was attending, and in this capacity, had known Avery for quite some time when the events of the beginning of the movie began, and Avery started having problems in her family, socially, and at the school. After securing Avery and her family’s interest in the project, she then decided to make another film, this one about Avery’s story, given its poignancy and power. In this case, Opper’s relative lack of knowledge about the topic might actually have been an advantage, coupled as it was with her facility for drawing compelling autobiographies out of her filmic subjects. I would argue that she was probably not hindered by her preconceived notions of about the subject, which might have foreclosed the possibilities of experience that this intersectional subjectivity would demand. This may have allowed her to mediate the telling of Avery’s story with more openness than would have otherwise been possible.
Like A Gate at the Stairs, Off and Running critiques whiteness and traditional notions of adoption and kinship, but unlike the novel, actually goes beyond them, to provide an altogether richer framework for exploration and analysis. Avery’s response to her isolated racial existence is to seek out a black peer group, something we never see any of the characters do in Run or A Gate at the Stairs when faced with how best to respond to racism. Through her narration of her own experience, we also see that even as young as she is, she has a very clear analysis of the multiple racial, class, gender, religious, and sexual forces pulling at her, even as her negotiations with them are more or less successful. Avery is essentially an empowered subject, propelled forward, as is the narrative, by her own voice, her own gait, even if she is not in control of where she is going. For all of these reasons, we need more stories like Off and Running, steeped in a pervasive black transracial adoptee consciousness, in order to begin to more fully comprehend this complex and ever-moving identity.
Essay on Octavia Butler’s simultaneous adherence to and rejection of various literary communities and traditions in THE BLACK IMAGINATION.
First piece on Pillsbury House Theatre‘s upcoming production of “The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry,” and community engagement. In my new role as a “Storyteller,” I will produce five written or video pieces over the course of 10 months.
Catch me and some esteemed colleagues talking about approaches to teaching creative writing in higher ed classrooms at the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago, Saturday, March 3, 12-1:15 pm. Here’s the deets:
S170. Colorblind or Color Coded?: Cross-Institutional Comparisons of Race and Creative Writing Pedagogy
(Jennifer Dobbs, Lisa Lewis, Tim Hernandez, Charles Fort, Shannon Gibney)
Wabash Room, Palmer House Hilton, 3rd Floor
Do we teach in a post-racial world where creative writing pedagogy can take a colorblind approach? Writers from a range of pedagogical contexts address the question of student expectations and reading practices of literature by writers of color, along with strategies toward working through racialized assumptions, such as: writers of color are political and white writers focus on artistic quality; race exists only as political correctness; a writer’s ethnicity defines that writer’s audience.
Cross your fingers…By Fall 2012, the first cohort of students should be able to receive an AA with Emphasis in African Diaspora Studies at Minneapolis Community & Technical College — one of the only (maybe the first??) such programs in the country. More on this to come.
Or the Perils of Hyper-visibility and Black Parenting
My family and I just got back from the vigil and community celebration against violence at Powderhorn Park, maybe four blocks from our small, stucco house in South Minneapolis. There has been an unfortunate increase in violent incidents against women and children in our area recently, so people decided to organize a musical, puppet-rich, flame-throwing, hot apple cider-drinking, firepit burning get-together to validate everything we love about our hood, which is chuck full of progressive art farmer types, and the like. It’s the end of the semester, and I am even more exhausted than my students (if that’s even possible), and it is cold to the bone out there, but I thought it would be important for us all to go — for Ballah to get to know the hood even better, for Boisey to revel in his winter-babydom, and for all of us to show solidarity through the recent spate of difficulties here. Instead, I ended up wishing we had stayed at home.
We were standing around a fire pit, warming ourselves, when a large dancing bear, of Amie Cesaire proportions, approached us. Ballah and I immiediately thought that this would be a wonderful opportunity to take a photo with said bear and said baby, so we brought the boy, who was wrapped in two layers of clothing, a thick down coat his grandmother had given him, a thick blanket over his legs, and a hat that his Auntie JR had sewed him that he kept on throwing off, to the bear. Well, Boisey is a squirmy fellow, and he wasn’t really feeling all of this being managed and moved around, so the thick coat was floating up his stomach, and the blanket fell to the ground. After we had finally snapped the photo, this older white lady tells Ballah, “Why are your baby’s stomach and legs uncovered?” Ballah was leaning in, trying to hear her, as the horns were playing loudly around us, and he is still picking up peoples’ accents here. But I heard this woman loud and clear. The lady repeated herself again, and said, “This seems like negligent parenting to me.” Ballah hadn’t heard her, but I did, and struggled to contain my anger, and with the best way to respond. “Why would you say that?” I asked her. “Well, his stomach and legs are exposed,” she said. “That’s not what I mean,” I said. “Why would you say something about negligent parenting? Why wouldn’t you just say, ‘I’m not sure if you noticed, but your child’s stomach and legs aren’t covered.’” She shrugged for a moment, and then responded, “I guess because I’m judgemental.” “You might want to do something about that,” I told her, and then we walked away.
