The Angel You Know vs. the Angel You Don’t Know

Pen and Sword

The Lively Lad is six years old now, and he stands as tall as my sternum. In another six years he may very well be looking me in the eye without my picking him up. For many dads, that would be a source of pride, but for those of us who are fathers of black boys, it is also a cause of some anxiety. Right now, he still falls in the “cute kid” category, but I know that will not last a whole lot longer.

In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it became impossible for many of us Americans who consider ourselves White to ignore the disproportionate use of officially sanctioned force against Black Americans – particularly young Black men. For those of us who are White parents of transracially adopted Black boys, the sense of vulnerability is hard to reconcile with our own experiences.

Thankfully, we have Ta-Nehisi Coates to help us along with his very moving Between the World and Me. He would probably be the first to point out that he is one Black voice among many, but the very personal tone of this open letter to his fifteen-year old son makes it especially poignant. For me, it provides an extremely thoughtful and perceptive first person account of being a Black man in America, something I will never be able to provide for the Lively Lad.

Coates’ path to becoming a successful writer for The Atlantic was not a typical one by any means. He is the son of Black intellectuals, but he acknowledges that many of his important life lessons came on the violent streets of West Baltimore. His descriptions of his early experiences and awakening at Howard University point out what a unique institution and refuge it is for Black Americans. I particularly appreciated how he portrayed the philosophical struggle within the Black community itself between engaging with the White paradigm and separatism – and long history of debate from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey. But Coates is most definitely a 21st-century Black voice, certainly an heir of James Baldwin, but definitely addressing what it means to be Black in this day and age.

One point that emerges from the book is how Black American children (as well as kids of other marginalized groups that don’t fit the dominant model) inherently are taught to “code switch” as a survival mechanism. While it is technically a linguistic term, it essentially means that you need  to know where you are and what is expected of you at all times, and adjust your behavior and speech accordingly. This is a key reason that there has been so much historical resistance to transracial adoption from parts of the Black community – if Black children are raised by parents who have never had to code switch in their lives, are those children being denied an essential survival skill? We all adjust our behavior to the circumstance – there are candid conversations I have with old theater friends that I would probably never have in my job environment – but the stakes are higher if you are in a circumstance where someone might regard you as a threat. Coates recounts a time when he called out a perceived racial slight to his son, and then found himself on the defensive for doing so. The outrage he felt in that situation was partially due to how he was made the bad guy for taking an aggressive comment “the wrong way,” but also anger with himself for failing to remember the right “code” for where he was.

But the overwhelming message for me was just how vulnerable Black American men can be to violence, both sanctioned and unsanctioned. Coates had a Howard acquaintance named Prince Jones who came from a middle class Black family. He lived a law abiding life, was a charismatic figure, and had a promising future until an undercover cop followed him across several jurisdictions with no solid motive to do so and shot him down near his home. Generations of caring and sweat and sacrifice and love invested in this young man, all ended by a single violent act from a law enforcement agent. Imagine living with the constant subterranean fear of losing your life for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Prince Jones’ death clearly shook Coates very deeply.

I was in the wrong place at the wrong time once in my life. In the summer of 1991, when I was part of the acting company at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder, someone randomly attacked me at 12:30am outside my apartment complex. After passing some people arguing at the bottom of the steps to the building, I realized as I walked up Broadway under the shadow of some trees that someone was following me. Before I could turn around, I took a heavy blow to the left side of my head. Fortunately, my attacker did not continue to hit me. The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital six hours later.

For years I have said that my guardian angel was working overtime that night, as someone anonymously called an ambulance. When the ambulance arrived, there were empty ice trays and towels at the scene, but no one was around to talk to the drivers. The left side of my face was a purple mess and my eye was swollen shut, but luckily I have a hard skull and there was no fracture. They kept me in the hospital for two days to make sure there was no major damage to my eye, and to keep an eye on the concussion I suffered. The best part of the experience may have been the headline in the Rocky Mountain News: “Shakespearean Actor Beaten on Broadway.”

It was a sobering time for the entire Shakespeare company, and Boulder is a small enough town that the incident received a fair amount of attention. Some of my colleagues came to visit in the hospital, and the uncomfortable reactions to seeing me were interesting in retrospect – forced jocularity, unabashed shock at my pulped face, studiously avoiding looking at me. They were all clearly feeling unsafe themselves. I’m grateful to them all for showing up, and eternally grateful to two of my dear friends for managing to communicate the shocking news to my parents without sending them into cardiac arrest. All of those visitors were some of my angels as well.

As I reflect on that time after reading Between the World and Me, there are two visits that stand out to me. The ethnicity of the acting company was almost all White, but there were a handful of Black actors as well, two of whom came to see me in the hospital. While I wouldn’t say they were immune to the shock of seeing me, they handled it differently. One of them was a big man with whom I crossed broadswords every night on stage, who grew up in a rough part of Chicago (if I recall correctly). I got the sense from him that he was sympathetic, but also really understood just how lucky I was that it wasn’t worse. The other was a wonderful woman who, as I recall, had grown up in an itinerant military family. She was the one who was able to look me in the face, give me a drink of water or change my ice pack, and generally provide me some real relief and comfort. For both of them, there wasn’t the same sense of shock that such a thing could happen. I can’t speak for them – but the way they took it in stride speaks volumes to me now.

This is where you might expect me to say that I have a special understanding of the vulnerability in a violent world that Black men face, as Coates describes in his book. No, I still don’t, because I am still a middle-aged white man who can go most places I want to without too much fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While there may have been some PTSD for a short time after the incident, I can now say with confidence that I don’t walk in overwhelming fear for myself. And that is a manifestation of my white privilege.

But perhaps I haven’t accounted for all the angels from that night. Perhaps the person who knocked my lights out was another angel – one who was giving me the visceral experience of being a victim of violence. An angel who allowed me to feel the indifference of the police detectives who interviewed me, presuming that I had somehow provoked the attack, and who then did absolutely nothing to follow up on the incident. An angel who showed me the helplessness and fear that my parents felt when hearing about the attack. And above all, an angel who opened my eyes to how one random act of violence can irrevocably change – or end – a life well lived.

Angel of Equality

My experience was ultimately a bump in the road of my life. But I would be a fool to lose perspective and forget its lessons as the Lively Lad grows older.

© 2015 Thomas C. Elliott

Photo Attribution: maren_photographyelycefeliz


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The Ashen Club and the Olive Branch

“I want to know if you have guts enough NOT to fight back.”


Every April 15th, you have the opportunity to forget about your tax return (if you’re a U.S. citizen) and enjoy a major league baseball game where all the players are wearing the number 42. Now known as “Jackie Robinson Day,” it’s an annual reminder of the beginning of the racial integration of America’s Pastime. I have to admit that it deeply touches me to see baseball players from all over the world wearing Jackie’s number.

