If you know me on a personal level, you know about my grandmother, Mamah. I loved her dearly. We lived across the street from her for most of my childhood and I learned so much from her. Mamah was my real life superhero.
Mamah was also the adoptive mother of my sister’s father.
Yeah. Let that one sink in.
In case you still are working through it. My sister and I have different fathers. My sister’s father was adopted. Mamah and Papah were his adoptive parents.
So yeah. Mamah has absolutely, positively, no biological or legal relationship to me.
But you better be ready to take it to the streets if you dared to say that Mamah was not my grandmother.
And I wasn’t the only one like that. There were plenty of folks in my neighborhood, church, and school who had familial relationships that weren’t exactly straight-forward. I had friends at church whose parents were actually their grandparents or other family members. In middle school, one of my classmates went to live with the school secretary. One of my good friends grew up with her cousin but she called him her brother. Even in my home, my stepfather’s nephew lived with us for years.
Some families probably had formal adoptive relationships where “the system” had gotten involved, but most probably didn’t. Folks did what they could to keep children with their biological families. If that wasn’t possible, other people in the community stepped in to keep social and cultural relationships intact. Family preservation first.
As for my grandmother, she was my family. Period.
Nana and I love watching the US gymnastics team. Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles are her idols and so we watched most of the 2016 Olympic gymnastic events together. When I first heard the announcer making a distinction about her grandparents being her adoptive parents, I immediately thought it was a racial issue.
Of course Simone just couldn’t be a talented athlete with a supportive family. As a black woman she HAD to have a backstory where she overcame TRAGEDY in order to become a world-wide phenomenon. The best way to drive this home was to underscore the narrative of her not being raised by her biological parents at every chance.
This skepticism was not unwarranted if you remember how much the media focused on Gabby Douglas living with a white family in Iowa as she pursued her Olympic dreams. There were also many stories highlighting her mother’s financial issues. Tragedy sells. And when it comes to brown and black bodies, it seems like they have to suffer before we can celebrate them.
But holy heck was I caught off-guard when adoptive parents started tweeting about the distinction between adoptive parents, grandparents and “real” parents. Blogs and articles quickly followed about the right way to talk about adoption. Adoptive parents were outraged.
But I was completely confused. I’m an adoptive parent and this didn’t raise my hackles in that way. Was this even an a story about adoption?
A 2016 Time article annoyingly titled, “The Olympic Gymnast Who Overcame a Drug-Addicted Mother,” indicates that the grandparents got involved fairly quickly upon learning that their grandchildren were in foster care. They brought all four children to live with them temporarily, hoping that Simone’s mother would get herself together. After it became clear that their daughter wouldn’t be able to parent, Simone and her younger sister Adria were adopted by their grandparents and the older siblings were taken in by their uncle.
Just another family who pulled together to take care of each other.
I don’t know the details of what happened with the Biles family, but it is very likely that adoption was only on the table because the “system” was involved. And black folk know, once the “system” gets involved in your life, you can never get them out. This aversion to outside intrusion plays into the reasons why there is such a disparity in African-American adoptions compared to the number of black children in foster care. No one want to invite strangers into your business if you don’t have to.
And so here we are…
Instead of Simone Biles being able to just bask in the glow of her #blackgirlmagic, she has to field questions about foster care, her relationship with her biological mother and adoption. Fed up with all this controversy, Biles finally told US Weekly, “My parents are my parents and that’s it.”
While many adoptive parents used this statement to reaffirm their status as “real” parents, I understood this as a black girl who grew up in a culture where family is not limited nor defined by biological or legal terms. Simone and her siblings are being raised by members of her biological family, which to me is a success story for family preservation, not adoption.
But of course that’s not the angle that most adoption blogs are pushing because then the adoption industry wouldn’t get to claim the most decorated American gymnast of all time as a landmark case. The narrative of “Simone wouldn’t be an Olympic champion if it wasn’t for adoption, so therefore adoption is good” is not only wrong-headed in its message, but centralizes the feelings (read: insecurities) of adoptive parents. Once again.
I can’t support the adoption community in this self-serving narrative, especially since Simone herself doesn’t seem to see this as an adoption-related issue.
According to Simone, they are family. Period.