Life has gotten in the way of my Adoption Reading Challenge this month. Although, I have read 179 out of 350 pages of Jaiya John’s memoir, Black Baby White Hands: A View From the Crib, I have failed to complete it. I tried to overcome the obstacle of reading while in a darkened hospital room, watching a sick relative sleep, by bringing along a book light, but those places are so jacked full of oxygen and warm air, I’d fall asleep 50 words in. Then, I tried to read last week while my husband was away on business, my babysitter was on spring break, and both my girls were home with the flu, but apparently when the girls watch Caillou for the 70th time in a day, I am meant to watch along.
Life; it sucked the life out of me, and my reading mojo. So, I am breaking up my response to reading Black Baby, White Hands into two parts. Honestly, I could break my thoughts about this young man’s journey, up into a hundred parts. This book is chock-full of thought provoking poetry, mind-rattling storytelling, and such raw and honest self reflection that, I had to re-read several parts, to gain the full meaning of Jaiya John’s words.
Jaiya John’s book retells his story of being an African American child adopted by a white family, with powerful images, and unforgettable pain and insight into himself, his family, his community, and the historical impact that race in America, had on his soul. Jaiya John was placed for adoption by his mother, Mary, at birth in the late 1960’s. Jaiya spent most of his first year of life in a foster family and then was adopted by the Potters, a white, middle class family from Los Alamos, New Mexico. Jaiya John was the first transracial adoptee in New Mexico.
Jaiya’s description of his feelings towards the social workers that worked with his mother during his placement into foster care stung my heart. Jaiya described the services provided by the social workers as having “built a wall of shrunken possibilities” (John, p. 17). This description of social workers in the late sixties offering no supports other than placement into foster care, and eventually adoption, made me want to reach my arms back in time to embrace his mother. Equally as powerful are Jaiya’s thoughts about his father’s role (or lack thereof) in his placement into foster care; “the first step in being a father is to be informed that you are one” (John, p. 17). This part of Jaiya’s journey, made me reflect on my own girls adoptions. Did their birth mother’s feel a “wall of shrunken possibilities” surrounded them? If so, did I help lay the bricks for that wall? Did our greater community and individualistic society lay those bricks? Or did my girls’ birthmothers feel they had pathways of hope? Hope for themselves, for their child, for the future? I don’t know the answers to these questions, nor do I know how to ask them.
The love that obviously flows from Jaiya’s parents, siblings, and extended family is poignant, but just not enough to heal his soul. Jaiya repeatedly explores his feelings of loneliness, isolation, otherness, and not being “seen” by those around him. The issue of low self-esteem also reoccurs in Jaiya’s description of his childhood, despite his loving family and his excellence in his education, social circle, and in athletics, he yearns for confirmation of himself as an African American. Jaiya’s words describing how he himself and his brother (also an African American child) are perceived by their family, friends and greater community also hit home for me.
“That we should feel lucky to be growing up in such a wonderful town, in such a loving family.They took for granted the thing most lacking but equally important to our true happiness: Seeing our face looking back at us. Most of these people had the comfort of being White in a White community. (John, P. 10)”
When I comb my daughter’s curly brown hair, and we stare at each other in the mirror, I both love and despise when she says to me, “we are the same, our eyes are the same, we both have green eyes.” We don’t, her eyes are certainly brown, and my eyes are for certain green. I feel that yearning for connection emanating from her soul and pray that I can be enough for her, that I know more, and have more resources than Jaiya’s family did. But what mark will remain on my daughter’s soul from being a bi-racial child being raised by a white mama? Will the open adoptions help with my daughters’ connectivity to their birth cultures? Will our diverse community be reflection enough for their hearts? I am doing the very best that I can, as I am sure Jaiya’s family did, but will it be enough? I pray.