Relations

biss Relations

In New York City, in the spring of 1999, a story hit the newspapers of a Long Island woman who had given birth to twins–one white and one black. The woman and her husband were white and the black baby was not theirs, at least not biologically. The embryo that became that baby had been accidentally implanted in the woman’s uterus with the embryo of her biological son, but it belonged to a black couple who were clients at the same fertility clinic, and they wanted their son back. After a DNA test, a custody battle, a state supreme court ruling, and an unsuccessful appeal, it was decided that the black baby was the child of the black couple, legally and entirely.

The story had its peculiarities, like the fact that the fertility clinic had notified the black couple that some of their embryos had been mistakenly implanted in another woman, but did not tell them anything more, so they eventually learned of the birth of their son through a private investigator. But even odd facts like this took on the sheen of metaphor, pointing, for those of us who were looking, to further evidence of a systematic failure of any number of services to reach black people intact, in the form in which they are typically enjoyed by white people. If both babies had been white, I doubt the story would have become the parable it became–playing out in the newspapers over the next few years as an epic tale of blood and belonging.

The fact that the story involved two babies and two mothers and, eventually, an agreement that gave both babies a family and both families a baby would inspire some reporters to use the phrase “happy ending,” but the story would resist that happy ending in part because the black baby was initially returned to his biological parents on the strict condition that he would continue to visit his twin brother, spending a week in summer and alternate holidays with the white family. On the question of whether a person can have a twin to whom he is not related, the New Jersey Record consulted an expert who explained that the babies were not technically twins, but their situation was so unusual it was impossible to determine, without further research, how deep a bond they might share. Long after the black baby had been returned to his biological parents and given a new name, the question of what exactly his relationship was to the white boy with whom he had shared a womb persisted. The answer to this question would determine whether or not the courts would mandate visits between the black boy and the white family. “Are the baby boys brothers in the eyes of the law,” asked the New York Times, “or two separate people who just happened to arrive in the world on the same subway car?”

* * *

When we were young, my sister and I had two baby dolls that were exactly alike in every way except that one was white and one was black. The precise sameness of these dolls, so obviously cast from one mold in two different colors of plastic, convinced me that they were, like us, sisters.

Sisters are only slightly more genetically similar than any other two human beings. We are all so closely related to each other, sharing over 99 percent of our genetic code across the world, that many scientists believe there is no biological basis for what we call race. Race is a social fiction. But it is also, for now at least, a social fact. We are not all, culturally speaking, the same. And if that Long Island woman had raised the black boy to whom she gave birth he might have been robbed of a certain amount of the cultural identity to which his skin would be assigned later in life, and might therefore find himself as an adult in an uncomfortable no-man’s-land between two racial identities.

But this no-man’s-land is already fairly heavily trafficked. Without denying that blacks and whites remain largely segregated and disturbingly polarized, and without denying that black culture is a distinct culture, I think we ought to admit, as the writer Albert Murray once insisted, that American culture is “incontestably mulatto.” A friend of mine used to tell a story about a segregated restaurant in the South where a sign on one side of the room advertised “Home Cooking” and a sign on the other advertised “Soul Food” and the customers on both sides were eating the same biscuits and gravy. “For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences,” Murray wrote in The Omni Americans, “the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

Even so, we don’t tend to make family out of each other. Marriages between whites and blacks amount to less than 1 percent of all our marriages. And even after Loving vs. Virginia declared the last state laws banning inter-racial marriage unconstitutional in 1967, some states continued to ban inter-racial adoptions. Legal or not, such adoptions were rare in this country until the number of white parents looking to adopt began to exceed the number of white children available for adoption. Some of the agencies that first began placing black children with white couples viewed these placements as highly progressive. Not everyone agreed. The National Association of Black Social Workers, in particular, has continued to oppose the adoption of black children by white parents ever since the release of their somewhat notorious 1972 statement on the preservation of black families, in which they suggested that the likely outcome of such adoptions was “cultural genocide.”

The vehemence of this statement, and its refusal to see white Americans as viable parents for black Americans, is probably best understood in the context of the havoc that has been wreaked on black families in this country. There was, during slavery, the use of black women for “breeding” purposes, the forced infidelities of that system, the denial of slave marriages as legitimate contracts, and the practice of selling members of the same family away from each other, so that sisters were separated from brothers, mothers were separated from fathers, and young children were separated from one or both parents. Now, more than a century after emancipation, we still have the unmanning of black men by law enforcement, the incommensurate imprisonment of black fathers, and the troubling biases of the child welfare system, in which a disproportionate number of black children are separated from their parents.

