Towards a Black Transracial Adoptee Consciousness: A Critical Examination of Representations of African American Adoptees in Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Ann Patchett’s Run, and Nicole Opper’s Off and Running
By Shannon Gibney
*An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 4th Annual Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture Conference, on Saturday, March 24, 2012, on the Scripps College Campus, Claremont, CA.
At the end of Lorrie Moore’s critically acclaimed 2009 novel A Gate At the Stairs, Tassie, the book’s college student narrator, reflects on whose story she has been telling. Is it Sarah’s, the upper middle-class white adoptive mother to be? Is it Bonnie, the birthmother’s story? Or rather, would it be Lynette’s, a former foster parent? Ultimately, Tassie decides that the book’s Master Narrative belongs to Mary-Emma, the two-year-old mixed black girl who was Tassie’s charge while she was in Sarah’s custody. She says,
…it wasn’t, strictly speaking, Sarah’s story. In the end I felt
it belonged as much or more to Mary-Emma, whom, I realized,
I had never stopped unconsciously to seek, riveted by little
girls who would be her age in stores and malls and parks. I would
do a double-take every time I saw some dark, lively girl of
three or four or five or six – the years plied on. I would get
close and look close, which is what I realized Sarah somewhere
must surely be doing. And Bonnie. If she was alive. And even
Lynette McKowen. Emmie! A little girl with four women
wandering after her, looking for her, sort of, without her
even knowing. That was love of the most useless kind, unless
you believed in love’s power to waft in from a burning sky to
the unseen grass it had designated as its beloved, unless you
believed in the prayers of faraway nuns, unless you believed
in miracles and magic, rapture and dice and Sufic chants and
charms behind curtains and skillful clouds at smoky, unfathomable
Although this passage claims on the one hand to give Mary-Emma, the book’s one black transracial adoptee, narrative ownership, it is only ownership in the sense that the “other mothers” in the book – the white adoptive mother, white birthmother, and white nanny – are each in some way searching for redemption through her. Mary-Emma is the object, rather than the subject of the story. She has no voice nor no agency, as the governing consciousness of the book, although sharply critical of whiteness itself, is still white, and at the same time, both riefes and troubles conventional notions of adoption and kinship. This trope of deploying black transracial adoptee characters to signal a path of redemption (whether or not they choose it) for white characters may be viewed as a subset of the overarching trend to use black characters in general as tools of white redemption in (white) American literature. Although A Gate At the Stairs simultaneously resists and reinforces this project, Ann Patchett’s bestselling 2007 novel Run unabashedly embraces it. The acclaimed 2010 documentary film Off And Running, however, successfully abandons this trope altogether, and presents instead a layered but pervasive black transracial adoptee governing consciousness.
Moore’s decision to write A Gate At the Stairs from the perspective of Tassie, the nanny, offers the reader with enough narrative distance from Sarah and Edward, Mary-Emma’s prospective white adoptive parents, to clearly glimpse their glaring racial contradictions and problematic understanding of the labor this child will do for them. As Edward says once Mary-Emma’s foster placement is cleared: ‘The future’s going to be a little different now. We have a horse in the race,” (118). What he means, of course, is that the couple will now be seen as somehow “legitimate” in the eyes of their friends, neighbors, and colleagues, coming one step closer to embodying the mythical American family: mom, dad, and child. Mary-Emma is seen as the site of social capital in this context, rather than a complex human being with her own wants, needs, desires, thoughts, and unfolding role to play within the family. After a group of white teenagers call Mary-Emma a “nigger” while hanging out the window of their speeding car, Sarah decides to create a Wednesday night “support group” of sorts at their home, in order to “plot collective action,” (155) as she calls it. Tassie does note, however, that most of these “families of color” as Sarah calls them, consist of white parents with transracially adopted children. And their “support group” discussions, produce wine and hors d’oeuvres, but no action:
‘Racial blindness is a white idea.’
‘How dare we think of ourselves as a social experiment?’
‘How dare we not?’
‘How dare we use our children to try to feel good about ourselves!’
‘How dare we not?’
‘I’m in despair.’
‘Despair is making a small world for a large one and a large one for a small,’ (156).
