Is Love Enough When It Comes to Interracial Adoption?
Rumaan Alam, author of ‘That Kind of Mother,’ on writing about—and raising—adopted black children
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Adoption on its own is fraught. Interracial adoption is fraught-adjacent, but really exists in its own alternate universe of problematic power dynamics and mainlined moral decisions. The whole process and ideology of it strikes an eerie chord in a country historically rooted in a system driven by the continuous act of white people tearing black families apart.
Full disclosure: As a black adoptee raised by white parents, my criticism of interracial adoption is largely informed by my own experience, and the first-person testimony I’ve heard from other adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents in the larger adoption community, of which I am a reluctant member. So interviewing Rumaan Alam about his new book, That Kind of Mother, is not without its cognitive dissonance.
The novel centers the experience of a privileged white woman named Rebecca, who forms not so much a bond, but a dependency on her nanny, Priscilla, who is black, after Rebecca gives birth to her first child. When Priscilla dies inexplicably in childbirth, Rebecca makes the unilateral decision to adopt Priscilla’s baby. Rebecca and her husband, a British diplomat, live in a big house in Washington, DC, and up until Priscilla’s death, had thought about race peripherally, at best; as perhaps unwitting casual racists at worst. Nonetheless, Rebecca felt confident (because of course she did) that she could raise a black child in the late 1980s when Cosby was still an iconic figure in the minds of white people.
I met with Rumaan Alam at a restaurant in Brooklyn and talked to him about raising two adopted sons, writing about the complexities of interracial adoption, and dissecting privilege.
Rebecca Carroll: So for me, the most pressing question is, how did you come to decide that this book would center the experience of a white woman in a story about interracial adoption?
Rumaan Alam: I think I wanted to tell the experience that felt like you could crack it open the most easily, as the reader. Because it seems like [Rebecca, the main character] is doing this heroic act, and then you realize over time that that’s not what’s happening. The book lulls you into a sense that you understand what’s happening, and then hopefully shifts, and you realize that you maybe didn’t understand what happened.
RC: When you say that she was the easiest character to crack open, which I think is insightful, and makes sense to me, don’t you also think that there are actually white women like Rebecca out there who will read this and feel seen?
RA: That’s an interesting question. How [readers] take it is something I can’t totally control. There’s probably going to be a reader who valorizes [Rebecca’s] choice. But I think the text really leads you to a more complicated understanding of what actually happens. The book is so rigorously focused on Rebecca, almost sort of absurdly. I think you begin to feel the claustrophobia at a certain point. I know I did when I was writing it. In order to enact the plot, I had to kill the first black woman. That’s the reason that Cheryl is there — to still be present in her life, but Rebecca doesn’t see it that way.
RC: Because Rebecca doesn’t see Cheryl.
RA: Right. Which Cheryl says in the book. That moment to me is when the power dynamic finally corrects, and Cheryl kind of articulates what you’re talking about, which is like, you have not understood what you’ve done, or who I am, or what’s happening. And [Rebecca] hasn’t. I’m not sure that she does at the end of the book.
RC: What did it feel like to live inside the head of a privileged white woman?
RA: In many ways, it felt not that challenging, because so much of the literature, the body of literature, is that.
RC: This goes back to my first question, which is that you had the opportunity to write about something as complex as interracial adoption, and you chose to have it centered around a white woman’s experience.
RA: It’s a little, to me, like working within the confines of a convention. There are two answers. One is that the conventions of literary fiction are the conventions, and so we think of like, a white lady’s marriage falling apart. Essentially, that is what I’m doing. The book delivers in summary what I think we expect from literary fiction. But I think the politics are really in there. Remember when Jessica Seinfeld wrote that book about putting spinach into brownies? To me, that’s how the book functions. That it takes a narrative that we understand really well, about a certain kind of upper middle class person navigating marriage and motherhood and work, and all that stuff. But it also tells a story, that I hope, is deeper and more important. About race, about power, about class, about adoption, and about ambition. It’s buried in there.
RC: As a grown black adoptee, I guess I find it frustrating that it has to be buried, or hidden like a vegetable kids don’t want to eat. I shared my own review of your book that I wrote for The LA Times with my mom, my adoptive mom, and she said, “You have to understand that we loved you. How do you know what’s in somebody’s heart?” And I said, “That’s not really the point though.” Which then brings up this idea of, is love enough when it comes to interracial adoption?