That doesn’t mean white adults can’t be good parents for black children, but the endeavor is fraught by history and complicated by all our current social failures. If the white woman in Long Island had given birth to two white babies, it might have been easier to ignore one of the uglier elements of her story, the fact that our claim on our children is not entirely innocent, and amounts to a kind of ownership. At one point, the biological parents of the black baby decided that they would rather pay the $200,000 fine mandated by their shared custody agreement than continue to allow the white couple visits with their son. The white couple balked at this, and their lawyer said, “They’re not looking to, quote, ‘sell’ their son!”

If both the babies had been white, I might have felt that the white woman was entitled to keep them both, no matter whom they were related to. I might have been wrong, and the courts would very probably not have agreed with me, but I would have believed in her right to keep any child she carried in her womb because that is what I would want for myself. As it was, because one of those babies was black, and because the black woman did not herself conceive–her treatments at the fertility clinic failed and she was childless–it did not seem right for the white woman to keep the black baby. It seemed like a kind of robbery, a robbery made worse by its echoes of history. But even still–and perhaps this exposes exactly how hopeful, or how naïve, I really am–I wanted to believe in the white woman’s desire to maintain a familial connection to the black child. I wanted the two boys to be brothers, and I wanted the original shared custody agreement to work out. And it might have, especially if the white woman had not made the mistake of saying “come to Mommy” to the black baby on one of those visits, and of calling him by the name she had given him, which was no longer his name.

* * *

The white doll was my sister’s and the black doll was mine. My doll’s proper name was Susannah, but her common name, the name I used more often, and the name my entire family used, was Black Doll. My mother finds this hilarious, but I don’t enjoy revealing it, and I don’t enjoy knowing now that as a child I reduced this doll–who had her own distinct personality as many beloved toys do–to her race. Even so, the fact that Black Doll was black became very ordinary to me very quickly, so that her name was nothing but her name.

The famous “Doll Studies” of Mamie and Kenneth Clark, which were conducted in a series of different schools in both the North and the South, used a set of identical black and white baby dolls bought at a Woolworth’s in Harlem to reveal how racism affected children. In one experiment, sixteen black children were shown a white doll and a black doll and asked to pick which doll best represented certain words. Eleven of the children associated the black doll with the word “bad” and ten associated the white doll with the word “nice.” This experiment later influenced the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to integrate the public schools.

In the years and decades following that decision, questions would be raised about what exactly, if anything, the doll studies proved. Black children in unsegregated schools had responded to the Clarks’ dolls in much the same way as black children in segregated schools, which complicated the idea that the children were responding solely to segregation. But they were clearly responding to something. Perhaps the doll studies suggest that children are as sensitive to racial codes as adults. I do not know exactly how the word “nice” was used in 1939 when those studies began, but I do know what it means now to describe a neighborhood as “nice” or another part of town as “bad” and I know what “nice” hair is and I know what it means when my landlady tells me, as I’m applying for a lease, that she won’t need my bank account number because I look like a “nice” person. And I suspect that it is possible, especially in a racially aware environment, that the secondary meanings of these words are not lost even on six-year-olds.

* * *

“Maybe we love our dolls because we can’t love ourselves,” a friend of mine–an artist who made drawings of dolls missing legs or arms or eyes that all looked, somehow, eerily like her–once suggested. Perhaps this is the essential truth behind why we make effigies. And maybe this is why we tend to believe that children should have dolls that look like them, or at least that look like who they might eventually become. In 1959 Mattel introduced a doll that was not, like most other dolls marketed for children, a baby doll. This doll had breasts and wore make-up and was modeled after a doll sold in Germany as a gag gift for grown men. The man who designed the American version of the doll, a man who had formally designed Sparrow and Hawk missiles for the Pentagon and was briefly married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, was charged with making the new Barbie doll look “less like a German street walker,” which he attempted in part by filing off her nipples.

In the past few decades quite a few people have suggested–citing most often the offense of impossible proportions–that Barbie dolls teach young girls to hate themselves. But the opposite may be true. British researchers recently found that girls between the ages of seven and eleven harbor surprisingly strong feelings of dislike for their Barbie dolls, with no other toy or brand name inspiring such a negative response from the children. The dolls “provoked rejection, hatred, and violence” and many girls preferred Barbie torture–by cutting, burning, decapitation, or microwaving–over other ways of playing with the doll. Reasons that the girls hated their Barbies included, somewhat poetically, the fact that they were “plastic.” The researchers also noted that the girls never spoke of one single, special Barbie, but tended to talk about having a box full of anonymous Barbies. “On a deeper level Barbie has become inanimate,” one of the researchers remarked. “She has lost any individual warmth that she might have possessed if she were perceived as a singular person. This may go some way towards explaining the violence and torture.”