While showcasing Moore’s signature sardonic and absurdist humor, this passage also shows the contradictions and ongoing unresolved clash of idea inherent in upper middle-class white people adopting and attempting to raise children of color. While well-meaning, these parents are often better equipped to analyze and theorize racial oppression than they are to actually combat it, or to train their children to do so. In fact, they are performing resistance instead of resisting, and in this way, actually furthering the commodification of black and brown histories of resistance. There is an air of inevitability in their dialog, a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” ethos that conveniently lets them off the hook. And never, in one of the many pages of scenes of these discussions, do these parents entertain the notion that a viable place to start in terms of organizing against racial oppression might be to engage with communities of color. The novel’s governing consciousness clearly critiques this orientation of whiteness and white adoptive parents to reify their power and positionality vis-à-vis closed-loop social interactions like this.
A Gate At the Stairs is equally critical of the adoption industry, and its collusion in reinforcing class differences and commodifying the bodies of black and brown children. At the adoption agency, while they are picking up Mary-Emma, Edward tells Tassie,
‘One shouldn’t buy babies, of course. As a society we all agree.
And mothers shouldn’t sell them. But that is what we keep telling
ourselves as these middlemen get richer and richer and the birth
mother continues to empty bedpans while wearing her new
wristwatch….They’re only allowed to receive tokens, like a watch.
Nothing real, like a car. The nothing-but-a-watch law is considered
progressive, since babies must not be sold, or exchanged for cars.
And so they are exchanged for watches,” (114).
In adoption, Edward articulates clearly, there are winners and there are losers. Birthmothers tend to be the losers, since the middle class need to give the appearance of morality is of more value in the “exchange” than equity or fairness. And later, when Tassie is pulling Mary-Emma around a park on her bike, she begins to see how the relative economic privilege that Mary-Emma will gain through her adoption may very well further separate her from those who look like her, by creating a class wall:
I would pass the town’s few black and Latino kids fishing in the pond
for dinner, and I would think of the absurd disparities of everyone,
how Mary-Emma was now a little African American princess while
these poor kids at the pond were the casualties of a new pull-away-
and-don’t-look society, (185).
Furthermore, Tassie sees that, besides adoption’s individual effects on Mary-Emma, its larger unctionings only exacerbate existing structural oppressions overall.
But if A Gate At the Stairs is often a refreshing departure from the staid and true narratives of rescue and redemption into a colorblind utopia through transracial adoption, it simultaneously reinforces whiteness in sometimes disturbing ways. In most scenes, the characters’ races are only stated if they are non-white, a stylistic choice that reifies whiteness as “normal” and brownness as “abnormal,” or “exceptional.” In doing so, it also assumes that the reader is white, something that caused this reader of color to be jarringly pulled out of the narrative in these sections. Another instance of this narrative dissonance occurred in one of Moore’s first descriptions of Mary-Emma, which I found positively Orientalist. “She had silky dark hair, skin that was a mix of biscuit and taupe, and eyes that were black and bright: she looked like a savvy Indian rug merchant,” (103). Personally, I was flummoxed, as I have no idea what an Indian rug merchant in the body of a two-year-old girl might look like. And at times, this white consciousness is impenetrable in A Gate At the Stairs, as in this scene towards the middle of the book, when Sarah and Tassie travel to the courthouse with Mary-Emma, “…to pick up copies of the provisional adoption papers from the judge’s office…On our way in we passed a bench in the corridor on which sat a row of young boys awaiting hearings of various sorts. Some of the boys were as young as nine. They were all black. We carried Mary-Emma past them and they all looked at her and she at them, everyone entranced and baffled,” (144). The book’s governing consciousness is entirely unable to conceive of what these black boys could possibly be thinking, what messages, ideas, or questions might be passing between them and Mary-Emma. I posit that a black transracial adoptee governing consciousness would offer a much richer, fuller picture of this psychology, because it would be able to understand it, and therefore, represent it.