RA: Which is a huge question. I think the book gives one answer, which is, not really. In the discourse of adoption, you have three perspectives. You have the adoptive parent, which is mostly what we hear. You have the birth parent, which is very rarely what we hear. And then you have the child. This book is not concerned with the child at all, right? He is barely there by design because he exists sort of in that, what is going to happen between these two women? Priscilla, too. At one point, the title of the book was Hidden Mother. That is a very rich metaphor for what adoptees experience, I think. Which is the notion of this elusive maternal figure … the first maternal figure. Adoptees, hopefully, have happy maternal figures and parental figures in their lives, but there is this other person who is always just a little out of reach. Even, I think, amongst adoptees who know and forge relationships with their birth families. There’s just a distance that cannot be bridged.
RC: The severance of it … it’s too primal.
RA: It just is. There’s no sort of happily bridging it. It’s more about reckoning with it. Acknowledging that it exists on the part of the adoptee, but also on the part of the adoptive parent. There’s also the moral question of what I’m entitled to tell as an adoptive parent. Inhabiting this sort of, maybe, most limited point of view of the most limited kind of adoptive parent. Although Rebecca, I think she means well. But inhabiting that point of view lets me get to those other things, I think, more easily than I could have. I can imagine the inverse of this book.
RC: What’s the inverse?
RA: The inverse is, what is Priscilla’s story and what is Cheryl’s story? We do not know the answer to that question, and to me, that is how so many adoptees feel about their own story. There are so many, many cases in which people just don’t know.
RC: The other thing that kept nagging at me is, I’m sure that Rebecca would not consider herself as such, but I feel like she farmed out her own internalized racism to her mother-in-law, her husband, to her other family members. Would you consider Rebecca racist?
RA: I think that that is one of the particular ironies of the book. She has this exchange with her mother-in-law — she sees that her mother-in-law is trying not to touch this black woman’s hand, or somehow sort of treating her like a servant, and she catches that moment. So in her defense, she is able to identify that moment as it’s happening, which to me is the beginning of a sense of progress. Of some kind of personal awakening. You hear her talk later about wanting to defend Andrew, her black son, in school. To me, that is further evidence of her thinking a little more about the kind of life he’ll have and the society in which he’ll be raised. But to be sure, to be sure, when Cheryl, who is her son’s sister, and her husband, confront her very directly with a very clear ask of, we need to have this conversation. That is a big moment in the book. That is pressing on buttons that the contemporary reader will understand. You are black, but you were raised in a white family, but black families have had this conversation for decades. It is really only now in the larger culture that we talk about the ways in which black mothers have prepared black sons.
RC: I have a son. I have a black son.
RA: Wait, so you know this? You know this?
RC: Yeah. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on how you anticipated adoptees would respond to the book. I kept sort of engaging with the story as non-fiction, because so much of it hit home.
RA: Everything fiction ends up being facts to a certain degree. The fact in here is just the texture of parental love, or specifics about — I make spaghetti like that; I make banana bread like that. The adoption, again, it’s such a hard thing to talk about in the culture, because there’s no monolithic experience in adoption. So there’s no one way that [the book] functions, and in many ways, I’m doing a disservice by publishing a book about adoption that is so far-fetched. The kind of adoption that takes place in this book, it’s in the realm of possibility, you can imagine it happening, especially if you were imagining someone with a lot of wealth, saying, “I will do this and this is how it will function.” But really, this is not how it works.
RC: Well, not now. My own adoption was actually very similar to this one in the book. In that it was completely informal at the start.
RA: It’s just like a handshake.
RC: At best. But also, Priscilla gave no indication whatsoever that she would have wanted Rebecca to raise her child.
RA: This is why she dies, because I had to answer the question of her own volition. Birth parents’ volition in adoption is something that is very rarely discussed, because it often comes to this kind of moral dimension. Because if you are a birth mother and you are choosing adoption … there is a way of judging that as a moral failure and not an internal choice. I had to establish inevitability in that, so she had to just vanish. She dies. There’s almost no explanation of how she died. She is just gone.
RC: And so she’s a plot device?