* * *

My own Black Doll, who is now kept by my mother as a memento of my childhood, was loved until the black of her hair and the pink of her lips rubbed off. Her skin is pocked with marks where I pricked her with needles, administering immunizations. She wears a dress that my grandmother sewed for her. And she has, stored in a closet somewhere, a set of furniture made for her by the German cabinetmaker who boarded with my family when I was young. There is something very moving to me now about the idea of that man who left Germany in the 1920s, just as the Nazi party was gathering power, laboring at his lathe, perfecting the fancy legs of a maple dining table for a beloved toy known as Black Doll.

Although the two can be confused, our urge to love our own, or those we have come to understand as our own, is, it seems, much more powerful than our urge to segregate ourselves. And perhaps this is why that Long Island woman went to court to fight for shared custody of a child who was very clearly, very publicly, no blood relation to her or her husband. It was an act of thievery, but it was also an act of love.

In the agonized hand-written statement she released to the press just before she voluntarily surrendered to his biological parents the four-month-old child to whom she gave birth, long before the court decision that would decide she had no right to share custody of him, the white woman said, “We’re giving him up because we love him.” She had come to believe that it was in the best interest of the black baby to be with his biological parents. In a separate statement, her lawyer added, “She didn’t look at them as a white baby and a black baby. She looked at them as her sons.” This was already quite evident from the fact that she had insisted on a DNA test before she would consider giving the child back to the black couple whose embryos–as she had been informed by the fertility clinic–were implanted in her womb.

* * *

A group of white children and a group of black children were asked, in one of the Clarks’ doll studies, to choose the baby doll that looked the most like them. The white children overwhelmingly chose the white doll. But seven of the sixteen black children also chose the white doll. Some of the others could not choose a doll, and a few broke into tears.

As a teenager I sometimes posed for my mother’s sculptures. She worked in black porcelain, which is, when fired, as deep and rich a black as white porcelain is a cool and flawless white. At that time, my mother had just converted to a West African religion and was dating a black man. Her friends were black women and Puerto Rican women and her imagination was full of African folklore. I posed for a mask she was making of the face of Oya–Yoruba goddess of the graveyard, of wind, and of change–standing in her attic studio with my lips pursed as though I were blowing. Why should I have been surprised, and somewhat hurt, when the mask was finished, to see that my face had become unmistakably African? My eyes were still almond shaped, as they are, but my cheekbones were higher, my nose was flatter and wider, and my lips were fuller. Still, my face was in that face, I could see it there, especially in the mouth.

The Topsy-Turvy doll is a traditional doll peculiar to the United States. These dolls have heads on both ends of their bodies and wear skirts that can be flipped up or down to reveal either one head or the other. In the antebellum South, many of these dolls had a white head on one end and a black head on the other. Historians do not agree about whether these dolls were made for black children or white children, or about what kind of play they were intended for. Some Topsy-Turvy dolls were sold with the slogan, “Turn me up and turn me back, first I’m white, and then I’m black.”

The possibility of moving, through disguise, between one race and another is an idea so compelling that it keeps returning to us again and again. There was Nella Larsen’s Passing, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live skit, in which he dressed as a white man and discovered that banks give money away to white people, and, most recently, there was Black.White., a reality television show produced by R. J. Cutler and Ice Cube, an experiment that put two families, one white and one black, in a house together and used Hollywood make-up to switch their races.

* * *

I have a cousin whose race is sometimes perceived as black and other times as white. Her father is a black man from Jamaica, and her mother is my mother’s sister. My cousin and I grew up on opposite sides of the country, her in Oakland, California and me in upstate New York, but we both found ourselves in New York City in our twenties, and we shared an apartment in Brooklyn for a year. When I moved to New York I barely knew my cousin, but I was comforted by the idea that she was family. My cousin and I come from an extended family in which it is generally understood that even the most remote members cannot be strangers to each other.

