If I Was in Charge of Revising MEPA: Some Books for White People Adopting Black Children

by guest contributor Shannon LC Cate, crossposted from Peter’s Cross Station

After the Donaldson Institute’s report on MEPA came out, I was asked (even more than usual) “well, then, what should prospective (or current) transracial adopters do to learn how to parent their kids to honor the importance of race in their lives?”

Here’s my answer: You should take a class in African American Studies 101 at the nearest post-secondary institution offering such a thing.

I don’t think most of the Transracial Adoption Books are all that great. And when you tell me that people have to start somewhere, and these books are good introductions, I will disagree in the strongest terms. Because books that give you tips for handling public curiosity, or tips on styling a Black child’s hair are not the places to start. They are the last details, not the beginning steps.

Before you start polishing your clever one-liners to throw at curious strangers, you need to hone your double-consciousness and find out what exactly those strangers are really asking when they want to know whether your American-born Black child is from a foreign country (ie: “That’s not one of those crack babies, is it?”).

Before you learn to style hair you need to know the history of Black women in the United States, the way they have been viewed by white culture, the sexual exploitation they have been subjected to, the basic history of their ownership–or not–of their bodies and how that has affected actual lived lives. Then you need to know how hair has been woven throughout this history. You need to know A) that certain hairstyles have socio-political meanings and B) what those meanings are before you settle on a ‘do and start learning how to do it. That book is the icing, not the cake.

I have a few books I’ve put up here and there. You can find them by sorting through the on the bedside table category to the right over there. But I want to post a nice list here, of Books Shannon Thinks Every White Adoptive Parent of a Black Child Must Read at Some Point. So if you can’t take that class at the local community college in African American Studies, here is what I’d assign if I was teaching “Transracial Adoption 101.”

1. When and Where I Enter by Paula Giddings, will give you a nice overview of U.S. history through the lens of Black women’s experience. It is quite readable and a great place to discover who and what you might like to learn more about.

2. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom by Herbert Gutman is a good background on the effects of race relations on Black families throughout U.S. history. It’s one of many places where you begin to see the groundwork for the breaking of Black families in the present day, but it’s also a complex, thoughtful response to the knee-jerk, racist analysis of the infamous Moynihan Report.

3. So with some historical knowledge under your belt, you can move on to some contemporary work on Black families and the effect of living within white supremacy. A great place to begin is Dorothy Roberts. There are two books you should read that are pertinent to this topic, but if you read only one, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare is the one to choose, as it relates most directly to the social welfare system and adoption. The other is Killing the Black Body.

4. For more detail on how the criminal justice system specifically harms Black mothers and their children, read War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind by Renny Golden.

There are two adoption agencies in Chicago that do many of the transracial placements all over the country. Roberts’ and Golden’s work is in large part focused on Chicago, giving many transracial adopters an excellent opportunity to learn quite a bit about the specific forces at play in their children’s mothers’ lives that brought them to place (or have their children removed) for adoption.

5. Two transracial-adoption-specific books I do like are the narratives from adoptees themselves found in Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America by Sandra Patton and

6. In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita Simon and Rhonda Roorda.

One thing that disappoints me about these books is that they draw on narratives from adult adoptees who are about my age–born between 1968 and 1972 or so–and they stop the interview process when these folks are in their early to mid-twenties.

Considering the historical moment in which these adoptions occurred, the white parents were really pretty clueless about what they were doing. They were well-intentioned white liberals who thought that if they didn’t mind raising a Black child, all was well. In other words, it was all about them and their colorblindness, rather than what a child might need or experience or feel about the situation. That was integrationist race politics the late 60′s and early 70′s.

Then, the interviewees are between about 20 and 26 when the interviews happen and their attitudes say as much about middle-class developmental patterns and how college kids feel about their families of origin as they do about transracial adoption. I’d be very interested to hear what these people would say now. I know my attitudes about my childhood have changed a lot in the last 10-15 years. How about these folks?