RA: Purely a plot device. I’m extrapolating how an adoptee must feel about this elusive person. That they are just gone and that there is no answer. You only really know her through Rebecca’s recollections, which are inherently suspect because there are two sides to every story.
RC: Why didn’t Cheryl want to raise her brother?
RA: I think it was also important to establish that the black woman who remains in the book is a morally complex person. Black people in books and films, and you know this as well as anyone, they exist as these sort of magic plot devices. So, they’re saints or they’re sinners. They’re not allowed to be complicated. I think, in my imagining, Cheryl is at this incredibly vulnerable place where her mother has just died and she is about to give birth. She just has no particular answer and then this woman, who has all the answers, says, “I have the answer. I will take this baby.”
RC: In literally, a white savior capacity.
RA: Absolutely. There’s a lot of trope in this book and you will either be made uncomfortable by those tropes, or you won’t even realize them, or you will resist them. Priscilla is a nanny, that is a trope. Cheryl is a nurse, that is another trope.
RC: I never felt like Rebecca loved Andrew, but I also didn’t feel like she loved Jacob, either. She’s sort of a roundabout mother, which made it weirder, the way that she was so determined to have this child.
RA: There’s not a lot of emotional language in the book. She’s a very cerebral person and everything feels kind of distanced from her. I guess that’s just how she wanted to be. That’s just how she turned out to be.
RC: Again, as an adoptee, something that I found frustrating and that I took surprisingly personal, was that she paid such little attention to the needs of this black infant child.
RA: First of all, we have two black [adopted] kids. We exist in a cultural moment where it’s okay to say that things are different and we own our difference. I think Rebecca is coming from a cultural moment in which liberalism kind of insisted on saying this. That was seen as respectful. The example I keep using is that when I was a kid, if you wanted to talk about the woman over there, you would say, “The woman in the yellow sweater.” Not the black woman. I think now, we understand that you can say the black woman. In fact, it’s an act of acknowledgement as opposed to an act of reduction. That is a really different cultural contract.
RC: I kind of resist this whole notion of, that was then, this is now, times have changed — you know, back then we didn’t say this or know that, because I do think that on some very fundamental level, if you are a white person of means, or not means, or whatever intellectual means, which was my parents’ case, and you are taking in a child of a different culture and race, that it is your responsibility to understand what that means. I don’t care if it’s 1969 or if it’s 1997 — it is the parents’ responsibility to have some sense of the weight of that.
RA: I don’t disagree, I just don’t know if … Rebecca had access to that intelligence.
RC: But isn’t it a moral issue?
RA: It is a moral issue and I think the book kind of animates the moral dimension of that. It’s pretty clear, especially in the book’s conclusion, the ways in which she’s kind of setting herself up for failure. A lot of this failure, which we’re reckoning with now culturally, is born of a resistance to actually looking at reality. She is just sort of glibly spouting these liberal fantasies of skin is skin, and we’re all the same, and things are getting better. She literally says, “Things are getting better.” But we know from 2018 that things did not get better.
RC: I highlighted that passage in particular because that’s when I was 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, whatever, saying to my mom, “What were you thinking?” She said, “Things were changing.” I just feel kind of blown away, actually, that you can reach a certain level of adulthood, maturity, intelligence, and not have that moral compass of …
RA: Isn’t that sort of the very definition of privilege? That is why Rebecca is so maddening, because that’s what she exists to animate, is the weird insularity of privilege. Her life is not really affected by what happens. She actually goes on to great success. That is also a very particular choice in the book. In fact, she makes this sort of impulsive choice and is valorized for it. When she talks about going to pick up her kid at school and being treated like a hero — that’s kind of how whiteness works, I think. It’s frustrating to inhabit that on the page, and as I said before, it is frustrating to imagine a reader who doesn’t understand how barbed that is, and what the book is working towards.
RC: You have two adopted black sons — at any point during the writing of this book, did you imagine their response to reading this book?
RA: Yes and no. To be clear, what is depicted in this book has nothing to do with my children’s own adoption stories. This book is so distant from who they are. I couldn’t have understood privilege to whatever extent I do, if the only people I loved on the planet weren’t going to be black men someday. That is the education that underrides the motivation to write this book. But, I don’t imagine them ever reading it or reckoning with it. It just seems very tangential to their lives. Their lives are their lives.
