He was our first foster baby. He was officially placed with us when he was eight and a half months old, but he had been “ours” for several weeks before. He was a chubby little guy, obviously of African American heritage, and we loved him with a ferocity that scared me sometimes. Back then, foster care agencies were known to move children if they thought the foster parents were getting “too attached.” A caseworker, Mimi Sommers, of Franklin County Children Services, had gone to bat for us, and had literally bucked the powers that be for him to be allowed to be placed with us.
“You can’t do this,” said her supervisor.
“Oh, yes, I can,” I am told she said. “And I’m going to!” And she did.
His placement was legal enough that we were allowed to bring him home for Christmas in 1975. We pulled into Daddy and Mama’s driveway very late that night, but Daddy, Mama, Sarah and Alma were waiting up for us. There was a fire burning in the fireplace, and we brought our swaddled, snow-suited little guy in, put him down on the rug in front of the fireplace, and unwrapped him. He sat blinking in the firelight, looking at all the strange faces around the circle, and then a smile split his little face wide open and in doing so, opened the hearts of our Delaware family.
He was with us for 20 months. We were first time parents, and we had much to learn. He would escape from his crib at night, and explore the territory. We found him sitting in the stereo one time, on the turntable, the spindle up between his legs against his well diapered sleeper. It worried us. We had no way of securing the front door from the inside of our shed-type house on West Avenue in Plain City, Ohio. So we devised a plan for a “lid” for his crib. Made of cardboard and held on by shoelaces, we made sure we could easily get him out in case of an emergency. He loved it, and would ask to have it secured if we forgot. He was very attached to Daniel, following him around, riding piggy back all around the living room floor, and sleeping in his strong arms whenever the chance arose. Daniel called him, “Daddy’s little brown boy,” but never in a deprecating way. It was affectionate and defining and respectful of the delightful color that graced the skin of our beloved son.
There were several factors that went into the agency’s decision to not allow us to adopt him, and while they would never be considered viable reasons now, they were then, and in August of 1977, our little guy was adopted into a family that did not want to have any ongoing contact with us. The adoption went smoothly enough, but in the days following, this Mama felt paralyzed. And sick. And empty beyond belief. We grieved deeply, but mostly privately. It wasn’t that people didn’t care, but it’s a difficult thing for people to understand.
It was a few years later that Joseph’s adoptive mother called me. She caught me up on this little guy that had so suddenly disappeared from our lives. And then she told me this story.
She said that one day, Joseph had come to her and said, “Mama, you are white.”
“That’s right, Joey,” she said, wondering where this was going.
“And I’m brown,” he said, matter of factly.
“Right again,” she said.
“Do you know why I’m brown?” He asked her.
She said to me, “I thought, ‘Oh, dear! Not this already!'” but she said to him, “Why is that, Joey?”
“Well,” he announced with a great deal of confidence and delight, “The Mommy and Daddy I had before I came here kissed me all over and made me brown!”
I cannot tell you how that comforted me. I don’t begin to know how to tell people to navigate through this current race thing. So many of the things we did and said back then are taboo now in the circles I operate in. There are nuances and familiar words upended and so many connotations that I cannot figure it all out. Sometimes I’m silent because I do not want to say the wrong thing. Sometimes I’m silent because I disagree so deeply with what is happening, and I’m too angry to see straight. And sometimes I’m silent because it feels like everything I say further inflames emotions that will come back and hurt the people I love so very much!
Ever since Joey’s story, the color of brown has been the color of love in my book. If every child could consider the color of their skin to be the special product of somebody’s love for them, wouldn’t that solve a lot of problems?
No, it probably wouldn’t. Because that is too simple, and our world is too complex. There will always be bullies, and this world will produce out of the vast store of hatred and prejudice the people who seek to destroy those who, through no choice of their own, threaten them by virtue of being different.
I just wish it wouldn’t be children who bear the brunt of it. And more specifically, I wish it weren’t our three grandsons targeted because of their color in a modern school setting in the quiet town of Sugarcreek, Ohio.
No amount of “kissing all over” can protect a child from this kind of attack.
Read our daughter in law, Regina’s post from this week, HERE:
And weep for us all.