Don’t get me wrong, I still would definitely be pissed if this were an isolated incident. And I am well aware that my friends of all ethnic and racial persuasions sometimes get hounded and judged by the general public, and ornery white people in particular, but there is a kind of accumulated experience along these lines for my family these past few weeks that feels disturbingly like targeting. This, coupled with the hard data I am aware of, documenting the hyper-visibility, vigialnce, and surveilance of parents of color — particularly Black and Native families in this state — which partially leads to our increased incidence of out-of-home placement, termination of parental rights, and general exposure to the child welfare system, makes me particularly sensitive to these kinds of occurances.
I was similarly less than pleased when I got home from work yesterday, and asked Ballah how he and Boisey’s first ECFE (Early Childhood Family Education) class was. Ballah replied that while the class itself was good, he had not exactly had a warm reception. He had walked with Boisey to Wilder Family Center, maybe a 10-minute walk, mostly through Powderhorn Park. By the time they arrived, it was snowing, so Ballah had Boisey (who was a huge ball of blue snowsuit from Auntie Kath) tucked safely inside his coat. He saw several (white) women eyeing him suspiciously as he walked up. After a few minutes, one finally approached him and asked him what he was doing there. “I’m here for the program,” he said, even though the women were still suspicious. “You can find my name and my son’s on your roster.” At which point one of the women looked on her sheet and indeed found their names. “Oh thank goodness,” said one woman. “We were going to call the cops on you, because we thought you were stealing a baby.”
Yes. For real.
Ballah has been busy making the monumental and ongoing adjustment of acculturating from a poor, monoracial Black society in the Global South, to a rich, multiiracial, white-identified society in the Global North for a little over two months now, and I had been warning him that this day — or one much like it — would come, so I think he was somewhat prepared…But then again, you can never really be prepared for people not believing that you could be as valid of a parent as they are, simply because you are a young, Black male. “What I don’t understand is why you would assume something like that. Someone stealing a baby? Wouldn’t you just ask, before making up a story like that?” Sadly, no.
So, while I still love my neighborhood for all its arty, community garden, Fair Trade goodness, I am disappointed — and yes, angry — by all the recent violence, both physical and psychological, that continues to be inflicted on families every day.
Another World Is Possible for Poor and Neglected Children, and Communities of Color: A Dispatch from the Second U.S. Social Forum
Are adoption and foster care social justice issues? During the first U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in 2007, the consensus seemed to be a resounding “no.”
I remember being in an elevator in my hotel in Atlanta with a number of fellow activists, discussing our workshops. The folks beside me talked about labor, gender equity, grassroots organizing, and solidarity economy sessions they were leading. When I mentioned mine on transracial adoption, I might as well have been speaking Greek. “What?” someone asked, while others looked on in confusion. “Transracial what?”
Luckily, the second USSF, held June 22-26 in Detroit, proved that adoption/child welfare activists and allies have been doing our work, and doing it well, because these issues have now made it on the radar screens of many participants I spoke to. And no one looked at me like I was attending the wrong conference when I told them about the workshop I was leading.
Our session was titled “Where Have All Our Children Gone? Linking Child Removal From Communities of Color to Larger Social Justice Issues,” and was facilitated by fellow members of Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD) Connie Galambos Malloy and Ian Hagemann, and Sahngnoksoo (SNS) member Sunny Kim.
It was attended by more than 30 people, who represented a wide range of backgrounds, ethnically, racially, culturally, regionally, and terms of class and age. There were a few members of the adoption triad present (adoptees, adopters, and biological parents), but the vast majority of folks attending work everyday on the frontlines of child removal, from a young woman who is starting up a reproductive justice center for Black women in Philadelphia, to an anti-racist workshop facilitator at the Peoples’ Institute of New Orleans, and a Native American activist who spoke about the catastrophic effect child removal has had on her community.