Read with these grains of salt, however, I find the narratives to be incredibly useful for formulating Do and Don’t lists as well as lists of things not to worry too much about because kids will be kids and they’ll hate us for something no matter how much we bend over backwards to be perfect. And that’s a good lesson for parenting under any circumstances.

So there you have six books for a core curriculum in a 12 week class on transracial adoption. In the second 12 weeks of the class, I’d have you read the following:

1.-2. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, read back-to-back with Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, will position you to note some interesting differences in a white woman’s made-up story of an enslaved mother on the run and a real, enslaved, Black woman’s true version of same. Now just imagine that this phenomenon of a well-meaning white person’s view of racism and a the view of person actually experiencing racism persists throughout U.S. history to this very day. It explains a lot about reactions to various Incidents in the Campaign of Barack Obama.

3. A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a key text in any African American literature class. It’s a classic and Douglass is one of the most important figures in 19th century U.S. history. But again, note the difference in his experience of slavery and freeing himself, and a woman’s experience of same in Jacobs’ account, which you’ve of course, already read. Get your hands on a good collection of Douglass’s other writings/speeches too. He was a strong supporter of votes for women and Stanton and Anthony’s right-hand man until they realized that white supremacists would support them if they used racist fear-mongering, and dropped Douglass like a hot rock.

4. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois is another classic. I’d say Du Bois is one of the foremost American philosophers, depending on your definition of philosophy. (Mine is, admittedly, unconventional.) The introduction to this book gives us both the concept of double-consciousness and the famous quote that the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line. It was and is fast becoming the twenty-first century’s problem too, or still, as the case may be. Du Bois was speaking about a global color line in his book and that part of it is certainly with us today in ways Du Bois, sadly wouldn’t have predicted, hoping as he did for a solution within a hundred years’ time.

5. Contending Forces by Pauline Hopkins is an incredible reworking, reclaiming and redemption of the “tragic mulatto” story. The tragic mulatto in this novel pulls herself up with her own brains, reinvents herself, catches a fine, upstanding, Black man, reunites with her displaced child and sails into the sunset to save the world. Plus, the heroine’s name is Sappho and there are some lovely, sublimated homoerotic scenes (albeit Victorian-style ones) in spite of the canned marriage-plot outcome.

6. I am Ida B. Wells’s biggest fan. (Selina’s middle name is Wells. I wanted to name Nat “Ida” but Cole was having none of it. I couldn’t even talk her into “Iola.”) I have already put a book by Paula Giddings at the very top of this list. So imagine my delight to find a signed, first edition of Giddings’s new biography, Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. I am about one-third of the way through it right now and loving it! If you want to understand African American history, you must understand lynching. Lynching wasn’t the only thing Wells fought, but it made her name and reputation (not always for the better) and this biography will introduce you not only to my favorite dead person of all time, but to the circumstances of her moment and how they have trickled down to ours.

If I were to bolster my reading requirements with a little film, I’d choose, Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust and Amistad (now that you are skilled at spotting white liberal back-patting and critiquing it against actual Black experience). For fun, I’d throw in The Wiz (who said musical theatre couldn’t be educational?).

Now you know enough to move on by yourself. Like fiction? Read everything Toni Morrison ever wrote. My favorite is probably Beloved but it’s hard to say. I just adore her. Science fiction/fantasy geeks will enjoy Octavia Butler’s Kindred. William Faulkner can be read after reading Morrison, but not before! Folks adore Their Eyes were watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, but I like her more straight-up anthropology work, like Mules and Men.

You’ll notice that my “moving on” list is completely biased in favor of women writers and women’s stories. It’s slanted towards the Post-Reconstruction, which is “my” period of specialization. And I know nothing about film. I’m sure there are many more great ones besides the tiny handful I mentioned. This list is all about me, me, me. And it is far from exhaustive, even with those caveats. So by all means, decide what you like and read liberally. The key, really, is to keep learning forever.

Please leave your own favorites and recommendations in the comments!

Shannon LC Cate is one of two white adoptive mothers of two beautiful African American girls.  She lives and writes in Chicago, Illinois.  You can find her online at www.LilySea.blogs.com.
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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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