If A Gate At the Stairs seeks to unseat whiteness’ power by exposing its contradictions, Run works hard to uphold this power by masking them. Indeed, it is hard to read Patchett’s novel about a black birth mother who sacrifices herself so that her adult son can live and his white adoptive father can be “saved” by adopting her daughter, as anything other than a fantasy of white redemption through transracial adoption. The arc of the story serves to undergird this trope, situating black bodies as lacking meaning in and of themselves. It is only through interacting with white ones that they gain meaning (that is, to move the story forward) – but still, never for their own sake. Tip and Teddy, the two adult black male transracial adoptees in the book, exemplify this approach, as do Tennessee, their birth mother, and Kenya, Tennessee’s daughter. Tip and Teddy were adopted by Bernadette (who is deceased) and Doyle, a former mayor of Boston, now obsessed with ensuring that Tip and/or Teddy follow in his footsteps and go into politics. Sullivan, Bernadette and Doyle’s biological son, is a disappointment, having killed his girlfriend some years back in an unfortunate car crash that also effectively ended Doyle’s political career. One night, while walking to a Jesse Jackson speech that Doyle has pushed his sons to attend, a car almost hits Tip, but then Tennessee jumps in front of it and gets hit instead. This lands Tennessee in the hospital, and her daughter, Kenya, in the unexpected care of the Doyle family. At which point, the two transracially adopted brothers discover that Tennessee and Kenya have been literally and figuratively following them for years, keeping up with their physical, emotional, and psychological development, but of course, wanting nothing from them in the form of a relationship. The inevitability of Tennesse’s death, ostensibly due to negligence at the hospital, but at a symbolic level due to her black womanness, reveals the extent to which Patchett relies on the larger societal story of black sacrifice for white redemption in order create Run’s deepest meaning and resonance. It facilitates Kenya’s all-too-easy incorporation into the family of the White Father, who now, through mending the error of his original sin of pushing his black sons too far in his image, achieves redemption through the black mother’s gift of her daughter. All the loose ends are tied up, and meaning, as well as the dominant social order, are maintained through the lyricism of the prose. “Tip kept his head in his books, in the clouds, with the fishes,” (116-117).
The mythical mother is alive and well in Run, and she is white and the adoptive mother. Bernadette is the only mother that Tip and Teddy ever miss or think about, as Tennessee, as well as it seems, their black subjectivity, was erased at the moment of incorporation into the white family. Towards the beginning of the book, Doyle ponders,
And why was it the boys had never asked about her [their birth
mother] either, had never said, as children in similar circumstances
surely must, what about our real mother? Maybe because it was
natural to wonder about the one who was missing, the one who
left you, and for their family that would always be Bernadette. It
was enough to hold one absent mother in your mind, to love
completely and completely believe in the love of this woman you
never see. No one could be expected to hold up two empty places.
The weight of it would surely crush the life out of a child, (79).
After Tennessee is hospitalized, Teddy and Tip engage in a discussion about why they have apparently never really thought or yearned for their black mother, the figurative representation of a lost black family, and by extension, community. “The mother, whomever’s mother she might be: absolutely no concern of mine,” (94), Tip tells his brother, coldly. This is white female subjectivity at its most over-determined: Foreclosing even the mere possibility of some small expression of a black male transracial adoptee consciousness. What adopted person has never wondered about their origins, home community, and first family, I wondered, as I read this? And then, the clear answer: An adopted person created in the image of a white, non-adopted consciousness. The relative beauty of the prose serves to obscure the problematic nature of its content – that it reveals no insight into or truths about the experience of actually living as a black male adopted person in a white family and white-identified culture. This is further underscored by the fact that Tip and Teddy do not move through the world as any black male subjects the ordinary black reader would recognize. When walking through the city at night, Tip’s thoughts are completely consumed by his research on fish. At no time does he wonder if this is a safe time and place to be out, given the fact that there must be some kind of police presence in the neighborhood, which like all “good” police, have been trained to control and fear the black male body in public spaces. At no time do either he nor Teddy wonder about their role in the black community, how they are inevitably “read” as black by their peers, but find themselves embarrassingly revealed to be “inauthentic” and somehow lacking – a signature of the lived black transracial adoptee experience. All of these factors conspire to create an illusion that functions to obscure Run’s true project, which in fact, probably eluded even its author: to unproblematically uphold the process of racialization in America as “true,” “right,” “inevitable,” “beautiful,” and serving the interests of upholding the “rightness” of the white middle-class family.