RC: Talk about that a little bit more though, that idea of understanding privilege through understanding that your black son will grow up to be black men.
RA: Yeah. It’s an education. This is one of the frustrating things, is that to really transcend or change your mind — like, you say it’s a moral failure and you’re not wrong. Like what’s the motivation? It’s sort of like when you imagine racist grandparents suddenly having a mixed-race grandchild, and how that works on your heart. I was as racist as anybody is racist, before I had my children.
RC: You just said you were as racist as anybody is racist?
RA: Right. Because this is the institution we live in. You are always inside of a society. I’m a person of color, but I’m not black.
RC: Black is a different …
RA: It’s a different matter. When I say that, what I mean is that I was able to be blind to this issue, because people who are not black are able to be blind to it. That’s how society functions. Less and less so, and I have hope for when your son and my sons are in charge of the planet, but at the moment, that is how society functions. Having black sons has been such a great education for my own interrogation of my own blindness to these issues.
RC: I think that that is the best case scenario. One of the things that I really mourn about my own experience is that my parents had two biological kids before they adopted me, who have never expressed any real interest in my experience as a black person. As a black woman. I feel like, what a gift that would have been for them, and of course, a support for me.
RA: Again, I think you’re not wrong to not overemphasize the timeline and progress, but I do think some of it is generational. I really do. We just live in a very different cultural moment and my children. Until recently, the only president they knew was a man who looked like them. You can’t underestimate that. I’d be lying if I said having black children awakened me. It’s not their responsibility to awaken me. It is something I came to on my own. I’m grateful for that awakening. You shouldn’t have to love a black person in order to care about blackness, but you have to take whatever gets you there.
RC: Is it complicated for you because your husband is white?
RA: Yeah, although I will say that my husband is probably — I think because he is not a person of color, as I am — all the more rigorously invested in ensuring that he is constantly interrogating. He has clearly taken it to a very granular level, and it’s very much a part of the way he thinks about almost everything. What kind of art do we collect? What kind of books do we have lying around the house? You have a child of color, or even if you don’t have a child of color, you think carefully about the books you’re buying. What are the museums that we’re taking our children to? He is extraordinarily thoughtful about that stuff, and so am I, more so. It’s complicated though because your children are not a teaching moment.
RC: And also, if you were to say that to your children, they would be like, “Yeah, fuck you!”
RA: That’s not how we think. It is an aspect of preparing them. It’s an aspect of doing our work. It’s important work for us to do because it’s part of being a thoughtful parent. We know enough to know that that’s part of our parental responsibility. To say like, yes, we listen to Rachmaninoff, but we listen to Nina Simone. Small things, big things. It’s all of a piece. Also, a big part of this is acknowledging what we don’t know. This is what Rebecca cannot do in the book. She cannot cede control over her parental responsibility. She can cede control over the day to day tasks of it. She cannot concede control to Ian and Cheryl when they offer to give her son this education in being a black man, because she can’t. She just can’t imagine letting them shatter his innocence.
RC: Because that’s just who she is?
RA: I think it is who she is. There’s a preciousness about a small child that black parents have had to learn.
RC: I asked about the prospect of your sons reading this book and I’ve shared, obviously, my own reaction to the book with you, because I still wonder who you wrote this book for?
RA: I think I wrote it for this imaginary Priscilla. I think I wrote it for this person who is off the page. You can imagine who that person is in my own life. These women who are just around the corner.
RC: A black birth mother specifically?
RA: Yeah. I’ll never know. I’ll never know what it’s like. I’ll never understand it. I’m chasing it down.
RC: And you chose that era of the late 80s?
RA: It’s easier to animate that era because of the historical ironies that I’m talking about. The Bill Cosby thing, to me, holds a lot in this book. I’m confident your parents were excited about Bill Cosby being on television, right?
RC: My parents did not care.
RA: Oh really?
RC: No. My white hippie artist parents?
RA: Bill Cosby was for white people.
RC: He was for a particular kind of white people. They were not his target white audience, which was both conservative and liberal, but firmly middle class. My parents were anti-establishment hippies.
