Black Babies=New Birkin? Thoughts on the Transracial Adoption Uproar


I sincerely wanted to stay out of the overblown transracial adoption fray presently rocking the blogosphere.   I am of the belief that adoption is a personal choice; I am grateful whenever a child who needs a home finds one.  Yet, when news broke that Sandra Bullock secretly adopted  a precious little black baby from New Orleans, I started thinking about this issue at a cultural level.  What does it mean in the age of Obama, when white celebrities adopting black babies is suddenly en vogue?  A pattern of celebrity transracial adoption  is emerging that rightfully deserves critique.  So while CNN is asking, “Transracial Adoption: Big Deal or Not?” I am left asking, when did Black babies become the new Birkin bag?

Angelina Jolie and Madonna, who  of course got their Black babies overseas, are part of this apparent trend.   However, as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun.  Celebrities have had a penchant for Asian babies for quite some time and decades ago Jospehine Baker adopted a dozen multi-ethnic orphans; she dubbed her rainbow tribe.  However, there is something unique about this cultural moment— bi-racial President, Precious, tea partiers, militias, and inane immigration laws—that makes the current trend of  transracial adoption slightly more compelling.

The story of Bullock’s secret adoption broke several weeks after her Oscar win.  Ironically, she won for a role in which she played surrogate mom to an emerging African-American football star.  I guess the cynic in me cannot help wondering if this adoption is at least to a certain extent life imitating art?

Unfortunately, Bullock announced the adoption not long after the equally compelling, but not so triumphant news  of her  marital problems surfaced.  Bullock managed to deflect most of the negative press emerging from the tawdry spectacle, as the gossip rags were largely sympathetic to the beloved actress.  Several weeks later, during what had to be the zenith of her publicist’s carrier,  Bullock appeared on the cover of People delightedly lifting a cherubic little Black baby in the air; the cover headline reading  “Meet My Baby!”.

When I saw the cover, I was at once delighted and yet filled with a bit of cognitive dissonance.  Given Bullock’s recent spate of bad luck, I admittedly or perhaps cynically, found the timing of the People cover odd, if not convenient.  It’s a good news story with perfect timing, and fits nicely into the American sweetheart narrative Bullock has forged for herself.

Since the story broke, CNN.com and other news organizations have been stirring the transracial adoption pot.   I only find it interesting because of what it says about  characterizations of Black motherhood in cultural sphere.  Many comments on blogs and news website at once celebrate her choice to adopt a Black baby as selfless, and malign the ability of the Black community and particularly Black mothers to properly raise their own children.

I think these bigoted comments reflect an ignorance of what Black motherhood is and the historical struggle it represents.  I am not sure mainstream America gets a realistic picture of the Black family and particularly Black motherhood.  Instead, they get a continuum of constructs and caricatures: Claire Huxtable, Florida Evans, and Nikki Parker, for example.  Ironically, the reality of  Black motherhood is probably closer to the human reality of motherhood;  it has diverse incarnations.  It’s too bad more diverse and positive representations of black motherhood are not seen in Hollywood.

The film Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, was heavily lauded this year for its gritty, realistic portrayal of the Black experience.  The mother character, Mary Johnson, was nothing if not  nightmarish. She mentally, sexually, and physically abused her daughter and apart from that was largely a degenerate do nothing.   It’s a shame that no foil to Mary Johnson emerged in cinema this year.

The characterization of black motherhood in this film Precious connotes early cinema’s caricature of the Black mammy, who was portrayed as loving, maternal, and docile to her slave master’s children, but cruel and unloving to their own.  Accordingly, it’s hard to conceive that 200 years later that the social baggage of slavery and its modern day effects on the construction of Black families is in a way shifting this largely erred, but oft stated narrative.  In this case, Caucasian women are playing the loving maternal role.  What is not stated is that the need for the Caucasian surrogate, emerges from the degeneration of the Black family, which many argue is in turn due to the impacts of the peculiar institution that was American slavery:

In “The Ethnic Myth”, Stephen Steinberg writes, “ghettos are nothing less than the shameful residue of slavery.” Many scholars blame slavery for the pathologies in the Black community such as homelessness, single-parent households, and youth violence. Views that are more radical claim, “Slavery is a constant reminder of what whites in America might do.”  There is a belief that slavery stole their African culture. (The Effects of Slavery TodayDenisesArt).

I would argue that it is this idea  that gives some credence to those critical of White celebrities adopting Black babies both domestically and abroad.  Yet,  the statistics for Black children needing homes, and Black families stepping up to adopt them are deplorable.

The social baggage of slavery and its effect on the black family, as well as the construction of Black identity are certainly at play in this transracial adoption debate.  The extent to which you believe race matters and colors our perception  and reception in the world will contribute largely to where you come out on this debate.  Bullock named the baby in the center of  all this Louis, after Louis Armstrong the pioneer New Orleans Jazz musician.  What this says about cultural appropriation of Black jazz music is still up for speculation.

At the end of the day, Sandra Bullock is America’s Sweetheart.   Her down home good looks, humble spirit, self-deprecating humor, and perpetual smile has endeared Ms. Congeniality to a nation.  Suffice it to say, we—America—love ourselves some Sandra Bullock; she is right up there with Apple Pie and Rock & Roll.   We cheered when she won the Oscar, deserved or not; and given her recent spate of bad luck, this adoption and yes the magazine cover play like a narrative in American resilience.  Her against all odds come back is the stuff of fairytales.

I want to put The Kabosh on all those who denigrate Bullock for her selfless seemingly pure act of service; I am not prepared or inclined to question her motivations for adopting a Black child.  I can only bear witness to the fact that a child’s life will be made better, at least materially, by means of her decision to adopt him.  Kudos to Ms. Bullock for her brave choice.

..and for all those women who do “Motherhood”; God bless you and Happy Mother’s Day.

Thoughts.

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4 Comments

  1. i had a huge crush on Sandar Bullock when i was still in college, for me, she is the prettiest actress ,,”

  2. Before there was Angelina or Sandra, there was Josephine Baker, a beautiful Black actress who adopted 12 children from various countries. Although, she was repressed, she made a name for herself and helped others regardless of their race. Here is a link to her story http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/56005/

    • I am quite familiar with Josephine Baker and her beautiful Rainbow Tribe =) What an inspiration they were for the ultimate sameness of the human spirit. For all our physical o or phenotype difference, we can all be united and served by a mother’s love. Thanks for the story. I will definitely check it out!

  3. I’m late to your post!!! But I always wondered the same thing! But then I thought to myself… where are the blacks that want to adopt these children? I am not fully educated on the adoption process and or its history… but if I where a child with no care takers… I’d gladly want one that had a open, kind and clean home for me to grow in. When I state “home”, I’m speaking of a house, and the heart of the person adopting. Thx again for your post.


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