Every year, thousands of Americans choose adoption among the many paths to parenthood.
But when Nefertiti Austin, a single black woman, chose to adopt, she ran into a myriad of both systemic and cultural barriers. Though she was able to adopt a son, who she named August, she says she faced continual questions about her ability to raise him.
Austin chronicles her experience raising her son in the new book, "Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting In America."
If they adopt, many African Americans tend to stay within their community when looking for a child, Austin says. That’s why so many people she knew were confused by her decision to adopt a child through the traditional adoption system.
“It's a whole 'nother dynamic when you give into rumors and myths and lies really about the children that they're damaged, they're crack babies, they are going to grow up and become these domestic terrorists within society,” Austin says. “The prevailing narrative is that there's something wrong with the system, therefore there is something wrong with these children.”
Austin says even before she made the final decision, she sought out information about the adoption process, and she found that there was nothing she could relate to as a single black woman.
“It infuriated me that whenever a white starlet adopted a child, it was like, 'Oh my God. This is amazing. This is so great,' ” Austin says. “And there were all of these people who were doing that on a daily basis and especially women who look like me, and we were just erased from the conversation. We didn't exist even within the adoption community.”
On why she made the decision to adopt instead of having a biological child
“I was raised by my grandparents, and I think having that experience of being raised by people who had not given birth to me kind of set me on a path to, 'Well, if someone could do that for me, I could do that for someone else.' And my best friend is adopted. She's also an adoption social worker. So for years, I had been hearing about all of these children who needed homes, and it had been in the back of my mind for a while. And I wanted to be married and I wanted to have a family the traditional route, but I was very open to wanting to adopt. And I felt that that was really important to give back and to do that first.”
On this idea that by adopting a child she was “breaking the code”
“Essentially black people tend to adopt people we know. So we are seeking a point of reference. We adopt within our families. So typically we start there — nieces, nephews, cousins, extended family members. We have a very large Christian faith in our community. That's very important to us. So if a church member has a niece or nephew who's got a child who needs assistance, we want to step up and help. And so typically that is the path that we pursue as opposed to going outside of your family, going outside of your known community to become a parent.
“When you know the family, you know the father or the mother's had some challenges for some reason, we either give it a pass or we figure, 'OK. I can deal with that. I know what that's about.' ”
"It began to crystallize, especially once August came home, that there were no narratives for a single black woman who had adopted.”Nefertiti Austin
On what she found when started researching adoption
“Before I actually started the process and I knew I was ready to do so, my go to is information always. So I'm on the Internet. I'm at the library. And so even before I had finished the process, I realized, 'Wow, I don't see myself in any of these pages.' ‘Mommy Wars’ was really popular at that point, and I'm like, 'Well, I have nothing to contribute to that conversation.' And it began to crystallize, especially once August came home, that there were no narratives for a single black woman who had adopted.”
On why the act of mothering is not a race neutral act
“It could be race neutral. But when Trayvon Martin is murdered by a vigilante in the street and Tamir Rice is murdered for playing with a toy gun, it's political, it's racial, and it has been, I mean for hundreds of years at this particular point. And if black mothers could just parent and not be worried about their child having a Nerf gun fight on the front lawn, and could securely feel that, 'Oh yeah, my child can do what Jacob does or what Johnny does,' then it would be race neutral. But of course, we know that that is definitely not the case.
“Our kids are perceived as behavior problems. They are considered aggressive, but their white counterpart is considered rambunctious. And our girls are sexualized at an early age. They are thought to have attitudes. But if another girl, a white girl, says the same thing or responds in a like manner it's, 'Oh well, she was annoyed,' or it's excused. And so, so many of our actions have a negative attachment to it that isn't our doing. And so then we're stuck with having to explain, 'Well, this is how the person was feeling or this is why they responded in that way.' It's like I feel like we spend so much time explaining, 'Oh, this is how I felt. This is what I was thinking,' because it is assumed that I'm coming from a negative place just because my skin is black.”
