Eight years ago I got a Facebook message that said, “Do you remember me?” I was prepping for a staff meeting and couldn’t place the name or the blond woman in the icon. I shot back a quick sorry that I didn’t remember her and turned my back to the computer. When I turned around, I lost my breath. “I think I’m your mother” beamed from the screen. That was the beginning of my tragic and complicated journey into the discovery of my biological mother.
I’ve always known that I am adopted, and I never had a problem with it. It just was. I was chosen and other people just got stuck with their parents. However, as with any adopted kid, I daydreamed about who my biological parents could be. I never really wondered about my biological father, but for a time, I truly believed that Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) was my biological mother. Over the years, I grew jaded, moving from fantasies about a poor couple trying to make it to my biological mother being a scraggly, nicotine-eroded white woman doing time. And then I just stopped thinking about it.
By the time my biological mom and I met, I was 38. I was well past childhood and not looking for another parental figure—I have plenty of parents in my life; I didn’t need another set. There she was, though, the words staring back at me.
My mother. Possibly ... my mother.
We did the DNA test. It came back positive. Then the rockiness began. It started with a question: “Do you consider yourself black?” Of course. What else would I consider myself? I was adopted into a black family that is pro-black/Talented Tenth. Blackness is magnificent and blackness is power. There has not been one day I ever questioned my blackness before meeting my biological mom. Meeting her is when I had to reconcile what it meant to be black.
The questions didn’t end. I found out very quickly that she was a conservative Republican whose beliefs were in stark contrast to mine. When I was growing up, very few white people were part of my life, but the ones who were close to my family were very liberal—shit, sometimes more liberal than my parents. Church was black; school was predominantly black; my friends were mostly black. We might’ve lived in a gated community, but many of our neighbors were black. My mother and father both managed and were colleagues with white people.
I had a few friends who were black and biracial like me, and they always had a crisis of identity. I just thought they were weird. I wasn’t exposed to that level of violence and confusion. I didn’t get it—not until I connected with my biological mom.
We met up in Vegas for our first face-to-face. It was at once joyful and troubling. She and her husband shocked my partner and me with their subtle bigotry. I remember lying in bed while my partner slept and wondering, “How can she be like this? Doesn’t she know her daughter is black?” She told me once that back then—when she’d conceived me—she was in love and wasn’t yet political.
Over the months that followed, tensions rose between us as we tried to connect, mostly through the multiple and conflicting adoption stories she told me. I could never get the truth from her. And finally, when I threatened to stop talking to her, she revealed a large piece of the story that would later be confirmed by my biological dad’s sisters: My biological mother told me if she couldn’t have my dad, he couldn’t have me.
It was the rash and selfish decision of a 17-year-old whose first love was a jerk. I’d later find out that my biological dad was a “rolling stone”; I am one of seven kids by several different women (one month separates my birthday and that of my twin sisters).
I could forgive that. She was 17. It was 1972 in Indiana (the South of the North) in a small town. I could forgive that sense of fear, betrayal, anger, sadness. Of course—anyone could. But bigotry? No, not that.
Admittedly, I then began struggling with my identity. It reminded me of when I first read Destruction of a Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D., by Chancellor Williams. I knew black people had been lied to about our history, but not to the extent of what I learned in that book. I was in my early 20s and in my radical stage, determined to be the blackest I could be. But the arrival of my biological mom? It kicked me in my stomach.
If she was racist, did that mean I was racist, too? If she couldn’t even understand the basics of humanity because she was a bigot, did that mean I was a bigot, too? For a while, I’d secretly read our correspondence trying to “get her.” I didn’t want her to be the exact opposite of me. And yet I worried that she was my mirror. What I saw in her—was it in me?
Years later, I began co-facilitating a dialogue circle for indigenous women and women-of-color students. I found myself drawn to the young black biracial women who talked about their white mothers. The ways in which their mothers and their white extended families would talk about blackness appalled me. How do you grow up in a household that sees part of you as less than human? “Not you,” their families and mothers would say to them. “You’re not like those black people.”
As I watched these young women come into their blackness and listened to their battles with their families who refused to acknowledge the humanity in blackness, I wondered how they came out of all of this with their sanity intact. I didn’t grow up with my biological mother, so this up-close-and-personal exploration of racism with someone I cared about was new to me. It wasn’t like in Panama Jackson’s gorgeous essay, where his mother caught him off guard with her love for Donald Trump. No, this woman showed up in my life a Barack Obama-hating, right-wing bigot.
I tried everything I could to get my biological mother to see what I believe is logic: The hate (and fear) that white people traffic in is misplaced and projected onto people of color. I got angry; I tried to reasonably debate; I made jokes; I tried every angle I could. All the while, I attempted to figure out the lesson in all of it. I am her only child, and I’m everything that her beliefs say is wrong with this world: black, lesbian, agnostic and liberal. There would be nothing I could do to please her except denounce my blackness, become Catholic, marry a man and become a hat-wearing member of “Make America Great Again.”
That ain’t happening. None of it.
The question of nature vs. nurture still troubles me. Who am I on the inside if I am not part of her? Do I harbor bigotry? Is there a switch that turns that ignorance on and off?
My biological mom and I don’t speak much anymore. I message her occasionally on her birthday and usually every Mother’s Day. I don’t feel guilty for my distance, but I feel sad for her. I am her only daughter, and I am nothing that she ever wanted. We can’t be close because I don’t have that type of forgiveness in my heart for a woman who can’t even remember what time I was born, much less for someone who believes black people are just making up oppression. But I still wonder: In this time of Trump, how do other black biracial people reconcile whiteness?
Happy Mother’s Day.