April 15th

If I haven’t mentioned it before, baseball is a passion I inherited from my father and his father. My grandfather played catcher for a “semi-pro” team in his youth, and the joke was that he was so slow that he had to hit a home run to get to first base. I was not enough of an athlete growing up to play organized baseball, but enjoyed playing at school or pickup games on our cul-de-sac. The first professional game I remember attending was a Seattle Pilots-Cleveland Indians matchup at Sick’s Stadium in Seattle (now the site of a Lowe’s Hardware store) – and if you weren’t aware, the Pilots played for exactly one season in Seattle (1969) before becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1977, my good grades paid off with free Mariner tickets in their inaugural season. Moving away from Seattle in high school, my interest in baseball waned to “casual fan” as other interests took over my life.

Then in the summer of 1990, I read David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 that tells the story of the pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox. The secondary story line was about the Brooklyn Dodgers two years after Jackie Robinson broke in, with the newer African-American players catcher Roy Campanella and power pitcher Don Newcombe. Reading about the early struggles of black ball players, and how Robinson and Campanella were sitting ducks for opposing pitchers until Newcombe came along to throw right back at those pitchers’ heads – I began to appreciate how baseball was a proxy for American life. From that time on, I have been a rabid fan.

Negro Leagues

Melanie and I recently watched the move 42 for the second time, and while it neglects Jackie Robinson’s life before baseball (not necessarily a bad thing, as so many movies try to do too much), it provides a decent understated snapshot of race relations in the U.S. in 1947. The film has been criticized from some quarters as also neglecting the efforts of many civil rights activists of the day who set the stage for Robinson to make the leap from the Negro Leagues, but how do you fit all that into a movie without diffusing the story? I liked that it focused on the two men, and is Branch Rickey’s story as much as (and probably more than) Jackie’s, but it’s ultimately about the will and courage that they both had to change the status quo. The cynical view was that Rickey was in it for the money – which he was in part – but I’m glad that the movie includes his story about how unfair he found it that the best ballplayer on his college team, who just happened to be black, couldn’t even dream about playing in the majors. I’m likewise glad that, as stoic as Jackie was in the face of outright hostility from the other team, many fans, and even some of his own teammates, we had a window into just how hard it was to keep himself together in the scene where he demolishes his bat in the dugout tunnel, away from the eyes of the world.

The message that really rang out in that scene for me was that Rickey’s admonition to ““turn the other cheek” was not just a noble gesture, it was practical advice. It played into the Judeo-Christian sensibilities of the day, but was also pointing out that black men in America had to live up to a higher standard as the hateful white patriarchy looked for every opportunity to prove that blacks were not entitled to the same rights and privileges as whites. It was underlining the reality that even if acting in self-defense, it would be seen as an act of aggression by the powers that be, and another excuse to keep the power structure intact. It was an acknowledgment that those with the guts and patience to stand up against injustice will repeatedly suffer indignities inflicted by those clinging to their ugly advantage.

Good thing that’s all behind us, baseball is now an international sport, and we get to remember a brave pioneer every April 15th…right? We have come a long way, but still so far to go. It’s easy to condemn overt hostility and hate speech. However, we don’t experience much of that where we live in the land of limousine liberals. So many well meaning people would be outraged at the suggestion that they might be racist, but it’s important to acknowledge that racism on a personal level isn’t just learned behavior. There have been several studies over the last fifteen years indicating that the amygdala activity, or “fear response,” in our brains (meaning all of our brains, regardless of race) increases at the sight of a black male in children as young as a few months old. Whether it is native or learned behavior is still up for debate, but the studies do show that even if it is learned, it is learned before it is a conscious choice.

This is a reality that I have to confront as a white adoptive parent, both in terms of facing my own white privilege and unconscious responses, but even more importantly because of the implications for my son. While it is hard for me to imagine anyone finding the Lively Lad threatening, there have been too many recent events where black men (and women!) have unnecessarily lost their lives. So it’s not too early to take a page out of Branch Rickey’s playbook and make it clear to the Lively Lad that if he finds himself in a situation where he is being targeted for whatever reason, defiance and retaliation are generally not the best options – not just because of any abstract sense of proper behavior, but for his own wellbeing.

First Mariner Game

The Lively Lad just turned six, and in addition to a great library book that we found about the legendary Satchel Paige, we also gave him a picture book about Jackie Robinson’s life. It does not shy away from some of the details about Jackie’s life that many might prefer to forget – the fact that his grandfather was a slave, that his family was threatened by neighbors after moving to California, that after his success as a sports star at UCLA and military service he still experienced degrading discrimination – all handled frankly and in an age appropriate manner. And it has already been a great conversation starter….

© 2015 Tom Elliott

Photos: rocor, Keith AllisonAlan English CPA, Melanie Elliott

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Promises, Promises

Happy New Year! I know, we’re already almost out of March, I’m a little behind…


For us, 2015 marks the beginning of the Lively Lad’s formal education, and we have been in the throes of searching for the right school for him. I never expected the kindergarten application process to take up so much of my brain space! Weighing my own college options did not take so much time and energy. Then again, when you’re choosing for someone else – and possibly for the next six to nine to thirteen years – it feels so weighty.

One of the advantages of living in a huge metropolitan area like Los Angeles is that one has options (if willing to put in the time to thoroughly research them). Private vs. public, magnet vs. charter, progressive vs. traditional, constructivist vs….you get the picture. We are not satisfied with our local public elementary school for a variety of reasons, so we have been seriously considering our alternatives. Conversations with other parents of the Lively Lad’s contemporaries almost invariably turn to the quest for the right school – often about the relative merits of paying for a private school education vs. finding an effective public school. What has become very clear to me is that many of the electives that I considered especially valuable in my public school education from a different era have now become “extras” that have a price tag attached, whether it is included in a private school tuition or as a contribution to a parent association at a public school. The biggest change from my youth, though, may be the need for computer literacy from a young age.


Many of our motives for spending so much time on the Lively Lad’s kindergarten options have been those of any concerned, engaged parents who want the best for their children. He’s a bright and energetic kid, and we feel the need to make sure he is in a school where he will be challenged and appreciated, and not one where he will be viewed as disruptive. We have the additional consideration that, as a child of color, he will face institutional racism in his life (as described in this sobering Salon article). At the very least, he will likely have to deal with unconscious bias – as we all do. The difference is that as a middle-aged English speaking white man, those unconscious biases frequently work in my favor.

Probably because of our school quest, I recently watched the documentary American Promise. It follows the school careers of two boys in New York, one of whom is Black-American, the other mixed Black and White American. Their parents made the effort for them to attend the prestigious Dalton prep school in Manhattan, and the film follows them from kindergarten through high school graduation. Time for my SPOILER ALERT. They both struggle at the prep school, and only one of the boys graduates from Dalton. The other boy ends up at Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn, a public school that is almost entirely African-American, and he thrives there despite some family tragedy. It made me happy that they both made it to college in the end. As they grew older, it became apparent to me that they weren’t thrilled to be the subject of a documentary, and some of the interviews and conversations felt pretty forced. That said, I found myself really caring for them and hoping they would succeed.