This was quite a different demographic than that of 2007, when the majority of participants were either white lesbians considering adoption to grow their families, white adoptive parents, or transracial adoptees (TRAs). Everyone was welcome, of course, but I really, really appreciated the input and expertise the adoptees present brought to the conversation – and in fact, took control of the workshop itself, steering it clear of the usual personal narratives into much more political territory.
But I think I am getting ahead of myself here.
For one thing, you are probably wondering what the USSF is, exactly – unless you attended, had friends or colleagues who attended, or are otherwise involved in the activities of the American Left. As I said above, the first USSF was held in 2007, in Atlanta, and represented a major breakthrough in grassroots organizing in the U.S.
It was the first time such a large gathering of organizers and activists from the American Progressive Left came together under the guise of building a sustained movement for social change – and led by those most oppressed by neo-liberal economic policies (mainly lower-income, people of color). Over 12,000 people attended, which was amazing in itself, since many people thought that you could never get a Left as splintered as ours together to discuss the great justice issues of our time, coherently, and set an agenda of action, to boot.
It was this initial event, strategically held in the American South, the cradle of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, that laid the groundwork for the second forum in Detroit. But the real roots of the USSF stretch way beyond our borders, to the Global South. Indeed, the mechanism that initiated the USSF was the World Social Forum (WSF) .
The first WSF, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, was primarily organized by laborers there, in response to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “which, since 1971, has fulfilled a strategic role in formulating the thought of those who promote and defend neoliberal policies throughout the world,” (World Social Forum India). Since that time, multiple WSF’s have taken place around the world, as have regional gatherings in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. For a list of Social Forums happening around the world this year, click here .
The World Social Forum website explains the Forum philosophy and methodology: “The World Social Forum is an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society organizations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, to formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action. Since the first world encounter in 2001, it has taken the form of a permanent world process seeking and building alternatives to neo-liberal policies. This definition is in its Charter of Principles, the WSF’s guiding document. The World Social Forum is also characterized by plurality and diversity, is non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party. It proposes to facilitate decentralized coordination and networking among organizations engaged in concrete action towards building another world, at any level from the local to the international, but it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society. The World Social Forum is not a group nor an organization.”
The WSF’s slogan “Another World Is Possible,” asks participants to not just formulate responses to the newest global assaults on humanity, but to actually come up with viable and sustainable alternatives to the way the world is currently organized. With this in mind, those working on a variety of issues that often do not intersect are encouraged to do so.
There came a point in all this cross-sectional work that a critical mass of people from the Global South looked to we in the Global North who say we are committed to equity to organize our own Social Forum in the U.S., since so many of the most difficult issues the Global South is grappling with are actually the result of the behavior and policies of our government and corporations. This challenge was the first step towards the 2007 USSF, which organizers defined as “a movement building process. It is not a conference but it is a space to come up with the peoples’ solutions to the economic and ecological crisis,” (USSF website).
Selecting Detroit as the site of the 2010 USSF fit nicely into this vision. The city is a stark example of the shape of things to come if free-market capitalism is allowed to take precedence over community needs and relationships, and also exemplifies the kind of do-it-yourself, don’t-wait-for-someone-else-to-save-you ingenuity that is at the heart of the Forum philosophy. Detroit’s consistently high unemployment, White Flight, decaying infrastructure and urban core, and failing schools are all the result of neoliberalism gone wild in some way, while its flourishing urban garden movement, and dedicated organizing communities inspire those facing similar problems around the country.
As someone who grew up in Ann Arbor, a smallish university-town about 45 minutes west of Detroit, the USSF was an amazing opportunity for me to really experience Detroit for the first time. Sure, our family frequented the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend every year when I was growing up, but Hart Plaza was just about as far in as I got. My perceptions of Detroit were largely formed by the media, and the middle-class friends and classmates I was surrounded with: Abandoned houses, corrupt politicians, rampant crime, and poverty. Detroit was seen as A VERY DANGEROUS PLACE in this context, some place to be avoided, and certainly not visited alone, or God-forbid, alone with a baby, as I did last week. And, to be fair, all of this is true in some way. Detroit has major problems that no one can reasonably deny. The issue is that this is only one reality, amongst many others.