On the myth of hypermasculinity in black men
“My grandfather was very stoic and so his idea of affection was a pat on the back. So when my son was 3 or 4, we were visiting my grandparents and I'm telling him, 'Oh handshake and a hug,' and my grandfather very formally said, 'Men do not hug.' And I thought, 'Oh my God, here we go. We're gonna start this emotional distance within our family, within our community again. Here's another generation of that about to happen.'
“And it's extremely problematic. I mean there's so many men who are taught to hold their emotions in check, and I think that all of that, it bottles up. ... It makes people sick. People die young. And it definitely hampers relationships between men and women. And that camaraderie that boys need with other boys is, damaged isn't the right word, but maybe they can't really reach that emotional intimacy that women have, that girls have with each other where they could really talk about, 'It hurt my feelings when,' and someone else can say, 'You know what I had that same experience. You're not alone. And let's see how we can work through this together.' ”
On her message to other black women who are thinking about adoption
“I definitely hope that anyone thinking about it will know that it can absolutely be done. I mean I've gone from a free-spirited person to I'm actually a planner. I feel like a real grownup now. And certainly if I can do it, any other black woman considering it can do it, should do it and not rely on or get caught up in what other people say because I think we still have a lot of fear in our community about raising children and what they think and how they perceive us. And I think that if we have narratives about people who look like us, that it just gives, I think, more power behind that decision that we want to make.”
Book Excerpt: "Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting In America."
By Nefertiti Austin
"Come on August, grab your pull-over." I waited for my little boy at our front door.
"Where are we going, mama?" August asked, dragging his black Gap pull-over behind him across the hardwood floors.
"To a rally at the park," I answered, sliding the hoodie over his tall, slender body. Handsome and inquisitive at only five years old, August already had the makings of a scientist/cowboy/race car driver and I was proud of how far he had come.
In a past life, before we became a family, August had lived in two foster homes.
Meanwhile, I earned a license to foster/adopt from the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services. After months of certification and waiting, I became a mother to a six month old Black baby boy, and my life changed forever.
August's addition to the neighborhood made us one of five Black families who dwelled between La Cienega and San Vicente Boulevard. Filled with Mexican Jews, non-practicing Jews, old people, Koreans, young white families, and a formerly handsome playboy, who drove a red convertible and didn't date anyone older than 25, August and I loved our little slice of heaven, just outside of the Beverly Hills hub. La Cienega Park, with its green play structures, sandbox, clean bathrooms, and recreation center, was a block away. Every day, elderly Jewish men sat at concrete benches, speaking Hebrew, feeding pigeons and playing chess. Mothers nursed their babies or worked out with trainers, and little kids played king of the hill. On Wednesdays, the park was filled with divorced and co-parenting dads and their children. The rumor was that Wednesday was designated court-ordered visitation day. Every now and then, a B-list celebrity from the "Fast and Furious" would be on dad duty.
Before I adopted August, I landed in Beverly Hills in June 2006 on a fluke. I had lived in the San Fernando Valley for seven years when the condominium I was previously renting was sold. I was in denial about moving and waited until the last possible moment to find a place, when I stumbled upon a one-bedroom apartment on the eastern border of Beverly Hills. There were no fancy shops near me and if I wanted to star gaze or stroll down Rodeo Drive, I’d have to drive west on Wilshire Boulevard for eight minutes. It wasn't the most upscale apartment building either, and even my grandmother made sure to emphasize to her sister and church members that we didn't really live in Beverly Hills, but it was home.
As we made our way down the dusty steps and onto the street, August asked. "What's a rally?"
"It where lots of people who like the same things come together and talk or sing." Earlier that morning, I had Googled the “Black Lives Matter” website to see when they were coming to Los Angeles. As I scrolled down the page, I discovered a rally that night. I was frankly surprised that a rally would be held in Beverly Hills. Of course, there was wealth in the area, but this was not a fundraiser. It was an event that was designed to bring white people, far removed from blight, gangs and poverty, out into the street in support of Black Lives. It was one thing to send money or sit at home and hand-wring. It was another to publicly cry “foul” at a system that routinely oppressed Black people. That’s what I had done by adopting August, and that was the reason I took him out that night.