The attitude expressed by the Dalton administration was a bit of a cautionary tale for me. The school is somewhat progressive, but academically traditional when all is said and done. That makes sense, as they want to prepare their students for challenging institutions of higher education. The expectations are the kind of expectations that a private school can afford to have, and that’s what makes them exclusive (in addition to the hefty tuitions). The downside of those “high standards” is that there are behavioral expectations that require a certain conformity; while they say that they seek diversity, they still want their students to fit a particular behavioral mold. That’s their prerogative, but I feel like the failure to fit the mold can start to feel like a microaggression for lower income kids of color.

My mother – who created and administered an affirmative action program at the UC Davis College of Engineering, where she helped many low-income, inner city kids of color develop the tools to be successful in academia and industry – illustrated institutional racism (and perhaps really classism) to me at a young age. She used the example of a standardized test with a multiple choice question asking for the best association with “cup” – was it a) “saucer,” b) “table,” or c) “rug?” For a child coming from a family that doesn’t own saucers, the logical answer would be “table” – and of course, that would be deemed incorrect. There is no malice in the test question (and I think there’s a confusion in the U.S. that racism is necessarily malicious), but it represents a system where certain social classes are disproportionately rewarded or denied. If private schools are making judgments about kids based on that sort of paradigm, it will be a much longer road for them to establish real socio-economic diversity. But that’s a much bigger question than where my son should attend school next year.

On the other hand…worrying about huge class sizes, hoping that your child’s teacher is bright and energized, and not burnt out and overwhelmed, wondering if your child is getting enough physical activity or creative stimulation, and ultimately low graduation rates in the LA Unified School District…those concerns don’t make public school particularly attractive. The decent options like magnets and charters are highly competitive (certainly more so than most private schools in such a large urban center), and can mean long commutes for young kids.

So…is private or public the best answer for the Lively Lad? Melanie and I have the academic background and resources to give him the survival tools to supplement public school, while the small class sizes in private school would mean he would have more opportunities to be engaged in learning. I do worry about cloistering him too much, and that public school would give him a broader socio-economic perspective – but is the opportunity cost worth it? As you can tell, there’s a lot of fretting involved in modern urban kindergarten decisions – and ultimately, the choice will probably be out of our hands.

Maybe my biggest takeaway from American Promise, and also Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which was made over the same sort of timeframe) was that thirteen years is a VERY LONG TIME and so much can happen. Thirteen years ago, I wasn’t even married, and the notion that I would be the father of a boy born in Ethiopia hadn’t even entered my consciousness. Our lives will be equally different thirteen years from now. So we make the best choices that we can based on the information we have, lay the necessary groundwork, then let it go. Right?

© 2015 Tom Elliott

Photos: woodleywonderworks, Brad Flickinger

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So We Got a Dog

Meet Pepper.



She’s the newest member of our family, and she’s fitting in marvelously. Pepper is probably a Schnauzer mix, but my dad would call her a Heinz 57. We rescued her, so she had some adjusting to do, particularly where I was concerned. For the first week or so, she would growl at me when I came home from work, or whenever I put on a baseball cap. Not too aggressive, but clearly not entirely trusting me. Now, however, she lavishes me with licks and love nibbles when I come in the door. She and the Lively Lad get along famously, and she has become a shadow for Melanie much of the time. There are many great dog rescue organizations in the Los Angeles area, but I must give a shout of gratitude to Wylder’s for introducing us to Pepper and allowing us to “adopt” her.

November 22nd is National Adoption Day, which has absolutely nothing to do with pet adoption. The primary definition of “adopt” is “to choose or take as one’s own.” I suppose that is exactly what we did with Pepper, but it bothers me to use the same term when we talk with the Lively Lad about how he became part of our family. The night before we went to find Pepper, I sat down with the Lively Lad to talk about how getting a dog and adopting a child are very different. I say we “got” or “rescued” a dog, but saying we “adopted” a dog just sticks in my throat.

Now I have many friends (and family) who dote on their pets, and I appreciate and respect that. One friend of mine who is an adoptive father told me that taking the responsibility for a dog was a necessary step in convincing him that adopting a child could work for him. He wasn’t equating the two experiences, but it was a good reminder to me about the value of pets in our lives. Pepper has already become a fixture in our family, that’s for sure.

But my point is that the responsibility of adopting a child is so much greater. With a dog or cat, you become your pet’s owner. No matter how you may feel about your pet, the world regards it as your property. And the relationship has inherent limits – in return for taking care of her health and creature comforts, Pepper offers us companionship. That will never really change – she can be trained to behave, but the nature of our relationship will  fundamentally stay the same for her whole life.


This dynamic became very clear to me in Susan Orlean’s biography Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend. If any dog had a colorful life, it was Rinty – born on a World War I battlefield, cared for by his devoted rescuer Lee Duncan, and spirited back to California to have a highly successful movie career. (My favorite fun fact from the book was that Rin Tin Tin was actually the top vote winner for Best Actor at the first Academy Awards, but since the early movie industry was working so hard to be taken seriously, the Academy overrode the results!) The original Rinty was undoubtedly a smart and charismatic dog, but so much of Ms. Orlean’s book zeroes in on how much was projected upon him – by the studios, by the public, and most definitely by Duncan. Duncan spent so much time later in life trying to recapture the past through Rinty’s offspring, but never really being able to return to the halcyon days. We reach a status quo with our pets that lasts for years, which is generally very comfortable because we get to set the terms of the relationship.

On the other hand, the responsibility I feel to the Lively Lad is one of stewardship and nurturing until he’s ready to launch into the world on his own. One of the biggest flaws in so many adoption narratives is the hyperfocus on the event of becoming a family, and not enough focus on the lifelong commitment that it represents – the way that Weddings get so much attention, while Marriage often gets short shrift. If we fail to look beyond the initial euphoria of uniting as a family, what’s the ultimate point of adopting a child?

With her Rainbow Tribe of twelve(!) internationally adopted children, the legendary diva, war hero and civil rights activist Josephine Baker seemed to forget that her children would develop as individuals. Then again, her motives to adopt were driven by a socio-political agenda at least as much as the desire to be a parent. She set out to show the world that it was possible to create a family from children born all over the world, a utopian model for racial harmony. Perhaps it was her celebrity status and expectation that everyone would meet her demands (as many people did for her wherever she went), but she seemed very unprepared for her sweet little children becoming teenagers. The account of the Rainbow Tribe was a good reminder for me that the terms of the relationship with your child change as they grow older (adopted or not!).