Travelling from Cobo Hall to Wayne State University, back to Wayne County Community College (WCCC) on foot or on the bus during the conference, I was amazed by the hustle and bustle of folks all around me – despite boarded up buildings and houses. Trying to get my son and assorted baby paraphanalia on and off the bus was already a complete nightmare, and would have been logistically impossible, were it not for the assistance of fellow passengers, and the drivers themselves. But people were more than eager to help, and clearly adored my son (you don’t see too many infants being carted all over downtown Detroit). All of the faculty and students I encountered at Wayne State and WCCC were clearly in engaged in the business of getting educated, running their farmer’s market, and helping us directionally-challenged attendees find our way around.
Walking down Woodward Avenue during the Opening March, cars were honking at our signs for environmental justice, job equity, and hundreds of other causes, while people we passed on the street looked entertained, and asked us what was going on, and why.
That’s what wins you over about Detroit: No one puts on airs there, in the way that bristles me when I visit cities like New York, DC, Seattle, or Atlanta. Nor did I experience the coldness or overly-friendly-in-order-to-mask-the-fact-that-you-Black-people-scare-me behavior I have become accustomed to, living in the Twin Cities. Everyone is just out there in Detroit, on the street, doing their thing. There doesn’t seem to be room for a whole lot of pretense, because everyone is really just trying to live.
Was the city gritty? Yes. But that grittiness conveyed a deep sense of history and ongoing struggle that I could appreciate. So, that’s all just to say that the chance to get to know Detroit a little, and on a deeper level, the USSF’s approach to place, were huge highlights of the week for me.
It will probably come as no surprise that our workshop on linking child removal in communities of color to larger social justice issues was another highlight of the Forum for me. Collaboration is never easy, but it its rewards pay dividends. Working with Connie, Ian, and Sunny to facilitate a coherent workshop that would be useful to participants in their work and lives was daunting, but I think ultimately successful. We didn’t agree on everything, but came to a consensus on what we most wanted attendees to take away from the session: That adoption and foster care are major social justice issues. All of us have grappled in some way with the all too common idea that the American family is sacrosanct and beyond reproach – as are the institutions that create, define, and destroy them – so we were therefore committed to making sure we politicized them. We knew that we only had two hours, so there wouldn’t be time for much else. In this sense, depth was much more important to us than breadth.
We began by having participants respond to various images of child removal we had hung up around the room. This was a simple Popular Education activity, in which people wrote down whatever came to mind when they viewed each image, not worrying over any response was “right” or “wrong.”
The image below generated the following responses:
“It seems easier to love as children.” “Everyone is happy.” “Her eyes are so trusting.” “And will the brightness of her eyes fade when/if she takes time to think about the implications of ‘missionary’ work on adoption when she’s older?”
For this image, participants wrote:
“Happiness on a child’s face.” “Who is not in the picture?” “Where are their families?” “Do they know any adults who look like them?” and “Children create community in absence of families?”
This image from the Vietnam Babylift, generated these comments:
“War babies.” “Colonialism/imperialism.” “Forced removal.” “Terrorized children.” “Children lost their homes because of the war.” “PSTD normal.” “Whose tank? Whose bombs? Who’s funding? Then who is adopting?” “Old eyes, old story.” “How will the definition of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ change for them?”
Finally, a photo of a suburban-looking white woman, flanked by two young Black boys generated a flurry of discussion:
“White folks – no matter how well-meaning – are unable to provide children of color with what they need to survive in a white supremacist society.” “I agree.” “Where is the black male who created these young boys?” “I wonder what ‘lens’ these children see through?” “Role of white American women in child removal. Lady smile while kids don’t.” “Children finally have a home to go home to.” “Oh God…Reminds me of a friend’s aunt who is making a habit of adopting Ethiopian children. She is white. And liberal. So she doesn’t get her own racism.” “What makes a family. Sticky situation. Children seem to be in a loving home, but at the cost of losing identity.” “Makes me think of Angelina Jolie – WTF?” “Missionaries ‘saving’ poc.” “Note their hands are all in the same position. Whose idea was that, and is that supposed to mean unity?”
As you can see from all of these comments, participants clearly had some familiarity with issues surrounding child welfare and communities of color – and plenty also had an emotional connection to it, as well. This made our time together all the more meaningful, as folks were eager to engage with the problem on a deep level. The photos made it easy for everyone to do so, as we used a few pictures and written responses to initiate discussions on the role that U.S. war and militarism play in opening up “new markets” for international adoption, the ongoing effects of Indian boarding schools on Native communities today, the Evangelical impetus towards adoption, and the underlying narratives that lie at the root of all discourse surrounding child removal.
