Whose Children Are These?

I am conflicted when I read about the orphans taken out of Haiti in the days after the devastating earthquake there.  By now, we’ve all heard the story of the missionary group that improperly removed children from Haiti, despite repeated warnings to their leadership that they lacked the authority to do so.  Lest we conclude this was just the mistake of misguided, but well-intentioned ordinary people who didn’t know any better, the U.S. government has also been responsible for improperly conceived plans to take children out of Haiti.  Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania, with the support of the Obama administration, successfully organized an airlift of 54 Haitian children who were supposedly in the process of being adopted, despite being aware that not all of the children were orphans, or even in the adoption process.  It is not, however, only rescue missions and airlifts that give me pause.  In the days after the earthquake, a feel-good story surfaced of a widowed white woman who had all but completed the adoption process for twin babies in Haiti, a boy and girl.  With the help of the U.S. embassy and a non-profit group, she was able to hasten her adoptive childrens’ arrival in the U.S. after the quake.  When reading the article, I scanned the page for a picture, wanting, in particular, to see the little black girl.

Children need and deserve supportive homes where they will be loved and taken care of.  My child is in a home with two parents who adore her and are committed to her well-being, no matter the sacrifices that her well-being will require.  I am in no position to deny that to any other child, regardless of whether that child is of the same race as his or her adoptive parents.

There is something unsettling, however, about the speed with which these children were improperly (and, likely, illegally) taken out of their home country.  I see a troubling arrogance behind the intentions of the missionaries and the U.S. government: the assumption that anywhere but Haiti would be better for those children; the assumption that the life Americans could provide for the children would surely be better than any life Haitians could provide for them in Haiti.  The assumption, even, that whites looking to adopt these children would necessarily be capable of raising a black child in the United States.

Staring at the picture of the little girl, I first wondered, “has this mother mastered the most basic of parenting tasks for those fortunate enough to raise a black child—that of grooming a black child’s hair, in all it’s curly and kinky glory?”  More substantively, I questioned whether she had grappled with the harder questions, like how race will impact the twins’ educational experience.  Has she considered the assumptions that teachers may make about their intelligence and capability on account of their dark skin?  Is she, and the other white adoptive parents implicated in these news articles, prepared to confront the lack of celebrated role models for their adopted children; to counter societal preferences for blue eyes and straight blond hair that their brown children do not have?  In the hopes of raising a “colorblind” child, will these parents errantly avoid discussions about race and racism in their home, thus leaving these babies to draw conclusions based on their observations of a world that inevitably places black and brown people at the bottom of a social hierarchy?  Have these parents confronted their own beliefs about race, both conscious and unconscious?  Have they considered how their own understanding of race, or a lack thereof, will affect their ability to parent these children?  Considered, even, whether their own psyches harbor the very same assumptions that allow missionary groups and government officials to disregard the right of a sovereign black nation to control when and how their children might be removed from their country?  Do any of these white parents believe themselves to be superior parents for these black children because they are, well, white?  Note, I haven’t even begun to address what the adoptions mean for the loss of Haitian identity among these children.

My suggestion is not that being white should necessarily preclude white people from adopting black children.  No race has the monopoly on properly raising children, and black children do not “belong” to only black parents.  Indeed, to open your heart and home to a child you did not conceive is a beautiful thing.  But like any adoptive parent, you shouldn’t be deemed fit to adopt a child if you’re not prepared to address the unique circumstances of that child.  Growing up as a person of color can be challenging enough; to grow up without parents who can understand—or worse, refuse to acknowledge—that experience is doubly difficult.  It would be a mistake for a white parent to assume that because race is not a factor in their own life, that it won’t be a factor in the lives of their black adoptive children.

Even I, a black mother, struggle with properly contextualizing race in my daughter’s life.  And if I can struggle, then I’m left wondering about how these white adoptive parents are faring.  Who, I wonder, are the best parents for these black children?  To what type of family can a black child properly be said to belong?