Jo Baker

For me, “adoption” is a profound word that represents a sea change in one’s life. It means worrying over whether we’re sending the Lively Lad to the right school, whether we’re giving him enough exposure to his birth heritage, whether he’s ready to drive the car. It’s feeling the thrill of watching him score his first goal, or write his name, or make friends. It’s figuring out when he can take responsibility for himself, and being there for him even after he’s ready for new responsibilities. It’s hoping that he’s happy and thriving after he’s no longer living in our house.

I hope this does not come off entirely as a criticism of using the term “adoption” for rescuing animals that need families. After all, Pepper has already become an integral part of our lives. But on National Adoption Day, I want to reserve the term for the miracle that made the Lively Lad my son…and the fact that he will be part of our lives long after Pepper is gone.

Photos: Tom Elliott, Philip Watts, areedpicachu_13

© 2014 Tom Elliott

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Tribute to an Old Friend

This is a story I haven’t told the Lively Lad. Not yet. Bear with me through the personal history, there is a point at the end….

One of the highlights of my acting career (and my life) came pretty early on. In 1986, I had the opportunity to play Hally in “Master Harold”…and the boys by South African playwright Athol Fugard. The efforts to pressure the South African government to end apartheid were at a height, and performing this intimate look at the interconnectedness of black and white South Africans was a timely and satisfying opportunity. My two castmates made it magical. Bob Devin Jones, who is now artistic director and curator of the splendid Studio@620 in St. Petersburg (FL) played the black servant Sam, who was a surrogate father to Hally (drawn from Fugard’s own life). The other servant, Willie, who personifies the strong and largely silent majority of black South Africans, was played by Anthony Lee.

This was my third production working with Anthony. We were both young and just starting out as actors. He was without a car, so I would regularly drive him to rehearsals. I learned in later years that he had been caught up in some gang activity when he was a teenager, but he didn’t share much about his past with me when we were working together, and he clearly was glad to be making his way in the world as an artist. I would find him listening to Coltrane and reading classic American literature when I picked him up. He would complain about the necessity of spending money on food, when all he wanted was to spend it on music and books (a man after my own heart in that regard). And these were definitely salad days for us both, but we were mostly grateful to be paid to perform in a meaningful play.

The production was a huge success, playing to packed houses, drawing visceral audience reaction at the key moment of betrayal every single time we performed the play. While the story focuses on Hally and Sam’s relationship, Willie’s presence serves as a sort of moral compass. There are only a handful of moments in all the shows I performed over 20 years as an actor that are still absolutely vivid to me, and Anthony had one of those moments. At one point, Willie restrains Sam from attacking Hally, and Sam then puts Willie on the spot about how he would respond if Hally had spit in his face. I’ll never forget the focused rage that Anthony summoned to say “I would hit him HARD,” followed by a softening as he realizes that the consequences for him would be too great, and that Hally was still just a petulant little boy. It crystallized the impotent rage that so many black men have felt over the years.

A few months later, Anthony and I travelled to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland to audition for that company, largely because “Master Harold” was going to be in their season. OSF did not hire me, but they did hire Anthony to play Willie again, and he was launched on a successful regional theatre career that ran for several years. Our lives would continue to intersect, though. I spent a couple of more seasons in Sacramento playing some great roles, then decided to go back to school for my MFA. After some time in Ashland, Anthony migrated to Seattle where he became a part of that strong theater scene, and he managed to get work at regional theaters around the country as well. During my last year in graduate school in Milwaukee, he appeared in a Trinidadian play at Milwaukee Rep and we shared a couple of beers while he was in town. After grad school, I moved to Seattle myself.

One evening, I was walking along Mercer Street on Queen Anne Hill and heard a deep voice shouting “Tom Elliott!” I turned and saw Anthony across the street smiling at me. We reconnected again, and while we didn’t spend a lot of time together in Seattle, we knew how to find each other. He left an impression on the Seattle theater community, both by his performances (my favorite was a great turn as Elomire in La Bete at the Group Theater) and his huge, warm presence. Eventually, he decided it was time to cash in his strong resume for more commercial success in Los Angeles.

It took me a few more years before I was ready to shift to L.A., but I finally made the trek in the summer of 1998, sharing a moving truck with my friend and fellow actor Bill Salyers. Bill and I both quickly became involved with Circle X Theater Company, and one of the first projects we worked on was an early reading of the Louis Slotin Sonata by Paul Mullin. At least one black actor was needed, and because of the company’s Seattle connections, they were able to track down Anthony (by now up and coming in the film and TV world, having just played a major supporting role in a Jim Carrey movie). So we reconnected yet again, and a fond memory of my early time in LA was sitting in Canter’s Deli with Anthony and Bill with a world of possibilities in front of us. As I watched him drive off in his red convertible, I thought back to the days that I would give him a ride to rehearsal.

So it was a shocking thing for me to wake up one morning at the end of October in 2000 to see a headline that an actor named Anthony Lee had been killed by an LAPD officer at a Halloween party in the Hollywood Hills. I thought, “That can’t be my friend Anthony Lee, not possible!” But as I read the description and the circumstances, it became clear that it was indeed my friend. The story drew much attention from the media at the time, but if you’re not familiar with it – Anthony was at a private party in the wealthy Benedict Canyon neighborhood. His Halloween costume was a throwback to his teenage gang days, and he had the poor judgment to bring a movie prop replica handgun with him as part of the costume. It was a rowdy party, and two LAPD officers responded to a noise complaint. One of the officers circled around the back of the house (why that was necessary is still a question), saw Anthony in the back bedroom of the house holding the prop gun, and opened fire through the window. There are differing versions of the exact sequence of events; I won’t get into the conflicting versions, but will mention that nine shots were fired, five of which were embedded in the wall, four of which struck Anthony in the back (based on the coroner’s report). The officer was exonerated as acting in perceived self-defense, and Anthony’s life was needlessly ended in a matter of seconds.

Here’s the thing. He was not naive about the realities of being a black man in America, he was well aware that his 6’4″ frame made him threatening to certain people. And he definitely was wise enough to understand the danger of antagonizing the police. But he thought he was in a safe place.

Here’s another thing. The officer who killed him was also black. Some would argue that this proves it was not a racist killing, but I would argue that it should still be considered that way. Because of race-baiting attitudes and media provocateurs, racism is characterized as hurling racial epithets and one group’s hatred of another group. I believe those are huge problems, but they’re symptoms of the bigger disease of institutional racism. Our police are trained to use overwhelming deadly force if they feel threatened, and the recent stories of Michael Brown and Eric Garner indicate a very loose interpretation of “threatened” when it comes to Black-Americans. The statistics are there to indicate that black men are disproportionately killed by police across the U.S. While I understand and sympathize that police officers place themselves in harm’s way (particularly with the proliferation of automatic weapons in our country), the situation in Ferguson points up the increased militarization of the police. I don’t agree with Rand Paul on many things, but I agree with him that we need to stop allowing the sale of surplus military hardware to local law enforcement agencies. And it goes beyond that, as we are living in a world where law enforcement has turned to intimidation, where an officer can feel justified in threatening to mace an unarmed elected official.  The baggage of race relations in this country turns situations like Ferguson into even more of a powder keg, and heavy armor rolling into that small Midwestern town is not so different from South African intimidation tactics in the 1980’s. This is the country where I am raising my black son.