“I feel like the idea underlying all of this is that poor, women of color are terrible mothers, and should not be allowed to parent,” said one woman. “That’s why all this apparatus is designed to make real. So that, if an environmental crisis like the one in Haiti comes along, or if there’s a war or something, this whole system can just swoop in, and take advantage.”
The rest of the session was taken up by going through, and responding to, a Timeline of Child Removal From Communities of Color, headed up by Ian. I am not going to include sections of the timeline here, as it is still very much a work-in-progress. The timeline is a project that many scholars and adoptees of color have taken on recently, including Jae Ran Kim , Lisa Marie Rollins, and members of the Adoptees of Color Roundtable . AFAAD has an ongoing interest in creating a collaborative document – something that folks can contribute to online, through Open Source file sharing, not unlike Wikipedia. The issue is, as always, finding funding to do so.
Please contact us if you have any leads on financial or human resources we could use to make this a reality, as seeing the sheer visual reality of child removal from communities of color forces us to grapple with how successful these policies have been, and then, hopefully, strategize on realistic interventions we can make in order to make families and communities less vulnerable.
Sunny gave an excellent summary of Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” in order to ground and contextualize the discussion during this activity, which was eminently helpful. I, myself, have been mired in the “oppression olympics” paradigm when attempting to organize or even discuss shared oppressions with other adoptees and people of color, so it is very helpful to have a framework to use that acknowledges the destructive and overwhelming power of white supremacy, while simultaneously acknowledging the very distinct ways that Native, Black, Latino, and Asian bodies are racialized in this country, based on our separate histories.
Although I attended, and tried to attend a few workshops and Peoples’ Movement Assemblies (PMAs…and I say try, because carting my son around the festivities was more or less successful, depending on his mood. But he was a trooper!), the one which affected me the most was called “Poverty Is Not Neglect and We Are Not Powerless: Mothers Reclaim Our Children Back From the Child Welfare Industry.” This workshop was organized by Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network, which self-describes as, “self-help, multi-racial action and support groups of mothers, other family members, former social workers, foster parents and supporters in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, working together against the unjust removal of children from their families by the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Children are often snatched, not because of abuse or neglect, but because of poverty, sexism and racism. We fight individual cases, build public awareness, educate the media, work to change unjust policies and practices, and challenge discrimination against mothers throughout the system. We are part of a national movement,” (DHS/DCFS GIVE US BACK OUR CHILDREN flyer).
Although Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network put on the session, they invited other women and organizations who are fighting similar battles for their families to the table as well, including The LaStraw, Inc., Family Connection Center, Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor, and ODVAct. This openness was exemplified by the fact that several women from Every Mother Is a Working Mother came to our workshop on child removal, and contributed their thoughts and experiences to the discussion. I can say that I personally also really appreciated the fact that one of their members also watched my son during their session, so that I could participate and get educated.
One of the woman who came to our workshop also asked me to go to the microphone and speak about my experience and activist work as a TRA, at the end. I told her that this was their space, and I wanted to respect that, since I knew that they didn’t have many places to do so and build together, but she said that she thought it was very important for us to know about each other, and share. She was right, of course. Many of the women in the room approached me afterwards, and wanted to get AFAAD’s information, since they didn’t know we existed, and want to keep in touch with folks who are working on the other side of the issue. I have included their contact information below, because this is such a big and important issue, so please contact them yourself, to organize!
Beginning with a short film these women had produced, DHS – Give Us Back Our Children! (and I encourage everyone reading this to contact Every Mother Is a Working Mother, and get yourself a copy and share with friends and colleagues, as it is just $7), the session was hard-hitting, filled with energy, and inspiring.
Women told short but personal stories about how they had regrettably found themselves at the mercy of DHS and its paternalistic case workers, trying over and over again to comply with their unrealistic demands, only to have their children taken away and placed into foster homes, where they were often abused. One woman told the story of her physically abusive husband who almost killed her, and the subsequent DHS interventions, which were too little, too late. After more abuse, and years of threats, her husband finally kidnapped her child, who she has not seen for years. Another woman discussed the repeated harassment she received from DHS, when she called them and asked if they had any programs to help with food and utilities, as she had barely $150 left from her welfare subsidy after paying rent each month. In fact, a key issue that many of these groups are working on is reforming the new welfare rules, which have made it even more difficult for poor mothers to raise their own children.