And we were not. We looked alike, but in an oblique way that was probably most striking to us, because my cousin looked very much like my mother, and I looked very much like hers, but neither of us looked like our own mother. Beyond that, we recognized in each other the distinctively frugal and, we decided, hereditary habit of washing and saving bits of tinfoil and plastic sandwich bags. Neither of us seemed, by nature, capable of working full time, and we were always saving our money so that we could afford not to work. We both slept very poorly in the city, and we both considered ourselves in exile there. Both of us were inexplicably moved by the concrete cross outside our living room window. And we both had the same characteristic gesture of putting our hands to our necks when we were not comfortable. We reveled in this sameness, in this twinning. We even called each other by the same name. “Cousin!” I would sing as I walked in the door, “Is that you, Cousin?” she would answer.

At some point during the year we lived together, I watched my cousin cut out pictures of black college beauty queens from Ebony Magazine and glue them into a notebook. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with them yet, she told me, she’d have to think about it. But she lined them up lovingly–Miss Norfolk State University, Miss Morris College, Miss Florida A&M University, Miss North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Miss Southern University–like a paper doll parade replete with heartbreaking plastic crowns and tiaras.

Years later, my cousin would send me a film called A Girl Like Me, in which a seventeen-year-old girl from New York re-created the Clarks’ doll studies at a Harlem day care center in 2005. In her re-creation, fifteen of twenty-one black children preferred the white doll over the black doll. “Can you show me the doll that looks bad?” a voice behind the camera asks a little black girl in A Girl Like Me. The child immediately chooses the black doll, and when she is asked why, she reports flatly, “Because she’s black.” But when the voice asks her “Can you give me the doll that looks like you?” she looks down, reaching first for the white doll but then, looking directly at the camera, reluctantly pushing the black doll forward.

* * *

As Barbie dolls became increasingly popular in the sixties, Barbie’s family expanded to include her boyfriend Ken, her little sister Skipper, her twin siblings Tutti and Tod, and her cousin Francie. In 1967 Mattel released Colored Francie, a black version of cousin Francie. Notably, Colored Francie was intended to be understood as a friend for Barbie, not a cousin. One of the many objections to Colored Francie was that she was cast out of the same mold as the white Francie, and therefore had the same face and the same features. This oversight was seen as hostile, as just another attempt to erase the African-ness of African Americans. Colored Francie did not sell well, and she was soon discontinued.

Despite this early failure, Mattel has maintained a long-standing tradition of releasing both a black version and a white version of many of their dolls. This was most problematic in 1997 when they teamed up with Nabisco to promote Oreo Fun Barbie. The cheerfulness of the black Oreo Fun Barbie, who was sold in packaging covered with pictures of Oreo cookies and whose dress was emblazoned with the word Oreo, seemed to mock, chillingly, the predicament of the oreo, the person who is seen as black on the outside but white on the inside. Oreo Fun Barbie was quickly recalled when Mattel realized that she evoked a term that implies cultural abdication and self-loathing.

As a child, my cousin worried that her mother loved her brother more because he was not as brown as her. Even so, her skin is light enough to “pass.” That was a household word for us in those days when we lived together. I remember, in particular, an evening when I invited a graduate student I’d met at a party over for dinner. We listened to Neil Young and talked about World War II, and sized each other up as material for love. When he left, just after I closed the door behind him, my cousin shot me a look. “What?” I said. “You were passing,” she said, meaning that I had not been acting like myself. And she was right, although at the time I resented her accuracy.

* * *

A friend of mine once accused my mother of using the men she is with–men who have tended, most recently, not to be white–to gain access to other cultural and racial identities. It is true that my mother has been running from her white, Protestant, middle-class background ever since she dropped out of high school and got on a Greyhound bus, but shouldn’t she be allowed out if she wants out? Especially now that she has sacrificed, in various ways, just about all the privilege to which she could ever have laid claim. “A well-ordered multiracial society,” Randall Kennedy recently wrote, “ought to allow its members free entry into and exit from racial categories.”

Most scientists agree, if they are willing to make any sort of nod towards the existence of race as a legitimate category, that a person’s race is self-identified, and the U.S. census now only categorizes people as they self-identify. But our racial categories are so closely policed by the culture at large that it would be much more accurate to say that we are collectively identified. Whenever we range outside the racial identity that has been collectively assigned to us, we are very quickly reminded where we belong.

Not long after I moved into my cousin’s apartment in the historically black neighborhood of Fort Greene, I stopped at a small shop a few blocks away to buy her a birthday present of some hair oil I’d seen her admire. I was standing with my back to the register choosing between “Nubian Woman” and “Jasmine” when I heard loud whispers and laughter from behind me. “White girl!” the sales women were saying, with every intention I would hear them.