To get back to the story…my friend Anthony was killed for no good reason. Every time I hear about another black man killed by the police, I think of him. The fact that his star was rising makes it more poignant in some ways, but that doesn’t really matter in the end. What matters is that he was not even safe after enjoying some personal success, and in a perceived safe environment.

When it feels appropriate to share this story with the Lively Lad, it will be a cautionary tale for him. He is well on his way to being a big black man, and it’s pretty safe to say that someday someone somewhere will feel threatened by him. I know him to be a dynamic, fun-loving, charismatic child, who has a gift for making friends wherever he goes – and I hope and pray he will be able to use that to his advantage over the years. But he’ll need to understand that not everyone will want to be his friend.

RIP Anthony Lee. When I share your story with my son, I will be sure he knows about your contributions to the world.


Filed under Race in America, Theatre

“What Is A White Personality?” and Other Questions From Young Transracial Adoptees

Sorry my own content has been sparse – job and daddy responsibilities have taken all my energy for the last several months, but now I’m revving up again. In the meantime, please take a look at this post by Angela Tucker ( I had the pleasure of watching her documentary Closure ( at the Mixed Remixed Literary Festival in Los Angeles in June, and it’s a film that everyone touched by adoption should see. Angela and her husband Bryan made this film from personal footage and interviews surrounding the search for her birth parents, and it goes to the heart of the desire to know your origin. Angela is now an adoption professional in Seattle, and is spreading the word with Closure. Check it out, and check out her blog!

Angela Tucker

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the African Caribbean Heritage Camp in Denver, Colorado. Instead of preaching to a group of middle and high schoolers, I invited them to participate in a discussion between myself and three other panelists about the concept of race and adoption. Many of the campers candidly explained that they feel that they have a “white personality” or that they consider themselves to be an Oreo. I asked the tweens/teens to expand more upon what they meant by white personality or black personality, and we came up with a list. They explained that having a white personality meant that you liked to hike, camp, dress preppy and seek education whilst a black personality meant that you liked hip hop, dancing, sports and could wear bright colored clothing. The panelists (consisting of an Ethiopian man, an African American woman, a transracial adoptee and myself) worked to…

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The Ones We Come From

Family Tree

For a mutt of Northern European descent, I have a pedigree that is pretty traceable. My family lines go back through Ellis Island to Germany, through Illinois to colonial Virginia (and Yorkshire before that), and through Puritan New England, with notable names like Benedict Arnold, Nathan Hale, and Miles Standish in the family tree. My wife Melanie is the fifth generation of her family born in San Francisco. Just the fact that I can tell you these details indicates how much we define ourselves by our lineage.

So as I watched the excellent Philomena (insert customary spoiler alert), I tried to get my head around what it would be like if I were denied that knowledge and the sense of belonging it has provided me throughout my life.  The movie is the true story of Philomena Lee, who was raised in an Irish convent in the 1930’s, and after an encounter with a dashing young man shortly after she turned 18, gave birth to a baby boy.  Her father sent her and the baby back to the Magdalene Laundries, where she spent long hours cleaning the dirty linens of others, with only an hour a day to spend with her beloved son.  When her son was three, he was adopted by an American couple – without Philomena’s consent.  She did not even have the opportunity to say goodbye to him.  Flash forward fifty years, and with the help of an investigative journalist, Philomena began to search for her son in earnest.  Sadly, her search revealed that he had died of AIDS several years previously.

Much has been made of the ugly portrayal of the Catholic hierarchy in the movie, and the manner in which Philomena’s son was summarily taken from her, followed by the great lengths taken to conceal his whereabouts from her.  The cruelty of their separation is difficult to watch, and while the film takes some license with the bitter old nun who wanted to keep punishing Philomena for her carnal sin (in fact, the old sister died 10 years prior to the supposed encounter at the convent), it captures the anguish of the black box that is the essence of closed adoption. That driving need to know about her son inspired her to make it a more universal journey, and to shine light on the human right to know where we come from through the Philomena Project.

It’s easy to dwell on the pain, but for me as an adoptive parent, the more intriguing part of the story was how she preserved the memory of her son and how she thought of him (and likely still thinks of him) every day.  Even more, she needed to know that he also thought of her. Discovering that he was dead was not the end of her journey; much as she wanted to see and speak with her son, meeting his partner and hearing that her son yearned to know what had become of his first mother was what really gave Philomena some measure of solace in the end. I suppose that after living with her idea of him for so many years, there was not much difference in the fact that he was dead – but the knowledge that she was part of his consciousness gave her some sort of mutual relationship with him for the first time since he was taken from her.

Fortunately, the enforced separation of closed adoption is largely a thing of the past for domestic adoption in wealthy Western countries. With the new emphasis on the rights of adoptees and birthparents, open adoption is now the norm. It is certainly fraught with its own challenges, but it does not force adoptees to become private detectives to discover their origins. Open adoption also affirms that the process is not shameful, but rather an avenue of opportunity for everyone involved (at least in the best circumstances).

So now…for all intents and purposes, closed adoption has been offshored (like so many other things in American life). However, many of the people that want to keep adoption closed overseas seem to be less driven by religious conviction, and more by economic interest. There are individuals with good intentions all along the way, but there is also far too much room for corruption.

I have promised to avoid details of the Lively Lad’s personal story before we adopted him, so none of what follows is a veiled attempt to tell that story. Rather, the intent is to delve into motives for adopting internationally, and to acknowledge some unavoidable truths based on the stories of other families who have adopted from Ethiopia in particular.

After infertility struggles and miscarriages, Melanie and I decided to turn to adoption to have a family. In choosing to adopt a child internationally, we were partially trying to avoid the pain and disruption that an intrusive birthfamily could cause, after hearing enough stories about parents seeking to adopt infants through the foster system, only to have some member of the birthfamily assert parental rights. That was a heartbreak we thought would be unbearable. Our perception was that there were many orphans and unwanted children abroad who had no one to care for them other than institutional caregivers. While there are many children who fit that profile, the notion that we could avoid birthfamily complications through intercountry adoption was ultimately pretty naive. Every child has a family history, known or unknown, no matter how young they may be when adopted. And when they grow up they will most likely wonder about it, if not actively seek it out.

