Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Musician Suzanne Vega Finds Her Birth Father--Her Blood Sings

Suzanne Vega's adopted. Sort of. At age 9 she found out her daddy wasn't her real daddy. She was also shocked because that meant she was White. (Adoptive dad/stepdad was Puerto Rican and she'd always identified with that part of her "heritage.") She says she felt embarrassed to suddenly be different from her siblings, and later felt like an impostor when singing with a Latin Arts group.

She found her birth dad at age 28. Turns out he was also a musician, and he'd been fully adopted.

"I looked at his eyes and hands, and recognized my own. There was this spiritual connection, too. It was as if I suddenly understood myself better." 

He'd found his own bio parents and guess what––they were musicians too. And apparently Vega had been an outlier in her family when it came to music:

"Finally," she tells Oprah Magazine, "I felt like I belonged."

It's stories like these that add to the nature/nurture debate. When you find birth family and sudden commonality in interests, personality, and those intangible, non-biological traits, it seems to tip the evidence toward the all-determining-birth-culture argument.

Enter the endless debate and source for scientific investigation. ABCNews asks, "Is there a Music Gene?" Sperm/egg donor clinics surely benefit from a belief in all-determining biology. Pick this donor! He's a super smart doctor and musician! But does your kid actually turn out exactly the way you want that way? What if you have a propensity for something but need a particular environment for it to manifest? Sometimes adopteds find that their birth parents are totally opposite of them in every way except appearance. I know folks with that experience, but you don't hear those stories as much because they don't have the exciting "ah-ha!" quality.

But back to Vega and her music. Naturally, she's written about her experience finding her dad. (If you're adopted and you're an artist, it's impossible not to have adoption themes appear in your work I think.) Check out "Blood Sings." My favorite line: "When blood sees blood of its own, it sings to see itself again."

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wendy's and Dave Thomas' Images of Waiting Children

We love the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. They do a lot of great work encouraging people to adopt kids from foster care--among the most notable achievements are the federal tax breaks Dave successfully advocated for in the 90s and of course Wendy's fast food restaurant which dedicates a percentage of its profits to adoption.  
I remember growing up knowing that Wendy's was special because Wendy was adopted and it was a positive thing. (I didn't realize that Dave was the adopted one and the daughter he named the restaurant after was his biological child--probably because I wanted so badly to know another adopted daughter and therefore chose to believe she was a fellow adoptee. She also had crazy hair.) 
These days I don't spend time gazing out the window of my parents' car looking for Wendy's restaurants. But I do get e-mails from the Dave Thomas Foundation. I appreciate all the work they do, but I have to say that sometimes I feel uneasy about the images of waiting children they use in promotions. 
Maybe because the images could play into that old "rescue the child" attitude. The pictured kids are often alone, gazing upward, as if waiting to be picked up. 

You want to reach into the poster and hold the kid.

Which is the point.

But yet there's more to it. Yes, you are helping a child when you foster or adopt, but if you start with a "missionary" mindset and expect the child to be ever grateful and good because you saved them from certain squalor, the child is probably going to experience feelings of anger and resentment at some point. It's demoralizing to be thought of as a charity case.

Images, in advertising especially, tend not to invite complexity. They activate viewers' emotions much faster than words do. This probably has something to do with the right brain/left brain thing that a linguist or psychologist would know more about than me. What bothers me is that the emotion these images evoke is a troubling one: pity.

Don't simply pity the poor orphan. Too easy. From what I've seen, that attitude reduces the situation and can lead to unrealistic expectations. Respect the child as a full person who probably won't think of you as a savior and be okay with that. Do step into adoption or foster care, but do it with recognition of the child's hurts and struggles and have an openness to learn from the child. Adoption isn't a rescue mission--it's a paradox of torn flowers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Petition to Declare July 28 National Adoptee Equal Rights Day (and Why You Should Care)

There's a new petition (sign here) to name an official day for adoptee equal rights:
"WHEREAS: It is only since the 1940s that outdated, archaic, draconian regulations have been enacted, unjustly sealing and denying equal access by adopted persons to their own original birth certificates, 

WHEREAS: This denial of equal civil and human rights was set in motion by regulations that were opposed from the onset by the Child Welfare League of America and were based on no-longer relevant social stigmas on infertility and illegitimate birth status,

WHEREAS: Alaska and Kansas which never enacted these restrictive, discriminatory regulations has experienced no negative consequences to any citizen nor any increase in abortions or decrease in adoptions, 

WHEREAS: There is absolutely no evidence to indicate that mothers or fathers relinquishing children for adoption voluntarily or involuntarily were ever given any promise of anonymity from their children, and most are eager to know of the well
being of their adopted-out offspring,"

I'm always advocating for birth certificate access on this blog, emphasizing that it's a civil right, that adoptees aren't asking for anything more than what the average citizen has. But I came across a new, startling reason for why this issue is so pertinent: According to this  article based on National Genealogical Society infoin four generations, half of all Americans' ancestry will be bogus. 

Half of all Americans. As of April 11, 2011, the U.S. population tops 311 million. (Census Bureau) Half of that is 155,500,000.

The "half" calculation is based on info from the 1990s estimating that ~2% of Americans are adopted, and today that estimate is much higher. 

The reason why this genealogical mystery affects so many more people than the adopted ones is because, of course, any children those adopted people have will also have holes in their ancestry, and any kids those kids have. The problem is akin to compounding interest--like any coverup lie, it snowballs into a much bigger problem than the one it was meant to hide.