In that part of Brooklyn, the people I passed on the street often greeted me with a summary description of what they noticed about me, as in, “you’ve got some short hair, girl.” This was a phenomenon that my cousin and I found both arresting and amusing. For her part, my cousin discovered that the indicators of race she had learned in Oakland did not necessarily translate to Brooklyn. The way she walked, for example, the sharp switch of her gait, might have been read as black in Oakland, but it was not in Brooklyn. Here her identity became even more ambiguous. Walking home through the park after dark one night, my cousin passed a black man who nodded at her and said, “Mmm-hmmm, you’re a bad-ass white girl.”

I was mistaken for a white boy twice, and once I was mistaken for Asian. But I was never taken for black. And I could not have expected to be. As much as I believe racial categories to be fluid and ambiguous, I still know that there is nothing racially ambiguous about my features, or my bearing, or my way of speaking. And although I was familiar, from my mother’s religion, with the cowry shells and oiled wood carvings sold in the African shops of my neighborhood, I could not even attempt to pass there.

* * *

At the beginning of the six-episode series of Black.White., the white family needs coaching from the black family in order to learn to pass as black. But the black family, as they explain after an uncomfortable silence, already know how to act white, of course, because that is the dominant culture within which they have to live their daily lives. Knowing how to act white is a survival skill for the black family. The white family, on the other hand, struggles with acting black, frequently committing tone-deaf errors, and ultimately not quite pulling it off.

Perhaps my inability to pass is part of why I feel so trapped within my identity as a white woman. That identity does not feel chosen by me as much as it feels grudgingly accepted. But I haven’t worked very hard to assimilate into any other racial group. And I have rarely turned down any of the privileges that my skin has afforded me. When it became clear to me, for instance, that my landlady was looking for a “nice” tenant, I did not inform her that if she was under the impression I was white, she should at least know I was not nice.

In my mostly white high school, where the white boys who listened to rap and sagged their pants were called “whiggers,” we were trained to feel disdain for anyone who ranged outside the cultural confines of whiteness. But later, in my mostly white college, among whiggers and punks and hippies and tattooed freaks, I began to understand the significance of the effort to advertise one’s resistance to the mainstream and undo one’s access to privilege through a modification of one’s clothing or body or skin. My college was such a safe and nurturing place for misfits, especially rich misfits, that it was hard to believe that dreadlocks and tattoos and piercings would really inhibit anyone’s ability to get a job, because they certainly weren’t getting in the way of anyone’s ability to get an education. And many of the punks and hippies who I went to school with have, after all that effort, found their way into positions of power and privilege by now.

But I still believe it is important for white folks to find ways to signal that we cannot necessarily be trusted to act like white folks–that we cannot be trusted to hold white values, that we cannot be trusted to be nice, that we cannot be trusted to maintain the status quo. Noel Ignatiev, editor of the journal Race Traitor, has suggested that the power of the entire white race can be undermined by just a few members who consistently refuse to act according to the rules, and who refuse to be who they seem to be. At the end of the Saturday Night Live skit in which he was made-up as a white man, Eddie Murphy suggested exactly this possibility. “I got a lot of friends, and we’ve got of make-up,” he told the camera. “So the next time you’re hugging up with some really super groovy white guy, or you’ve met a really great super keen white chick, don’t be too sure. They might be black.”

* * *

What exactly it means to be white seems to elude no one as fully as it eludes those of us who are white. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison observes that the literature of this country is full of images of impenetrable, inarticulate whiteness. And these images, she writes, are often set against the presence of black characters who are dead or powerless. She cites, as one example, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which ends with the death of a black man in a boat that is traveling on a milky white sea through a white shower towards a white veil behind which a giant white figure waits silently.

And so it is not surprising that what Marlow, the ferry-boat captain in Heart of Darkness, finds deep in Africa, traveling on a boat manned by starving natives, is not darkness but a blinding white fog so thick it stops the boat, a white fog from behind which he hears chilling cries of grief. “Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable. Or so our writers seem to say,” writes Toni Morrison. We do not know ourselves, and worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves. “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” Melville tells us in Moby Dick, “but how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must.”

“It’s hard for me,” my cousin mused once as we waited for a train, “I have a lot of white family.” At the time, I couldn’t fully appreciate what she was saying because I was hurt by the implication that I was a burden to her. But I would remember that comment years later, when I was watching a public television program in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. was working with genealogists to trace the family trees of a series of African Americans including Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, and himself. Many of their ancestors were slaves, but the genealogists also revealed that some of their ancestors included free blacks and, of course, whites. In a particularly awkward moment, a genealogist informed Gates that one of his ancestors was a white man who fought in the Revolutionary War against Native Americans and left a will that freed his slaves. As I watched Gates struggle with that information, I realized exactly how much the stories of our ancestors, as we imagine them now, mark our identities.