After our experiences in travelling to Addis Ababa to take custody of the Lively Lad, and now being involved in the Ethiopian adoptive community in Los Angeles, that veil has been lifted from my eyes.  We have heard many stories from our fellow travelers on the adoption journey who discovered that their supposedly orphaned children still had family in Ethiopia, or that they had been otherwise misled about the circumstances surrounding their adoptions. Some agencies have been transparent and forthcoming, but others have been passive about determining the history of the children in their care (at best), to downright fraudulent.  This is the new closed adoption, where the histories of the children have been hidden from the adoptive parents. Sometimes this is intended to protect the birthmother from social ostracism, sometimes it can be chalked up to poor recordkeeping, but all too often it is hiding unethical behavior driven by profit motive.

As I said, those histories do not simply disappear because someone doctored the paperwork, nor do personal stories disappear even for children who were genuinely found abandoned. Their story is there somewhere. This has created a cottage industry of birthfamily searchers in Ethiopia and other countries. One of the benefits of the internet – we have a means of contacting the other side of the world and trying to resolve these origin questions. Intercountry adoption makes the world a smaller place; the men and women who dedicate themselves to connecting with birthfamilies – at times, at great personal risk – have made the world an even smaller place. And a better one, in my opinion. My family now extends to Africa!

The Lively Lad is too young to even ask the hard questions, although we often speak of his birthfamily and make sure he knows that his history before adoption is not a forbidden subject. Melanie and I feel very strongly that parenthood is a form of stewardship, and that we need to make every effort to make sure LL has the means to explore his earliest years. And I dearly hope that he does.

Attribution: Family Art Studio

© 2014 Thomas Craig Elliott


Filed under Adoptees, Birthfamily, Ethiopia, Intercountry adoption, International, Movies

In the Name of God

whipping post

Okay, be warned.  This is not a shiny, happy holiday blog.

In my previous post, Someone Else’s History, I raised the question about how I would explain the legacy of Black-American slavery to the my son.  About two weeks later, I had the opportunity to see 12 Years a Slave (“pleasure” would not exactly be the right word), the film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of his kidnapping in 1841, and the time he spent as a slave in Louisiana.  If you’re not familiar with the history of the book itself, it was originally published a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and had a fairly large following in its day.  Then it fell into obscurity for 100 years, until a team of scholars from LSU in the 1960’s researched and verified that it was a true story (and not simply abolitionist propaganda of the day).  It provides a rare window into the institution of American slavery from the first-hand perspective of a slave.

Full disclosure, I have not read the memoir, so my reactions are based on the movie that features tremendous performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, as well as newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.  It is not for the faint of heart, as it is unrelenting in the brutality and violence that it portrays very realistically (and certainly not appropriate for small children).  As one reviewer noted, it makes Roots look positively tame.  Director Steve McQueen has taken some criticism for dwelling on the violence more than the book does, and for portraying some of the white characters less charitably than Solomon Northup did.  Considering 19th-century writing conventions, as well as the original audience for the book, I felt that McQueen was entirely justified in applying a 21st century lens to the saga.  (I also am amazed at how easy it is for modern audiences to live with violence as entertainment, but once it is actually supposed to make the audience uncomfortable, it generally meets criticism for being “over the top.”  But that’s another blog.)  From what I understand, the film is faithful to the book, and while the telling may be more explicit than 19th century publishers would allow, I’m not aware that there are any inaccuracies in the film.

As harrowing as the violence was to watch, my greater horror and discouragement was when Edwin Epps (Northup’s second owner) read passages from the Bible to his slaves to justify their slavery.  While this was far from the first occasion over the millenia of human history that interpretations of holy writ have been used to justify oppression, witnessing this spiritual abuse was as hard for me as the noose or whiplash.  I’m not sure if it made it better or worse for Solomon to have the perspective of a formerly free man in America, to recognize the institutional monolith of slavery in the South, to know this was not the way of the entire world, and to feel powerless to escape it.  But at least he knew that, despite Epps’ attempts to sow despair via scripture, slavery was not the natural order.  That knowledge had to have sustained him and allowed him to keep looking for opportunities to regain his freedom.

The most stirring scene for me was the funeral of another slave, where  Solomon stands silent amid the other slaves as they sing a spiritual.  We see the struggle on his face as he chokes on his anger and despair, then slowly joins in, channelling all of that suffering into the power of the song.  The scene flashed me back to my college days when I took a course on Religion in Black America, which took us through the slavery era and how religious faith was a key component in holding together any sense of community among slaves.  One day, a young woman said with some consternation, “With all that happened to them, I don’t understand how they could continue to believe in God!”  Without missing a beat, the instructor said, “I think you’re laboring under the very modern Western notion that God owes you something.”  The funeral scene somehow echoed that classroom exchange for me, as Solomon seemed to struggle with that very crisis.

It’ a good thing we’ve put all of that religious justification for cruelty behind us.  Right?….Right?

I would be remiss to neglect the story of Hana Williams, which both the Ethiopian press and the American Ethiopian adoptive community have been following for some time, but which only recently made it into the widespread American media.  It is an appalling story that was recounted in a recent Slate article, and that has been followed closely on the blog Light of Day Stories.   Hana was adopted from Ethiopia at age 10 by a family in rural Western Washington State (not too far from my childhood home) who subjected her to ongoing physical and psychological abuse that eventually led to her death at age 13 by hypothermia in the family’s back yard.  The emaciated girl was left outside in freezing temperatures with little clothing as punishment for defying her adoptive parents.  While my family was enjoying a vacation in the beautiful San Juan Islands this past August, right across Puget Sound on the mainland, Hana’s adoptive parents were justifiably convicted of homicide and have now been sentenced to long jail terms.

The common thread I find here between the stories of Solomon Northup and Hana Williams is the religious justification for physical abuse (to say nothing of their common African heritage).  Before I go any further, I want to be clear that the proportion of abused adopted children in the U.S. is roughly the same as in the overall population (more’s the pity), and that the vast majority of parents who adopted as part of their spiritual path are loving parents with the best interests of their children in mind.  The Williams family does not represent the norm for adoptive families.  Nonetheless, they subscribed to a parenting philosophy that is rooted in an extreme fundamentalist understanding of Christianity, advocating harsh punishment for any sign of rebelliousness.  Never mind that your child may be suffering depression or trauma from the loss of both first family and country.  Never mind that they may be yearning for a safe place.  Obedience was the paramount virtue for children in the Williams family, and failure to obey meant more isolation and suffering for Hana and her brother (but apparently not so much for the Williams’ biological children).

Growing up as a late 20th-century Episcopal preacher’s kid on the left coast of of the United States, my understanding of God and Christianity has always been based on love and respect for the dignity of all people.  So I don’t get the “training up a child” parenting philosophy.  I’m also painfully aware that given my son’s independent temperament and willfulness, he is fortunate to have ended up with parents who want to help him harness that energy rather than beat it out of him.  We are fine putting him in his room to reconsider how he’s behaving, but it’s not a closet, nor is it freezing.  Punishment need not be abusive, and I believe that to claim Christian justification for child abuse is a gross perversion.

