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We shall overcome

March 10, 2014 — Leave a comment

I comb D’s hair in the morning, and I wonder what the hell I’m doing raising an African American child.

When David and I got licensed to become foster parents, we took many classes on being an interracial family, and we didn’t go into this lightly. But still, I ask myself: Can I help her to know her community, her heritage, and protect her from the American caste system that is, in part, based on the color of one’s skin? Can I instill in her that her kinky hair is beautiful, despite messages all around that tell her long flowing blonde hair is the ideal? Can I help her believe that she can be a ballerina if she wants to, despite the fact that all of the other little girls in her class are white?

Growing up in Iowa, I knew one African America. One. His name was Curtis and he went to my high school. I didn’t know him well, but he was popular, a very good wrestler. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him.

My dad made a living selling real estate, and he told me of a time, in the 60s or 70s, when he sold a home to a black family. The neighbors were upset. So my dad arranged a pot-luck dinner for the whole neighborhood so they could get to know the family. It worked, apparently, because the black family moved in and there were no problems between the neighbors. I am proud of my dad for that.

I remember riding in the car with my grandmother, and she saw a sign for Martin Luther King Drive in Des Moines. A product of her generation, she said, “Why do they demand so much?” “They” being African Americans who lobbied to have the street name changed. “Our family never owned slaves…” she said, absolving herself of the collective guilt of her white privilege. My grandmother was a loving person, and she and my grandfather sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family. She helped the poor and needy. She was a good woman who I admired. Yet, she could not understand the depth of the wounds suffered by the black race. I’m not sure I understand those wounds, either. But now, for D’s sake, I have to try to understand. And I want to.

We are taking small steps. I take D to an African American hairdresser — a gorgeous woman who braids D’s hair. Last time we were there, she took pictures of D’s braids after she was finished, because they looked so cute. D was so proud of those braids.

We visit with D’s paternal grandma every month. We call her “Grandma G.” She brings what I call her “entourage,” which includes her husband, and D’s cousins and half sister. Helping D keep a connection to her biological relatives, and her African American community is important to her and to us. Grandma G was suspicious of us at first. And angry. So angry. It was as if her anger at the entire white race was directed at the “system” and at us, who “took her baby.” But slowly, we have formed a bond. Before Christmas we all met — me and David and D, and Grandma G, her husband, and other grandchildren at McDonald’s Playland. We all exchanged gifts and hugged, and wished each other a Merry Christmas. We have come to love them, and I think they are fond of us.

I showed Grandma G and her husband videos of D dancing at her ballet class. They were thrilled. D’s grandpa looked at me, and said, “You are all doing such a good job with her. We are so glad she has you. You know, everything happens for a reason.”

I almost cried. For the past year and a half I have been so worried that I wasn’t doing it right. That I wasn’t doing her hair right, or dressing her right, or raising her right. That I was being looked at by the African American community as an ignorant white woman.

So those words from her grandma’s husband were powerful. “You are doing a good job with her.”

These are small steps. I don’t know much, but I do know that building this bridge with her birth family is a small step. Or maybe a huge step. But it’s a step.

We are not only adopting D, but also, in some ways, her grandma, cousins, aunts and uncles, and half-sister. We are all becoming a part of this large community, black, white, young, old, that are coming together to make D know that she is loved. And in the meantime, we are growing to love and understand each other. Sitting in McDonald’s eating french fries and watching the child we all love squealing with joy as she sliding down the Playland slide — we shall overcome.