Top Ten Must-Read Books for White Parents of Black Children
Happy Black History Month!
As an adoptive mother of two African American children (one Black, on biracial Black/white), I am often asked what I think white people who are considering transracial adoption* should do/think/know/read. As with most parenting questions, I think there are just about as many answers as there are families. That said, there are some issues unique to Black/white interracial families -- especially when the parents and white and the children are African American -- that can be addressed in a way that is useful to most if not all of them.
My partner and I did not stumble across transracial adoption. It so happened that we knew quite a bit about African American history and culture -- both specializing in it academically -- than the average white prospective adopter. We decided we were equipped to do a transracial adoption because we were already comfortable and familiar with Black America, both at the academic level and the personal, family and friend and colleague level (translation: we have “Black friends”).
But many people find themselves on the threshold of transracial adoption without having given issues of race in America much thought beyond the pop-culture, Black History Month school assembly level. These aren’t bad people -- not at all -- they are just living in the United States, which is still quite a segregated place. Opportunities to cross race boundaries in deep, meaningful ways just don’t crop up in most U.S. Americans’ daily lives.
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 up 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. Now 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, including the controversial history of transracial adoption in the United States. (The other is Roberts’ 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. You will notice that most of the books on my list are not adoption-specific. For that information, you can read a hundred blogs, join a group or take a class offered by your adoption agency, or just browse the bookstore “adoption” shelves. But there are two books about transracial adoption it’s worth being sure you don’t miss and those are 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.
These books explore mostly first-person accounts of transracial adoption from adult adoptees born between about 1968 and about 1972, when, for all practical purposes, transracial adoption placements were banned until the 1990s.
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 that child might need or experience or feel about the situation. That was integrationist race politics the late 60′s and early 70′s.
Although we’re living in different times now, this is still the attitude towards race on the part of many people. As a result, I find the narratives in these books 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.
7. Interracial Intimacies by Randall Kennedy is a more broadly themed book about families and other other close relations made across color lines in United States history. Kennedy is a Harvard law professor who was a clerk to Thurgood Marshall in the Supreme Court. He has a compelling argument about transracial adoption itself towards the end of the book. I won’t say I agree or disagree with his proposal, but it is worth a good, long think.
8. If you have read Peggy Macintosh’s rather famous and well-circulated (though a bit dated, these days) essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack you will appreciate The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics by George Lipsitz. It’s an in-depth look at how and why differentials in class and education and professional employment (for a few examples) persist between white Americans and minorities.
9. And now for some classics of African American literature. Academic African American Studies has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years and there is a well accepted canon of the great literature of the discipline. If you can’t take an African American literature survey at your local community college, start with these books to get a beginner’s sense of just what the child you are raising has inherited from cultural ancestors.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois is a classic. DuBois is really one of the foremost American thinkers of any race, and every U.S. American ought to read this book. The introduction alone gave 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.) It is notable, but not so well-known, that Du Bois was speaking about a global color line. Such a line 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.
10. I’m going to cheat and end with two, rather than just one more book. But you really shouldn’t read one of these without reading the other. They are a nicely paired girl/boy set of perhaps the most canonical of the many (and increasingly available) slave narratives of the antebellum United States, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. One thing I always note when I teach these is the way Douglass treats literacy as a key to his freedom, whereas Jacobs is always literate and spends an awful lot of time writing letters while still in bondage. There’s a nice gender analysis in there if you look for it. If you’ve ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jacobs’ story is also an interesting factual, first-hand corrective to Stowe’s melodramtic, fictional story of an enslaved woman trying to free herself and her child/ren.
So that’s my top ten. I could list thirty more! I’m sure there are readers out there who missed their favorites on my list. Please let us all know what you would add!
* For my purposes here, I am using “transracial adoption” to mean white parents and African American children. There have been plenty of other “transracial” adoption patterns over recent years, but when the practice was first beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “transracial” tended to mean white parents/African American kids and that is still what the term tends to refer to when you see it.
"All that you have is your soul." Tracy Chapman