"Like a party?" His eyes lit up.
My child was not even in kindergarten and already a party animal. "Um, not really." It was already seven o’clock. Ordinarily, August would be getting into a warm, sudsy bath at this time of the evening. After he played with boats and fish, he’d be ready for a cup of milk. Then August, who liked brushing his teeth, would delay bedtime by splashing water all over the sink. While I cleaned up, he would choose three or four books from his overflowing red and blue bookcase and wait for me in his twin bed. Tonight I was disrupting his routine for one reason. I needed to connect with other mothers of Black boys.
"Why are we going?"
Good question. My heart echoed President Obama’s sentiment that Trayvon’s murder was a “national tragedy”. This was one of the few moments in history that the death of a Black boy was elevated to a national tragedy. I took a beat to consider how to broach the subject. If I gave my sensitive child too much information, he would feel bad without understanding why. If I gave too few details, he would miss the importance of the moment. I did not want to frighten him, but lying wasn't the answer either.
"Why, Mama?" He asked again.
"Because a few weeks ago, boy named Trayvon Martin was killed walking home and we want to show our support."
I spoke calmly, hoping to give August the impression that despite using the words boy and killed, my son was safe. I pretended that we were just taking a casual stroll to the park, though the circumstances were far from normal. Except, I quickly realized, they were normal. This was my new normal. Most Blacks were taught that life was tenuous and this reality was just part of living in America. Before becoming a mother, I was detached from what that really meant. I lived in an affluent neighborhood and ran with a highly educated, well-traveled crowd. I thought my privilege shielded me from ugly truths about the actual worth of a Black life. Trayvon Martin's murder opened my eyes to the new reality Black mothers faced every day. There was no guarantee that our boys would arrive home safely from school or back from the store after purchasing Skittles.
Trayvon's death grounded my parenting priorities. I went from trying to understand the difference between the Montessori and the Reggio Emilia approaches to education to understanding that I was part of a club whose sole membership requirement was being the mother of a Black boy, and feeling the weight of that fear keenly for the first time. Suddenly, I was scared for August, who shared a birthday with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wept inside because there would be times in August's life when trouble would find him, even if he was just out minding his own business, all because his racial classification was Black. Trayvon's death gave me another thing to worry about: life. How could I protect my son? How could I give him the best life, one where he enjoyed a childhood of trains and dinosaurs, not rallies for the gone-too-soon? In my new skin as mother of a Black boy, I had to think through how we would navigate a world set up to challenge his very existence. The task was daunting and made me feel powerless and small.
"Mama, I don't know Trayvon. He must be in Miss Isabella's class."
"No, he was a big boy." I said softly.
"What does kill mean?"
I had seen that one coming. "Kill means…" I faltered and tried again. "Um, killing is like when you step on ants and they die."
August frowned. "Did someone step on Trayvon? That's mean."
"I don't know all of the details, but - " I lied to stop the hole of fear that was swallowing me. "There are some mean people in the world, and a mean man killed Trayvon."
"Will that happen to me?"
I stopped walking and bent down, cupping August’s face in my hand, and looked into his beautiful brown eyes. "Oh no, angel, but you need to know that some people will think just because you are a Black boy that you are not smart and funny. They will not care how much you love Elmo or how you got angry when you found out Pluto was a dwarf planet."
"Why?" he asked sadly.
"I don't know. Some people are stupid."
"Ooh, you said a bad word."
"Oops!" I covered my mouth and pretended to giggle.
"Can I get on the slide when we get to the park?" August was hopeful.
"Not tonight, son."
