One of my earliest memories is one where I ask a completely random question for no reason and get an answer I wasn’t expecting at all. I was with my family, which was complete in those days — my father was home, my mother didn’t have any errands, and my sister and I were done playing outside. We were all sitting in front of the television one day, watching an old movie. There was this big plot twist where the heroine finds out she’s adopted — and the music swells and she goes into hysterics over it, it’s a really big deal. It was fascinating to me that it should be such a heavy thing. I was watching this girl throw herself on the bed and sob, and I asked “Am I adopted?”
I don’t know where the question came from. I think I was making a joke, just because it seemed funny to me that it was such a big deal. But then the air went out of the room. Suddenly we weren’t watching television any more. Everyone had turned to look at me. My mother took me to another room, and she sat me down, and she told me that yes, I was adopted, and that my sister and I were chosen because she loved us both very much. Looking back, I think I knew immediately that my mother had rehearsed that speech because she just didn’t talk that way. She wasn’t the kind of person to say something to spare feelings, and telling us that we were chosen because we were loved is the exact kind of thing you say to someone who might be feeling a little bummed because their mother had given them up. Either way, it was stunning. The life I knew wasn’t…my life any more. There was this whole deep pile of secrets that was opening up to me.
Over time, I got to know a bit of my ‘real’ family. I had four brothers — one was an Iraq War veteran, while the other two were in constant trouble with the law. The fourth is a man I still haven’t met. Besides my younger sister I had an older one too. She was actually a model(!) before she was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia. The disease forced her to quit, and then it took her life three or four years ago. I had a grandmother that I had never seen, an aunt who was a lesbian, cousins and uncles who all lived in a part of Baltimore I had never been to. For a few years, my family tree was a strange and bewildering place.
Despite the wealth of information I learned about my immediate and extended family, anything about my birth parents was hard to come by. I only know a few things about my mother, and they’re all terrifying to me. We were taken from her by the state when we were very young, and shortly thereafter she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. I spoke to her only once in my life that I can remember, by phone, and it was an experience that I never want to repeat.
My mother is a sensitive subject in my family, and as such we don’t really talk about my father. I have no idea who he is, where he is or what he’s doing now. The answer could possibly be pretty easy to find, but there are a number of complications that get in the way of all of this.
After I graduated high school, I took a break from education and worked two mall jobs in a suburb of Baltimore pretty far north of where I lived. I pretty much worked six or seven days a week, and most of those were 12-hour days. I think I did that because there was so much to process and I had no idea how to do it. My academic career had collapsed over the course of high school, my prospects for college weren’t looking so great, and I had to reconcile the fact that who I thought I was wasn’t who I was really. There were a lot of pieces to put together.
I wasn’t ready, but I went to college anyway after six months of that. I distanced myself from my childhood faith (Jehovah’s Witnesses), came out to my mother, dropped out of college after two years and then moved to Arkansas after I was disowned. I’ve never been back to Maryland since and I very rarely speak to my mother. My extended and ‘real’ family, though they really want to talk, haven’t heard from me in over ten years.
I’m writing all of this down to revisit the circumstances of my estrangement from my family. This is my personal history, my reasons for not engaging with my family’s history. And by extension, the history of my culture. There was never really a place for me to go and have someone say “You are a part of this. This is where you’ve come from.” Personality, choice and circumstance all lead me to consider myself something other, and the alienation became so complete after I came out that for a long time, it felt like there was nothing left to my past.
A couple things have made me reconsider that. There’s this book I just finished called How to Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston. It’s actually a much better book than it sounds like in this context; it’s a funny memoir and discussion of what it means to be black in this day and age. One of the things I learned from it is how it’s possible to own your “otherness” and present it in a way where you’re not backing down from it, but you’re giving the people around you the opportunity to experience it, question it and ultimately accept it (or not). Being black doesn’t mean embracing the stereotypes that we tend to fall for; it means embracing your history and your nature, and making the best of it.
The book was a birthday present to myself. The birthday present I got from dear husband Ryan was a DNA kit from 23andme.com. If you’re not familiar with it, this thing is exceedingly cool. You send in a bio-sample (saliva) to their lab and they deconstruct your DNA to tell you all sorts of things. They can tell you roughly what percentage of your genetic code comes from various parts of the world, how much of your genes are Neanderthal, what sort of diseases and conditions you have a predisposition for. It’s incredibly exciting, and I’ve wanted to do it ever since I heard a story on (where else?) NPR about a black man who discovered that it was unlikely any of his ancestry was actually African.
I’m not really expecting that sort of surprise, but I am keenly interested to know more about the surprises my mom and dad left for me. The lab results come back in two or three weeks, and when they do I’ll have the first bit of information I’ve ever had about my father. No, I won’t know him, but at least I can begin to shape him in my imagination. At least it will give me something to work with.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the value of your roots. You don’t want them to force you into immobility, but you do want something to connect you to something solid. Up until now, my roots have been something I’ve been completely disconnected from. In some ways, I’ve made that choice. In others, that choice was made for me. But as much as I can I’ll try to reconnect. I’ll talk to my adopted mom more. I’ll call up my grandmother and sister, talk to my lesbian aunt. And I’ll ask questions about the family that I’ve been afraid to ask about. Very likely, when I have new information to process, I’ll put it here as record.
This whole process won’t be easy. There’s a lot of stuff to untangle, and a lot of it will be painful. As I play around with my personal identity, and the public face of it with relation to notions of being a black American, chances are I’m going to be an asshole for a little while. Apologies in advance, feel free to call me on my shit, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if there’s something that needs a little clarifying. I’m happy to talk about this with anyone who’s interested.
So, here we go. When I get up the courage, I’ll be calling my adopted mom soon. And the DNA kit results will get here in late-August or early-September. I’ll post something then.