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A Beautiful Life

By Vanessa Bush

My husband, Shaun, and I have always known we would adopt; we also knew that we wanted to adopt through our state's Division of Family and Youth Services. So several years ago, we signed up for training classes, and took that leap of faith that the child we wanted was already in the system just waiting for us to find him. I say "him" because we decided early on that we would adopt an African-American boy first. That choice was deliberate: Black boys aren’t as easy to place in adoptive homes, the experts told us; potential parents believe they are harder to rear than little girls.

Having been raised by African-American parents ourselves, we knew better. There’s nothing like love, commitment, and faith in God to put a child on the right path.

We also understand how important it is for black boys to have a black male role model in the home, how that ever-present influence makes a difference in how a young boy’s self-worth is shaped. As a young married couple, blessed with enough financial resources to provide a good home, and armed with a vision of the family we hoped to build, it seemed that we could serve both our community and our own dream of being parents by adopting a black boy.

"Knowing about the richness of black culture will help my children thrive in the face of whatever comes their way."

Sounds simple enough, but little did we know how many choices we had ahead of us: everything from the child’s age, to what shade of brown—yes, I said shade. I think I gasped out loud when our social worker mentioned that some parents go as far as stating what skin tone they’d prefer their child to have, as if kids are fabric swatches and as interchangeable as pieces of furniture. I was never concerned about physical resemblance. My uncle, who adopted two children, always jokingly said, "If you feed kids enough, they start to look like you anyway."

About three months after we were certified as adoptive parents, we got "the call." We’d been matched with an 18-month-old boy, who lived 45 minutes from our New Jersey home with his foster mom. In a matter of days, we met Myles; in a matter of weeks, he came home to live with us. That was in November of 2001. Five years later, we adopted a little girl, Madison, who was three when we met her.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to my children, and to us, if our lives hadn’t crossed. I know I feel a huge responsibility to make sure they are brought up with the same values and strong sense of self that my parents instilled in me. I want them to know that they are special just the way they are, so I look into their eyes and tell them so, every day. I want my daughter to appreciate her own unique beauty, including her natural hair. I wear my hair in a short fro, and I leave my daughter’s hair natural, styled in neat, double-strand twists, because it suits her. She always gets compliments. I don’t want her to think that beauty means having her hair straightened. She has gorgeous chocolate-brown skin, and I compliment her on it all the time. I tell my son that he is handsome and smart. I do this because I know from experience that there are people in this world who will tell them otherwise. Both my husband and I have been through it ourselves, so we know the challenges that will come their way.They will have to confront racism, classism, and sexism in their lives, and if we don’t prepare them for that negativity by building them up first, they won’t know how to deflect it and emerge with their self-esteem intact.

Picture Books for Kids

Here are a few of our family’s all-time favorites:

  • Be Boy Buzz,
    by bell hooks (Jump at the Sun).
    A celebration of all things boy!

  • Black All Around!,
    by Patricia Hubbell (Lee & Low).
    An African-American girl’s imaginative ode to the color black.

  • Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,
    by Maya Angelou (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang).
    A young voice rails against all things that mean to do her harm.

  • The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales,
    told by Virginia Hamilton (Knopf).
    Twenty-four stories that honor the human spirit.

  • Whistle for Willie,
    by Ezra Jack Keats (Viking).
    The story of a young boy who longs to whistle for his dog
  • There is an advertising campaign that says, "My black is beautiful." I repeat that to my son and daughter, and I make them say it too. They have to take pride in who they are. My husband and I expose our children to as much of our own culture as possible. Our home is filled with books, movies, paintings, and photographs that celebrate our culture. We take our children to plays, dance performances, and concerts to expose them to the rich creativity of our community. We belong to a predominantly black church, and our son attends a diverse school. This is how you build up an African-American child’s self-esteem. This is how my husband and I were raised. The more a child knows about the accomplishments and contributions black people have made to this country, the more empowered they will feel, and the harder it will be for negativity to tear them down.

    We won’t know if all we’ve done has taken root for years to come, but I think it’s important to plant those seeds—a thing of beauty can thrive, even under the toughest circumstances, given enough love, protection, and attention. Right now, there’s nothing more important to me than making sure my beautiful black children will thrive.

    Vanessa Bush is executive editor of Essence magazine. She and her husband live in New Jersey, with their children Myles, seven, and Madison, four.

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    The author's offense that some adoptive parents have preferences with respect to, in her words, "shade of brown" or "skin tone," and her analogy to kids as "fabric swatches," were misplaced, insensitive and hypocritical. Although the author states she was "never concerned about physical resemblance," I noticed from the picture of the author, her husband and their adopted children, that they all shared the same "shade of brown" or "skin tone" and "physical resemblance." African-Americans can vary dramaticaly in complexion, from very fair to very black, not to mention variations in facial features and hair texture. Also, an African-American, whose complexion could be on one the end of the continuum or somewhere inbetween, could be part of an interracial couple. A preference of African-American or interracial adoptive parents to adopt children who share a physical resemblance is analogous to a preference of Caucasian adoptive parents to adopt Caucasian children, and a preference of other adoptive parents to adopt children of the same full race or mixed race of the adoptive parents. The fact that African-American complexions can vary dramatically does not negate such preferences for physical resemblance. One of the benefits of adoption is supposed to be choice. Race or physical resemblance of the child does not matter to some adoptive parents, but for others it does matter. As a community, we should support adoption and the choices it offers in all of its forms, even if others make choices that we would not make for ourselves.

    Posted by: Gina at 10:01am Jan 18

    A great article. What's interesting is that it could have been written by me, a white woman raising two black adopted sons. I chose boys because I too was told they are harder to place and I know a child is a child given the right nurturing in life. I too tell my boys how much I love their skin - they are so beautiful with lots of shades within their blackness. We talk about skin a lot because to avoid it sends the emessage that there is something wrong with it. One is very dark, the other very light and both are happy with how God made them. When asked why his mother is white, my son says because people come in many different colours and sizes. I also found out through adoption that shade of skin matters to some,that a blue eyed blonde will cost you most,then biracial are next and full black cost the least - a sad commentary on how far this world has to go before we see each other as belonging to the same race - the human race. I too expose them to great people of the world, making sure there is a healthy balance of black achievers. I am keeping their Haitian and African cultures and roots alive, but first they are members of the culture they now live in and I am simply raising them to become good and honorable men- by teaching them what a quality person is and to let go of what others mistakenly believe to be quality. I believe that they will grow up with a healthy perspective of what family is, of bias and prejudice, and that they will have the strong foundation to know who they are, feel blessed because of that, and refuse to believe they are anything less than worthy children of god.

    Posted by: Terri at 9:59pm Jan 3

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