Haiti, My Darling

Ayiti Cheri…

Fok mwen te kite ou, pou m’te kapab konprann vale ou…

Fok mwen te lese ou…

Pou m’santi vreman tousa ou te ye pou mwen

Haiti, Darling

I had to leave you to understand your value

I had to leave you

To really understand everything you were to me

I burst into tears when my mother announced over the phone that MereMere (my grandmother) and Uncle—the last of my immediate family who were not yet accounted for—were safe.  The relief I felt, however, only slightly tempered the grief I was feeling over the disastrous earthquake, and its nightmarish aftermath, in Haiti.  No matter what news channel I turned to, the message was the same: the damage is unimaginable; the loss of life incomprehensible; the survivors needed food, water, shelter, and medical care that would be slow in arriving.  Haitians were suffering.  I sat on the couch, immobilized by, as one friend put it, “the limits of my own humanity.”  Was this it?  Were praying and sending money the only things I could do for Haiti, a country that has given me so much?

I am a first-generation American.  Although my mother married a West African, family circumstances and relationships made us a primarily Haitian household.  As a result, I identify closely with Haitian music, food, art, and language.  Growing up, I spoke Haitian Kreyol and French, requested “pwa an sos” with every meal (sometimes to the embarrassment of my mother when we visited guests), and wore ribbons in my hair until well past the 6th grade—as all Haitian girls are unfortunately forced to do by their mothers (so un-cool!).  Like many first generation children, the rules and expectations in my home were sometimes a little different than that of other American households: greeting all elders with a kiss when you entered a room was expected; permission to attend sleepovers was not (“why would I send you to sleep in somebody else’s house, when you have your own bed right here?”); fast-food and the movies were exotic experiences, if they were experienced at all.

Being of Haitian descent shaped my identity in ways that protected me from the onslaught of negative messages to which black girls are often subject.  Haiti was the first black country in the world to gain their independence (a distinction for which white countries have made them pay dearly, but that’s for another post…).  That fact allowed me to lay claim to a heritage that was not defined solely by slavery, unlike many of my black peers who often resorted to the old trope of “we were once Kings and Queens” in an effort to do the same.  Although Haiti is politically unstable, I could pledge some measure of allegiance to the Haitian flag without having to reconcile my loyalty with evidence that the country still didn’t want me, as black Americans often have to do in the United States.  Although most of its inhabitants are poor, Haiti does produce professionals of color.  Growing up, my mother’s friends were, more often than not, Haitian doctors who enjoyed the respect that comes with that professional achievement.  It never occurred to me that people of color didn’t hold positions of power; most of the people of color to whom I was exposed growing up, did.  In middle school and high school, when my academic achievement triggered accusations that I was “acting white,” I merely shrugged off the insult: I was Haitian; how could I not be black?

I know that my Haitian-American status will never insulate me from the barriers I must face as a woman of color.  Nor do I want to be estranged from other folks of color based on national origin; we are all in this struggle together.  I do realize, however, that my Haitian background provided some padding for the bumpy ride.  I am proud of my Haitian identity; I value the influence of Haitian culture in my life.  And I am desperate to pass some of that on to my daughter.

But how?  Culture and identity are not things you just talk about.  They are reflected in the day-to-day tasks of life.  I have never been much of a cook, and the ability to prepare a Haitian meal eludes me.  Although I can still understand Haitian Kreyol when it is spoken to me, and even formulate the sentences in my head, something happens in the transmission between my brain and my mouth.  The words get stuck at the back of my throat; my lips won’t form the right sounds.  The language comes out choppy and halted; embarrassed by my own difficulty with a language I spoke growing up, I stop trying almost as soon as I start.  I have not been to Haiti since I was a baby, and do not even have memories of the country that I could pass on to her in stories.

I am inspired to renew my connection to Haiti, not only for my child’s sake, but also for my own.  There is a Kreyol class offered at the nearby community college that I will take this summer.  When my mother visits this weekend, I’ll be paying attention to what she’s doing in the kitchen.  A trip to Haiti sometime in the future is a new goal; re-establishing connections to the Haitian community in my area is a more immediate priority.  My only regret is that it took a disaster like this to make me realize that I was losing touch with part of what makes me, me. As I sit on the couch in front of the television, where my tears fall harder when images of women clutching their young children flash on the screen, I am crying not just for the additional suffering that Haitians have been asked to endure, but also for the loss of a meaningful connection to Haiti in my daughter’s, and my own, life.   Haiti, my darling, I had to leave you, to find you.