Let's get it together, folks.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Adoptive Mom and Sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman Visits Pittsburgh: Hair, Race, and Adoption

Recently in Pittsburgh I met Barbara Katz Rothman, sociology professor at CUNY and author of Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption. Her book is part personal story part sociological study of transracial adoption. She and her husband adopted their African American daughter as an infant.

I had the opportunity to hang out briefly with Barbara one-on-one. Our first interaction happened via e-mail, as I told her I'd be picking her up from the airport.

Me: "My hair will help you recognize me [in the airport]--it's big and curly."

Barbara: "and my hair will help you -- it's grey with a purple streak."

Sure was. She said she dyed it for fun with her daughter years back, then she became fascinated with folks' reactions of shock and wonderment and kept it. "Women with gray hair aren't expected to celebrate it," she said.

True. Rather, it seems to me, they are to pretend there's no gray by dyeing their hair some "fake natural" color. Because women aren't supposed to age, right?

Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Consortium for Adoption Studies, Barbara gave a talk called "What White Adoptive Parents of African American Children Should Know." She also discussed her work at a luncheon in Pitt's Social Work Department, where she revealed some particularly interesting insights about adoption, race, and hair.

She hates how the photo on the cover of her book--depicting a White mother's hands braiding a Black daughter's hair--shows sloppy braiding technique.

"That's not me and and my daughter!" she declared at both events. "I would've had that part straight!"

Following this comment at the luncheon came a discussion about hair, the stereotype of the White mom and her mixed or Black child wearing a wild head of kinky hair.

It's not simply ignorance, Barbara pointed out. Letting the hair be its "big beautiful self" is a well-meaning sentiment from White mothers but the problem is they don't have the historical context to know what that really means. It's one story when an African American woman walks around with her Afro'd child but an entirely different story when a White woman does it. She said she was certain to groom that hair and groom it right because she knew the significance of what she was doing.

I sat quietly during the conversation. One part of me glad that this time I didn't have to be the one to bring it up or the one people think is crazy for making so much out of hair. (I always feel this comfort around African Americans, particularly in the salon.) Perhaps another part of me felt vindicated for my own hair experience. Yet another part of me--the core--was sad that this is still an issue.

One of the soc. professors said that in the field it remains a source of anguish that Black kids are being fostered in White homes. One prof said it was a form of cultural genocide, implying that hair could be a marker of this.

"Genocide" is a strong word. Not sure if I agree. But another word often comes to mind when I think of adoption--especially considering the high rates of cross-race adoption and economic circumstances that typically cause relinquishment in the first place: Colonization. Because, like Barbara went on to point out, adoption always happens from a position of power. Homeless people don't adopt. I've wondered if it's possible to adopt without that colonizing power dynamic. I might-possibly-maybe want to adopt one day, but this troubles me. I don't want to colonize.

But then...really what can you do? Leave the child in foster care because you don't want to participate in that model? Adopt the mother too? This is something Barbara said she'd questioned herself about: "If I'd given the money I spent on my kid to her mother, could I have kept a family intact?" Impossible to answer.

Impossible. Many questions about these subjects elicit this word, as socially constructed issues like race and systemic issues like adoption are nearly impossible to change on an individual level.

Luckily, hair is not. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hair Trick for Greasy Roots

Most people with curly/ethnic hair like mine do not have a problem with greasy hair. It's the opposite--we're always looking for ways to extra hydrate. But tonight had me thinking about tricks that people with hair I'd always imagined as ideal and "easy" use to deal with hair dilemmas.

It started when two White ladies told me what is apparently common knowledge in the world of authentic straight-blonde living: When your hair gets greasy 'cause you just can't wash it every day, put some baby powder on the roots. It will soak up the grease and will blend into your light-colored hair. (It also works if your hair is gray.) I never knew this when I was playing the blonde girl years back, though my hair was so over-processed and dry that putting anything else in it--even something mild enough for a baby's butt--would've probably caused it to fall out.

Don't use too much or it will turn your hair white, the women say.

So there it is. My first thought after listening to the girls describe this hair trick was that it was interesting but will never relate to my life. Then again...                 Though now I'm a veritable expert on mixed-chick kinky hair, just watch-- one day I'll birth a child with surprisingly straight, blond hair. Or maybe I'll adopt one. That's exactly how life works, right? Whatever you believe you're perfectly prepared for doesn't happen. But at least now I'm armed with one trick if a little blonde comes into my life. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Adoptees Getting Published: Other Tongues Anthology

Normally I don't like to toot my own horn (probably 'cause there's not much to toot), but, along with transracial adoptee Lisa Marie Rollins, a piece of my writing is published in a new anthology called Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out. Mine's a wee essay about appearance and how the "mixed" look is commodified in advertising and other ways. Mostly my observations and personal experiences which are naturally wrapped up in discussions of hair and adoption. Some awesome writers whom I adore are in this anthology, such as the famous poet Natasha Tretheway. Which is really why you should buy this book.

The editors have sponsored a few release parties, mostly in Canada. Hopefully there will be more stateside readings and launches, and I'll post updates here so you can come and listen, cheer, laugh, weep and support the celebration and contemplation of mixedness.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

Keeping Up with PA Adoption Legislation

Check out this site solely dedicated to tracking PA adoption legislation: The Pennsylvania Adoptee News Blog.

Currently we are hoping that House Bill 963, which restores access to original birth certificates to adopted adults, gets through. It's a "clean" bill, meaning not a bill with lots of restrictions for access such as requiring birth parent consent forms, special court orders, or that adoptees must be born before a certain year before they can get their birth certificates. Right now it's stalled because rumor has it the General Assembly is focusing on education and taxes. Necessary issues, yes, but we can't let the adoptee rights issue get ignored. Please visit the site above for information on writing or calling your representative.