My local community of Ethiopian adoptive families has been mourning Hana for some time now, and in addition to the horror of her death, there is also the sheer disbelief that any parents could go through the extensive soul-searching and bureaucracy that comes with the decision to adopt, and to then subject a deliberately chosen child to that kind of abuse.  But this speaks to what I consider to be some confused motives for adopting.  The Adoption Institute has a recent report on the current state of intercountry adoption.  Part of that report speaks to the underground network in the U.S. that has allowed for the “rehoming” of troubled intercountry adoptees from families who feel overwhelmed, to new families who have generally not been vetted by any appropriate agencies.  Many of the relinquishing families adopted based on the motive to save souls, and they were not prepared to address the deep psychic wounds of many older adopted children.  So – for these children who find themselves either abused or plugged into a child trafficking network (because, let’s be honest, that’s what “rehoming” really is), were they really better off being uprooted from their homelands?

Hana’s story hits me on an even deeper level, though.  Right now, the Lively Lad is testing his limits as only a four-year-old can – blatant disobedience to see what he can get away with, talking back to his parents (fortunately not to other adults), and sometimes simply being contrary at every turn.  In between these rebellious tears, though, he is still a thoughtful and good-hearted little boy.  We have to be firm with him, but we don’t resort to physical or psychological abuse.  When he’s feeling his oats, I sometimes get a chill when I imagine if he had ended up with a family like the Williams – and I suspect that many of my fellow adoptive parents may be feeling that same chill.

Someday when he’s ready, I’ll watch Solomon Northup’s story with my son, and share Hana’s story when he’s old enough to understand that his life and circumstances are vastly different.  Sometimes we need to hear the hard stories.

Attribution: LookaroundAnne

© 2014 Thomas Craig Elliott

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Filed under Adoptees, African-American History, History, Intercountry adoption, Memoir, Slavery

The Beautiful Game

old and new

Halloween costumes have proven to be a bit of a challenge with the Lively Lad. Aside from a comfortable hat, he generally does not like anything on his head, and particularly his face. Some of his preschool buddies had decided that they had to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles this year, and LL thought that sounded like a good idea. Then Melanie took him to the local party store to try a TMNT costume on, and he immediately lost interest when he found out there was a mask involved.

The other complication for us was his preschool’s annual Halloween carnival fundraiser, held two weeks before the actual day of trick-or-treating, so we had to come up with a costume well ahead of October 31st.  The carnival was on a Saturday, and since my son had soccer “practice” (if you can call it that with four-year-olds!), Melanie suggested that he could be a soccer player for Halloween.  No mask, and very convenient for the Halloween carnival.  Well, that felt like a bit of a cop-out to me – but it gave me a shot of inspiration (and I don’t get those as often as I used to)!  If you’re going to be a soccer player, why not be the best player ever?

PELE!!          pelebicy

Whoever coined the phrase “the beautiful game” is a matter of dispute, but Pele made no bones about appropriating it for his autobiography:  My Life and the Beautiful Game.  There’s something very profound about the simplicity of soccer (for the sake of clarity, I’m using the American term – forgive me, all you footballers), a game with minimal rules and a clear objective, but one that also requires great athleticism and dedication to master.  Anybody can play it, but only a select few truly excel at it.  And it can be played just about anywhere, from pristine professional football pitches to vacant lots in slums.  All you really need is a ball, some space, and enough players to make it worthwhile.  One of my most vivid memories from Addis Ababa was watching some boys playing a pickup soccer match on a green field near our guesthouse.  (And a sidenote – residents of Addis are mad for UK Premier League football!)

Soccer is also a sort of lingua franca for the world, as it is popular on every continent and in vastly different cultures.  The World Cup is arguably a bigger international sporting event than the Olympics, at least in terms of popular support.  National teams become a proxy for nationalistic pride, and there is at least the pretense that the playing field is level.  As the father of a child adopted from another country, I have felt an obligation to introduce my son to the beautiful game as a bridge to his birthcountry heritage.  Not to mention…it’s fun!

So the Lively Lad is Pele for this Halloween, and he’s worn it with style thus far.  Ever the opportunist, I found a children’s book that tells the story of Pele as a boy:  Young Pele: Soccer’s First Star.  It describes Edson Arantes do Nascimento’s early passion for soccer, how he played barefoot with a soccer ball made out of a sock stuffed with rags and tied up with string, because no one in his small Brazilian town had money for such luxuries as shoes or soccer balls.  The story makes me remember those boys in Addis, and the uneven cement playground at the foster center where LL would have been introduced to soccer if he had remained there for any great length of time.  So not only does this costume open the door to an introduction to the beautiful game – it also opens the door to discussing what poverty means.  When you adopt a child from a developing country where a substantial part of the population lives below the poverty line, economic inequality will eventually have to be addressed.  LL is still too young to really grasp the implications of poverty, but at least the story of Pele and his success also includes talking about not having enough money for shoes.

Addis foster center "soccer pitch"

Addis foster center “soccer pitch”

Meanwhile, LL is now playing AYSO soccer for the first time and quickly learning how the beautiful game is played.  Maybe the best part of the whole costume saga was receiving an e-mail from the league telling us that the Under-5s could wear their Halloween costumes to practice this past Saturday (one week after the carnival).  Serendipity.  Amongst all the Batmen and Spidermen, our little Pele lived up to the name as he took the ball down the field past defenders and scored his first goal in “scrimmage”!  Between reading about Pele – including a fun diagram of evading defenders on the field – and watching videos of Pele demonstrating his dribbling skills, the Lively Lad is learning to love the beautiful game.


Then again…he throws right and bats left….

Attribution:  Steven Depolo360soccer, Tom Elliott

© 2013 Thomas Craig Elliott

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Filed under Ethiopia, International, Memoir, Sports

Somebody Else’s History


After committing a big chunk of my life to a career in the theatre, I find that I can’t really quit it.  And I don’t really want to, there just isn’t room in my life for it at the moment.  That doesn’t stop me from at least paying some attention to the current plays that are making the circuit.  Every fall, American Theatre magazine provides a rundown of upcoming seasons for a whole host of regional theatres throughout the country.  As part of that feature, they call out the plays that will be the most produced in the coming year (excluding the ever-popular, no-royalties works of Shakespeare, and the ubiquitous Christmas Carol and similar holiday fare).  That list is a go-to resource for me to figure out what new plays I should read and see in order to maintain some relevance with regards to theatre – or at the very least, indulge my erstwhile passion.