It isn’t easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian-killer as a grandfather, and it isn’t easy to accept the legacy of whiteness as an identity. It is an identity that carries a heavy burden of guilt without fostering a true understanding of the painfulness and the costs of complicity. That’s why so many of us try to pretend that to be white is merely to be race-less. Perhaps it would be more productive for us to establish some collective understanding that we are both, white and black, damaged, reduced, and morally undermined by increasingly subtle systems of racial oppression and racial privilege. Or perhaps it would be better if we simply refused to be white. But I don’t know what that means, really.

* * *

“I feel like an unknown quantity,” my cousin remarked at some point during the year that we lived together. She was referring to the algebraic term, the unknown quantity x, which much be solved for, or defined, by the numbers in the equation around it. I remember, when I first encountered algebra, feeling the limits of my own comprehension break around the concept that one number in an equation could be unknown. And what baffled me most was that the answer, in algebra, was known, but the question was incomplete.

I could see two faces of the Brooklyn clock tower from my bedroom window in the apartment I shared with my cousin. The hands on those faces never told exactly the same time, and I often chose to believe the one I most wanted to believe. I was usually late, either way. The year we lived in that apartment was the year of the 2000 census. By chance, my cousin and I were chosen to complete the long form of the census, and we were visited in person by a census taker who was charged with ensuring that this form was completed accurately.

The census taker asked us to report the highest degree or level of school we had completed, how well we spoke English, and whether we did any work for pay. For every question he asked, my cousin asked one back. It became a kind of exchange, which is how we learned that our census taker was an artist when he wasn’t taking the census. I laughed when my cousin asked him why he needed to know the address where she worked, and she cut her eyes at me. “It’s not for him,” I said, trying to help, “It’s for the government.” She pursed her lips. “I come from people,” she informed me, “who have learned not to trust the government.”

And then there was question six: What is this person’s race? The census taker marked the box in front of White for me, with no discussion, but my cousin spent quite a bit of time on this question. “What are my options?” she asked first. The list was surprisingly long for a document conceived by the government of a country that does not readily embrace subtlety or accuracy in just about any form: White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian Indian; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Other Asian; Native Hawaiian; Guamanian or Chamorro; Somoan; Other Pacific Islander; or Some Other Race. Our census taker would list all of these options several times, stumbling over the words every time, until he eventually handed the form to my cousin in frustration. Part of the problem was that the list did not include her first choice–Mixed Race. But it did, unlike the 1990 census, allow the census taker to mark more than one race. Eventually, he marked both White and Black.

* * *

“He has two mothers,” the Long Island woman said of the black baby to whom she gave birth, in a brazen refusal of the very terms in which her story was being told. She abandoned this idea only after it was suggested to her that this might be confusing for the child and perhaps even damaging. But she did not abandon her belief that the two boys who shared her womb should grow up knowing each other as brothers. “She wants him to know that she carried him and that she loved him and in the end made the ultimate sacrifice,” her lawyer said shortly after she surrendered the black baby to his parents. “And secondly, she wants him to know he has a brother.”

In the same statement, the white woman’s lawyer also said, “The most important thing to her is that she wants this boy to know when he grows up that she didn’t abandon him because of his race.” If that was the most important thing to her and not simply her lawyer’s bad idea of what needed to be said, then her story was even sadder than it first appeared. She already feared, when he was four months old, that the baby she birthed and held and fed would grow up to believe she was racist. She was giving him up because he wasn’t hers, but the fact that he was not hers was all caught up, for her and for many others, in his race and her own.

Ultimately, it is not at all hard to understand why the baby’s biological parents in New Jersey were so adamantly opposed to sharing custody with this woman. And so it was all the more surprising, all the more touching, when, after the white woman had refused them contact with the baby for the first three months of his life, and after several years of custody disputes and court cases and appeals, the black couple told reporters that they still remained open to having some relationship with the white couple in the future. They suggested that when their son was “mature enough to understand his unique beginnings” they might be able to reach out to the white couple “in friendship and fellowship.” They might be something less than family to each other, the black couple seemed to be suggesting, but they were more than strangers.

Photo courtesy of Meryl Schenker and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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  • Alfred

    Breathtaking article.