Off and Running, Nicole Opper’s critically-acclaimed documentary about a transracially adopted black teenager adopted by white Jewish lesbians in Brooklyn, while problematic at times in terms of the mediation between filmmaker and filmic subjects, is a breath of fresh air in this context. Avery, the film’s protagonist, is in the fight of/for her life, struggling to define her personhood and positionality in a family structure and society that consistently strives to erase and simply it. At one point, writing to her birth mother, Avery narrates,
I have had this bottled up in me for so long, and the questions
just started pouring out of me. I wanted to write to you, but I
didn’t have the guts. I just want to know who I am and where
I come from.
Although she is a well-regarded runner, and has done quite well in school and socially as a child, Avery, now in adolescence, has hit a social and cultural wall, and is clearly at a turning point as the film progresses. Her white adoptive parents, while trying to “help,” clearly cannot step outside of their own subjectivity and whiteness, to offer Avery solace or direction in her quest. In one scene, Avery’s mother says, “I wish that you were a little girl again, so that I could help you.” Avery says, “I don’t know who I am.” Avery’s mother says, “I’ll tell you who you are. You’re his sister, and his sister,” pointing to her two transracially adopted brothers, both of whom are touchstones of safety and acceptance for Avery. Still, as the film progresses, it is clear that this will not be enough to help Avery successfully navigate her journey into adulthood and self-definition without perhaps significant personal and collateral damage. In addition, the film’s presentation of Rafi, Avery’s older, mixed black brother who is leaving for Harvard when the film opens, and Zay-Zay, her Asian American younger brother as “The Good Adoptees,” matches Avery’s adoptive mothers’ positioning of them the same way (and by extension, Avery’s position as “The Bad Adoptee”), serves to further dominant social narratives of black women. These troubling stereotypes include the notion that black women are unnecessarily “difficult,” do not do well in school, are lascivious, and unreasonable. The only real counternarrative to these ideas in the film is Avery’s own voice, which sometimes gets drowned out by the larger familial and societal “frame” (and I mean this both literally, in terms of the filmic frame, and figuratively) in which it is presented.
Still, I would argue that Off and Running is, overall, one of only a handful of contemporary alternative representations of the black transracial adoptee subject. The movie is exception because it explores of the complexities and contradictions embedded in the black female transracial adoptee experience by embracing one young woman’s voice and real experience. The fact that Opper asked Avery to write her frequent voiceovers throughout the film is significant, in this regard. Narrators really do wield a lot of power, in terms of their ability to shape the storyline, characterization, atmosphere, and point of view, as well as how the viewer/reader interprets all of this, and for all intents and purposes, Avery is Off and Running’s narrator. Perhaps part of the reason the filmic frame, on the whole, feels big enough to accommodate the depth, breadth, and challenge inherent in mediating Avery’s experience and identity as a black transracial adoptee is that Opper did not ostensibly set out to make a movie about transracial adoption, as such. She was actually making a film about The Hannah Senesh Community Day School, the Jewish Secondary School Avery was attending, and in this capacity, had known Avery for quite some time when the events of the beginning of the movie began, and Avery started having problems in her family, socially, and at the school. After securing Avery and her family’s interest in the project, she then decided to make another film, this one about Avery’s story, given its poignancy and power. In this case, Opper’s relative lack of knowledge about the topic might actually have been an advantage, coupled as it was with her facility for drawing compelling autobiographies out of her filmic subjects. I would argue that she was probably not hindered by her preconceived notions of about the subject, which might have foreclosed the possibilities of experience that this intersectional subjectivity would demand. This may have allowed her to mediate the telling of Avery’s story with more openness than would have otherwise been possible.
Like A Gate at the Stairs, Off and Running critiques whiteness and traditional notions of adoption and kinship, but unlike the novel, actually goes beyond them, to provide an altogether richer framework for exploration and analysis. Avery’s response to her isolated racial existence is to seek out a black peer group, something we never see any of the characters do in Run or A Gate at the Stairs when faced with how best to respond to racism. Through her narration of her own experience, we also see that even as young as she is, she has a very clear analysis of the multiple racial, class, gender, religious, and sexual forces pulling at her, even as her negotiations with them are more or less successful. Avery is essentially an empowered subject, propelled forward, as is the narrative, by her own voice, her own gait, even if she is not in control of where she is going. For all of these reasons, we need more stories like Off and Running, steeped in a pervasive black transracial adoptee consciousness, in order to begin to more fully comprehend this complex and ever-moving identity.