A commonly heard refrain was, “I asked them [DHS] why they just couldn’t give me the money to pay for my rent and food, so that I could take care of my own child, instead of paying someone else in the foster care of child welfare system to do it?” This idea is further explored in a hard-hitting series the Philadelphia Daily News published earlier this year, featuring some of Every Mother’s members:
Attending the USSF is a priority for me every three years, as I find that the older I get and the longer I fight various social justice battles, the more important it becomes for me to be inspired. Otherwise, I start to feel completely overwhelmed and cynical. My perspective on the history and reality of social movements – that they are usually a series of crushing defeats, followed by very small gains – starts to become completely unmanageable. Somehow, remembering that it is these gains, no matter their smallness, that alone have the capacity to redeem any semblance of our humanity, becomes next to impossible when I am mired in daily struggle. But being around thousands of activists, organizers, and everyday people, who like myself are just trying to live a self-reflective life that harms as few as possible, reminds me that I am not alone. I begin to believe again that perhaps I really can keep along this path, despite the difficulties and heartaches.
I keep coming back to the response of my good friend and mentor Rose Brewer, when I asked how she keeps on going as such a committed and engaged activist, all these years, and in the face of monumental challenges. We were in the midst of the Opening March, slogans and bodies weaving in and out of the small space between and around us. “What other choice is there?” she replied evenly.
I nodded. Exactly. How could I have forgotten?
Family Connection Center can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor is at (216) 321-1677, or email@example.com.
ODVAct is at (216) 751-7150, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, it’s been an absolutely insane, wonderful, terrifying, beautiful, what-the-hell-have-I-gotten-myself-into few months!
The short version is I gave birth to my son Boisey on February 5, am still “negotiating” with my venerable government to get my husband over here all ready (he’s Liberian), and instead of losing my mind completely, opted to come home to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and crash with my parents and brother for awhile for some much-needed childcare help. Everything else has pretty much been on hold.
The really short version is:
Are you planning to attend the upcoming U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit?
Are you interested in looking at the intersection of transracial adoption (TRA), child removal from communities of color, and larger social justice movements?
Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD) and Sahngnoksoo (SNS) are co-sponsoring a workshop on these topics, and would like to invite you to attend. Shannon Gibney is the lead organizer for this event. Please contact her if you are an adoptee and would like to contribute, or if you want for more information on how to attend.
WHAT: Where have all our children gone?: Linking child removal from communities of color to larger social justice movements workshop (find complete details below).
WHERE: The U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit. Westin Book Cadillac Hotel: WB3
WHEN: Thursday, June 24, 10 am — 12 pm
For complete information on this event, click here.
Hope to see you then and there!
The displacement of people refers to the forced movement of people from their homes and homelands. War, poverty and natural disasters are just some of the factors used to justify the ‘adoption solution’ that contributes to a specific process of displacement–the global movement of pre-dominantly non-white children of the global South, to the global North. Transnational adoption is a global phenomenon involving over 38,000 adoptions annuallly and billions of dollars every year. Yet, whether domestic or transnational, adoption furthers the permanent removal of thousands of children each year–the overwhelming majoirity, children of color.
Beginning in 1879 and continuing well into the 1950s, the U.S. government removed more than 100,000 Native American children from their homes and communities and sent them to over 300 boarding schools across the country, in an effort to “civilize” and “tame” them.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2002), as of September 2001, over 556,000 children are in foster care, and over 40% of them are of African descent.
These are just two examples of the powerful, myriad, and complex forces exerting pressure on families and communities of color in the U.S. and around the world to forcibly give up our children. We find that war, militarism, racism, sexism, the Christianizing mission, capitalism, and other oppressions are the root causes pushing children of color into the Child Welfare pipeline domestically, or making them “available” for adoption internationally. How can communities of color and our allies effectively educate, strategize, and mobilize to fight these systems and keep our families and communities intact? How can we better link the nascent movement of politicized adult adoptees and foster care survivors to other global justice movements, such as workers’ rights and labor, fair housing, environmental & reproductive justice, immigration, and many others, in order to turn the tide of this worldwide phenomenon displacing children, dividing families and communities of color? Join us as we attempt to situate the political economy of transracial/transnational adoption and child removal within the larger global economy, and highlight a process of displacement predicated on the systematic exploitation and domination of the global South by the global North.
Workshop leaders — themselves adult transracial/transnational adoptees and professors, activists, and organizers — will lead participants in exploring these questions through hands-on Popular Education, Theatre of the Oppressed activities, and group discussion.