Luckily for me, my office is two blocks away from the Los Angeles Central Library and its very large collection that includes notable mainstream plays.  Every two or three months, I pull out the list of most-produced plays and check to see if the scripts are available to check out.  Now, as you know or can probably surmise, there are a WHOLE LOT of actors/directors/theatre technicians in Los Angeles who recognize the economic advantages of seeking work in television and film, but who still harbor the desire to work onstage.  Many of them are also living on a shoestring and looking to save some coin whenever possible.  This means that the few copies of new plays that the LA Library may own are very often checked out, so generally only one or two might be available.

Last month, four of the ten that I hadn’t already read were on the shelf, so I grabbed them:  Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.  By pure coincidence, I had just checked out four works that deal with different periods and aspects of African-American history.  And this brought home to me one responsibility I have to my son.

Since the Lively Lad was born in Ethiopia pretty recently, he has even less connection to Black U.S. history than this WASPy middle-aged guy with family roots that go back to the Mayflower.  My parents were civil rights activists in the 60’s, and they made a concerted effort to build my awareness of the history of race relations in the U.S.  One of my earliest memories is attending a memorial on the steps of the Washington State capitol shortly after Martin Luther King was assassinated.  My mother, in particular, made a point of advocating for ethnic minorities wherever possible, eventually turning that into her life’s work by creating a very effective affirmative action program at the UC Davis College of Engineering.  When I was sick with the mumps at age 7, my dad brought home a handful of Classics Illustrated comics that included Negro Americans – the Early Years, where I learned about the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks in the American Revolution, the bravery of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the eloquence of Frederick Douglass, and the ingenuity of George Washington Carver (Nat Turner and Marcus Garvey were probably a bit too controversial for the comics….).  My parents encouraged me to volunteer for the Seattle Schools first attempt at desegregation via magnet schools in 1977, and I left my lily-white suburban junior high school to ride a bus to a very diverse inner city high school (one of the best choices I ever made, btw).

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Granted, I have always had White Privilege working on my behalf, even when putting myself in a minority position.  My point is that adopting my son was not the first occasion I’ve had to consider the history and experience of Black Americans, even though it is not my personal family history.  By virtue of the fact that I grew up in this country where race relations have always been volatile, I may always feel more of a connection to African-American history than my Ethiopian-born son.  Or…not.  That remains to be seen.

What will be true, though, is that even if the Lively Lad chooses to identify himself as Ethiopian-American, the world at large will generally not make that distinction.  As I’ve stated to friends many times, if police see him driving a Mercedes in Beverly Hills, they won’t likely give him a break because he’s Ethiopian.  Whether you want to believe it or not, racial profiling is a reality that he will need to understand for his own survival as he grows into adulthood.  So it is up to myself and my wife to give him the historical context to be able to understand why he may be treated differently than his parents.  While he’s young and cute and full of joie de vivre, it’s not such an issue – but it certainly gives us time to get ready, and I’ve always felt that dramatic literature is a great way to humanize history.

The Whipping Man takes us to the bombed out remains of Richmond, Virginia, immediately after the surrender of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War.  A young Rebel officer with a gangrenous leg, who deserted prior to Appomattox, returns to what is left of his family home that is now solely occupied by the chief house slave – or rather, former slave.  The story is a potent reminder of how removing the power structure of slavery didn’t erase the intermingled lives of masters and slaves, with the added twist that the slaveowners are Jewish – so the slaves are as well.  As I read it, I kept asking myself how I would possibly explain the history of slavery in America to the Lively Lad.  How do you tell someone that if he was born in an earlier era, he might have been the chattel of another person based solely on his ancestral origin?  And even trickier, how do I explain that going to Africa and bringing him back with us was not the same thing as the Middle Passage? (There are detractors of intercountry adoption who would argue that it IS the same thing.  But I digress.)

Door of No Return Ouidah, Benin

Door of No Return
Ouidah, Benin

Moving forward a hundred years, the story of Walter Lee Younger’s family and the quiet desperation in the face of limited opportunities for African-Americans in the 1950’s and 60’s still resonates.  I initially wondered why A Raisin in the Sun was getting such a renaissance, but quickly realized that it was because of Clybourne Park’s derivation of the same storyline.  Hansberry’s play tells the tale of a working class black family with questionable future prospects who suddenly have $10,000 insurance money to change their lives.  Despite differing agendas for how the money should be used, the matriarch of the family uses it as a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood (remember, this was all prior to the  Civil Rights Act).  Clybourne Park flips the scenario a couple of times, first by imagining the story of the family selling the house to the Youngers (and the predictable backlash from the neighbors), then by moving the house up to the present day as the now primarily African-American neighborhood is being gentrified by young affluent white families (and the backlash from that).  The tones of the two pieces are appropriate reflections of the times they were written – poetic, earnest, but unsentimental idealism (the kind that allowed the Civil Rights Movement in the first place) in the former, and cynical, self-aware, almost satirical black comedy in the latter.  By the time the Lively Lad is old enough to appreciate these plays, they’ll provide a snapshot of how far we have…or haven’t…come in the last fifty years. 

Then there’s Katori Hall, who took on the daunting task in The Mountaintop of demystifying the persona of Martin Luther King, Jr. through an imagined conversation with a motel maid the night before his assassination.  On the page, I’m not sure it works as a dramatic piece, but it does effectively humanize Dr. King.  In the last 45 years since his death, politicians of every stripe now invoke his name to peddle their idea of civil rights – so after his remarkable achievements in his short life, he has already become fodder for demagogues.  This play manages to give him clay feet and highlight the costs of his efforts, without undermining the significance of his accomplishments – a fine line to walk.  I’m not sure how I feel about the mystical turn that the script takes at the end, after all the demystification.  Regardless, the play reminded me that my son will need to know about MLK at least as much as he will need to know about Haile Selassie.  After all, Dr. King would not have differentiated the Lively Lad’s basic human entitlements from those of any other African-American boy.  My son will be almost nine years old at the 50th anniversary of the assassination, certainly old enough to ask the hard questions about why Dr. King was killed.


For parents of adoptees born in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, we’ve put ourselves in a challenging position.  Opportunities to learn about birth culture history and traditions should play a part, but it seems to me that addressing the unique history of African-Americans must also be a consideration in order to properly prepare our children for the world.  There’s a reason that the National Association of Black Social Workers has long been critical of Caucasian families raising children of African descent – there is generally no first hand knowledge of the kind of discrimination that African-Americans have had to face for generations.  On the other hand, the number of Black-Americans that are immigrants has increased drastically in recent years, and they have come to the U.S. despite our dubious history of race relations.

The bottom line is that Melanie and I will do all we can to provide the Lively Lad the perspective that he needs to navigate the world as he matures.  My hope is that there will be others on the way who can share their first hand experiences that are out of my reach.

Attribution: Ron Cogswell, Tom Elliott, moosevlt, Erik Cleves Kristensen, Gary Cooper

© 2013 Thomas Craig Elliott


Filed under African-American History, History, Plays, Race in America, Theatre