RA: [Cosby] was a vision of what this fantasy that somewhere, in a better world, if black people could just get it together, they would be a doctor and a lawyer, and live in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, and have five beautiful children. I can use writing about the past as precisely the example that we know him not to be. He’s a terrible human being, who is a sociopath and a liar. That is such a stark, particular example.
RC: Last year, I spoke to an audience of white adoptive parents of black kids. After, during the Q and A session, one woman said, “It sounds to me like you are suggesting that we expose our black children to black culture uncritically.” And I said, “What do you mean? Like saggy pants?” She said, “Yes, that would be right at the top of my list.” You laugh, but this is 2017.
RA: It’s not my place to litigate how she raises her son. It is my feeling that what I have tried to do and what I know my husband has tried to do is to be really, really thoughtful about what we cannot know, and respectful of what we cannot know, and what is not for us. There’s a particular irony in the fact that the most successful pop figures in this culture are all black. At this moment, these people, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Donald Glover. They are attaining that status by using and celebrating the actual particulars of black experience. They are making art that is quite truly for a black audience, that is finding a white audience.
RC: I don’t think that it’s about finding a white audience, as much as forcing the statement of being black in front of a white audience.
RA: I wonder how much this adoptive mother you’re talking about even really sees that? Or even sees, or is willing to acknowledge that that expression is not necessarily for her. And that her son can see in that something to marvel at. That is his experience and that’s got nothing to do with her. This is part of the discomfort around talking about blackness in the culture, is being willing to accept, as a viewer or a consumer who is not yourself black, that you may not understand something, or that it’s just not for you. But that it is still of value.
RC: By your line of thinking, if it’s all generational, where will we be in 10 years? Or 15 years?
RA: A better place. I suppose I do think the book is very pessimistic. But I also do have a lot of faith, in a younger reader and writer and artist. Like kids in high school now, they think much less categorically and much less along binaries around gender, around sexual preference, around race. Yes, we live in this special, magical place of New York City, but I really do think this is something that is coming. Youth culture will save us … I hope.
RC: The back flap of the book, at least for the galley, is a letter to your readers. If you could attach a letter specifically to black adoptees, what would you say?
RA: I suppose I would stress that this is not their story, and that I know that. Their story is theirs to tell. Somebody had asked me about like, is there a literature of adoption? And I said, “I know there is. I’m confident that there is, but I’m not sure that it’s well understood or well distilled.” I do think we are now beginning to see, of a piece with a cultural move towards more voices — you’re starting to hear some of those voices talk about their own experiences of adoption. Finding the universal in the very particular experience that they have. But this is not their story. It’s not trying to be, also. This is an exploration of — if you touch on adoption, what else are you touching? You’re touching a lot. There’s a lot wrapped up in this book that has nothing to do with adoption but is all sort of related to the central act.
RC: I am a black adoptee. I have read your book, I have engaged with your book. I have stayed with your book. I’ve written about your book. Do you have a question for me?
RA: Oh, gosh. That is a really good question. I don’t want to ask you the questions that I have for you because I feel like it’s personal.
RC: I don’t mind. I’ll let you know.
RA: I suppose the question I would ask you, but I feel like I already know the answer, because I’m hearing you talk about your own family, is that like: Is it just enough, are these problems solvable? Or is it just that you have to try?
RC: I think you have to try. My kid is 12. So I’ve been a mother for 12 years and in that time, I have learned that it’s not just about showing up, or looking at their report cards, or keeping them from harm. It’s really a kind of selflessness that I didn’t sign up for — I wasn’t actually prepared to put my shit on the back burner to make sure that I am providing a kind of mosaic; a tapestry of culture and education and intelligence and confidence and awareness for my child…
RC: Yes, responsibility. I don’t feel that my parents did that entirely with their biological children, or with me. But I think for adoptees, we need it a little bit more, especially with interracial adoption. That is the honest truth. It is different.
RA: This is akin to the conversation about race — where and when it is okay to acknowledge difference. In my household, as it sounds like it is in your household, race is a tell. You can see it. You can see your difference. In my household, my kids have two dads. That difference is very, very clear, and so there’s no talking around that. It used to be that way, like when white people adopted kids who didn’t look like them who are still white, there was a lot of wishful thinking, magical thinking around these things. It’s not the case in our household. So that’s reassuring to know.