This Black Life Mattered: An Adoption Story

by Rebecca Carroll

2016

It’s said that a person’s story belongs to them; I don’t know if that’s true for people born into the same families in which they grow up, but mine has never felt like my own. Maybe that’s because it’s always been a little different, depending on who was telling it to me. And so I have taken other people’s stories about me, and themselves, and each other, and written my adoption story for myself – for my sense of self, for my sense of home, to fill in my need to understand.

What began as their stories is now my story.

David Carroll and Laurette Lesieur met at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the early ’60s. David, the eldest of five, had been raised in Groton, Connecticut, where his father worked at the Naval Submarine Base, and developed into a romantic skilled in the art of conversation. Laurette, born and raised on the New Hampshire seacoast, was a shy visionary and close with her one younger sister, but far more interested in the life of her own mind. Raised as devout Catholics, these two quiet revolutionaries both wanted out of the church. Looking to change the world through art and love, they found each other at the right time, got married, and quickly started a family. Laurette gave birth to a son and a daughter two years apart, and after David graduated (Laurette never returned to school), they moved to a small town in rural New Hampshire, where David got a job as an art teacher at Kingswood Regional High School.

Around that time, in the Bostonian neighborhood of Hyde Park, 15-year-old Jan Waldron’s world was falling apart. Sam, her jazz-musician father, was growing ever more aloof; Shirley, her adopted, self-educated, intellectual mother, known for hosting regular conversation salons, had begun what would become a decades-long descent into diagnosed but untreated paranoid schizophrenia. As a result, Jan and her older brother Gary were soon shipped off to a small town in rural New Hampshire to live with their grandmother—Shirley’s adoptive mother­—Altie. She enrolled Jan and Gary at Kingswood Regional High School, where they settled in as resident rebel transplants.

So far, all of the people in this story are white.

Over the next year or two, Jan and Gary both made frequent trips back to Boston to visit friends; for Jan, these trips were specifically to see her boyfriend, Joe, whom she’d met on the lush green lawns of the Boston Commons. Joe was a handsome Black man of 26, strumming made-up jazz notes on his bass guitar, looking fly and holding down late-’60s Black cool like it was all he had. In fact, it was all he had: Joe had been surrendered at birth. It has been alleged by more than one person who claim to have seen his birth certificate—and Joe himself maintained until his death in 2010—that his mother was Blanche Calloway, sister of jazz musician and bandleader Cab Calloway.

Joe was born in Rochester, New York, and grew up in foster care and government housing without staying in one family or in one place for more than a year or two. By the time he landed in Boston, he had managed to make a life by working different jobs, including a brief stint as a corrections officer, and spent as much time as possible hanging out with his friends at the Berklee School of Music. He never had the means or the cultivated ambition to attend as a student, but music was what he loved most—second only to Jan.

Kingswood High was, not surprisingly, a provincial school. It was not an institution that celebrated individuals or individual thought; it did not seek to support or facilitate political movements or intellectual curiosity or irreverence in any sense. Art was a 30-minute class, not a form of expression.

This philosophy did not reflect David’s views as either a teacher or a person, nor those of Jan and Gary as students and young adults, so the three of them found each other almost immediately. David very quickly assumed the role of public advocate for Jan and Gary, who were both routinely chided for being outspoken, or for writing incendiary op-eds in the school newspaper, tackling issues such as abortion rights or racism. When Jan learned she was pregnant with me at five months along, she turned to David for guidance and advice. Around the same time, David was fired, due in large part to his open and active support of Jan and Gary.

Also around that time, David and Laurette had decided they wanted another child. Reflecting the progressive, left-leaning culture of the time, they were firm believers in zero population growth and, they’ve said, they didn’t want to bring another person into the world when there were already too many, and when there were certainly many small persons who needed families. But since they had by now disassociated themselves entirely from the Catholic church, did not own any property, and had only one (limited) source of income, they did not meet the legal requirements of the time to be adoptive parents.

That Jan would consider placing me for adoption could, ostensibly, provide a solution to all parties’ problems: Jan’s unplanned pregnancy, and David and Laurette’s desire to adopt a child.

For his part, Joe—my birth father—was not given a voice in this decision-making process. It was decided without his input that I would be relinquished to David and Laurette at birth.

But adoption stories very rarely line up perfectly—especially in the ’60s, when the mistruths and fundamental lack of awareness and understanding around the adoption experience were so much more prevalent. The legal process by which one or two adults assume the parenting of another person’s child is difficult enough, but when another person’s child happens to be of a different race than the adoptive parents, the trauma gets ramped up.

Black adoptees raised in white families internalize racism in a unique way. Despite love and support from parents, siblings, and extended relatives, the family unwittingly comes to represent a microcosm of the country at large, where systemic racism is foundational and permeates every aspect of American culture unless there is a profound­—and I mean truly profound—effort to include black culture and people in their lives.

***

I was born at Frisbee Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New Hampshire, in May 1969. The nurses knew that my birth mother had made the decision to “give her baby up” for adoption, and therefore took me from her immediately in order to preempt any kind of attachment issues that might jeopardize the adoption process.

Then Jan changed her mind. She wanted to hold me. She would keep me after all.

Jan named me Simone. One of her last cherished memories with her mother was seeing a Nina Simone concert together. In those three weeks Jan kept me, I was silently ordained to embody that memory.

David and Laurette were devastated. My great-grandmother Altie, an adoptive parent herself, was elated, and took over caretaking. Jan was, after a few days, indifferent. And after three weeks of Altie caring for me, bathing and swaddling and rocking me, Jan discovered she no longer wanted to hold me, or hear me cry. She wanted to be a teenager.

The adoption was back on.

David had a job interview at a private college in another small New Hampshire town the day they were to make things official. He dropped Laurette and their two biological children at Altie’s house to meet me. Altie was devastated; Jan, who had friends visiting, left the house without turning back around or saying goodbye to her baby—an uncanny act of emotional severance. “Let me visit her now and then?” Altie asked. Laurette said she didn’t think that would be a good idea.

Joe called and persisted for months. Jan says he forced his way into her apartment one night after she’d moved back to Boston on her own. She says he was violent with her. She says she told him that she didn’t want anything to do with him ever again, and soon after enrolled in college.

David got the job at the private college and the family moved to into a house atop a hill reached only by driving along a dirt road, with no neighboring houses as far as the eye could see. This former family of four now included me, the new baby they now named Rebecca.

***

Jan did not sign official adoption papers until I was three years old. It was an open adoption, which in those days meant the equivalent of a handshake. But Laurette began experiencing tremendous anxiety, and having nightmares that Jan could and would decide to legally take her child back. Laurette and David hired a lawyer, and the adoption became official.

My early childhood was, by all accounts, blissful. We lived in a beautiful old farmhouse with two huge vegetable gardens, and fields that went on forever, with sweeps of blonde wheat in the summers and the perfect hills for sledding in the winter. My brother was an inventor who built go-carts out of coffee cans, and my sister, proud matriarch to the 10-plus barn cats we had roaming about, loved animals. We painted and sang, went on walks and caught frogs, played dress-up and picked wild strawberries. Laurette (Mom) threw us tea parties almost every day, giving the three of us her energy and focused attention, while David (who we all called David) taught his art courses at the private college.

But something else was happening, too. I was being raised, with all the love in the world, as a Black child (my first essay, written at six or seven years old, begins, “I am a black child”) within a white frame of reference. Which is to say free—but with the twisted incongruity of not being given the necessary tools to navigate the world once we left that glorious, sheltered house on the hill. I began to realize that not only would I never be afforded the benefits of that instilled a sense of freedom, but I was also bereft of the culture and people who could help me recast the image of what freedom for a Black girl and woman might actually look like.

I have spent my whole life trying to reconcile these origins—through my work and writing, relationships and research—in order to live in my skin, to be of my people, to raise my son, to love myself. It is a source of pain, power, resentment, and rage, but I am here to say, as a grown Black woman adoptee raised by white parents, and surrounded by whiteness until I was well into my teen years, that in the context of interracial adoption, love is only enough if it means knowing that when it comes to race in America, love is not enough.

 

Rebecca Carroll, who has been a guest speaker at Pact Family Camp, is the author of five books, including Saving the Race: Conversations on Du Bois from a Collective Memoir of Souls and Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America. The former editor of the Huffington Post’s Black Voices and managing editor of Paper Magazine, she is now producer of the Come Through with Rebecca Carroll podcast at WNYC Radio.

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