I'm not sure if he understood that I had just done something terrible, had stolen some of his innocence. I had no choice. In ten years, August would be over six feet tall and people would assume he was older than he really was. He would not be given the “boys will be boys” benefit of the doubt for speeding or participating in immature class pranks. Trayvon’s murder unleashed a veil that separated August’s previous life as a precious, innocent babe to a child who would have to learn that his race and gender could get him killed.
Our busy street, a shortcut to the Beverly Center and West Hollywood, was quiet for once. The corner our apartment building sat on also held three office buildings, though the low brick building that used to house a colonic clinic was vacant. The rumor was that nearby Cedars Hospital had purchased the prime location and would begin demolition of the old building soon.
I had made this trek to the park hundreds of times. First as a single woman, newly arrived in Beverly Hills, walking my dogs, then as a single mother pushing August in his stroller. Later, August would push his own stroller and I would watch him stumble and fall, learning to walk and trying to keep up with our dogs. The park was our haven where he spent time building sand castles, making friends, and learning to ride his bike. But tonight, we had other business there.
With no cars in sight, August scampered ahead and waited for me at the streetlight. The light was red, so he pressed the button to illuminate the walk signal. The intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Gale Drive felt like a cold wind tunnel. Concerned about the cool night air, I gently turned him to face me.
"Angel, let's pull your hood over your head."
Suddenly, the reality of our situation hit me. We were Black people, dressed in dark colors, standing on a street corner in a wealthy neighborhood. I had a brief moment of panic and contemplated removing August's hood and warming him through my embrace. I knew that a white boy wearing a hoodie wouldn’t warrant a second look from a passerby. August was young enough that he could get away with it, but if he were, say, say thirteen, he would likely be perceived as threatening with his hood up. To the white world we lived in, a hoodie plus a Black male was synonymous with danger.
I grimaced at the irony that I could not even get to the park to protest the death of a black teenager without considering how August would be perceived. I decided to let it be and keep his hood up. We had not done anything wrong.
Trayvon's murder spoke to all aspects of my identity: Black woman, single Black Mother, historian, sister, cousin, co-worker, friend, lover. Much as I would have liked to, I could not ignore what was happening to Black boys all around me, or rationalize the violence away to convince myself that August would be spared. As an adjunct United States and African-American History instructor at multiple Los Angeles Community Colleges, I was well versed in how this shit played out. So many Black men had been lynched and killed at the hands of white men in America. It was a record on repeat, a song I tired of, especially now that I had a son to raise.
My pedigree and privilege gave me access to a world away from police brutality, drugs, incarceration, and premature death. I had collected stamps on my passport from three continents, been to law school, explored slave castles in West Africa, walked in the footsteps of Harlem Renaissance's elite on Martha's Vineyard, rafted down the Guadalupe River, and been to the flash point of the Civil War in South Carolina. I had danced atop tables at beach retreats in Mexico, sunned on whimsical weekend trips in Palm Springs, changed cars and jobs every other year, and maintained standing hair and massage appointments. I was a free, successful Black woman in the world and still, none of that meant my child would surely be spared the fate of so many Black boys in our country. I wanted August to have the same privileges I did, but a case of mistaken identity or racial profiling could wreck all of that. That's not what I had signed up for when I decided I wanted to become a mother.
I was already an outlier in the Black community for adopting a child I did not know and was not related to. I was an outlier in the white community for adopting a child domestically, and the butt of jokes by male co-workers who didn't believe I could raise a boy on my own. As a writer, I was fighting against white privilege's erasure of Black parenting perspectives and insistence that the word mother automatically meant white. The denial of voices of color meant our children's lives did not matter. Motherhood was supposed to be fun, filled with challenges to bring the best out of our kids and ourselves. For me, and for all Black mothers in America, it was alternatively fun and harrowing, as we broached conversations no parent should ever have to have with their young son.
As the death of Black boys became a way of life, my eyes opened to an important truth: Black mothers lived in a different America from white mothers. I saw the ease with which my white mom friend Liza babied her five-year old son Colton. While she closely monitored his emerging reading skills, she failed to educate him about the fact that America had a Black president. She had no idea that toy guns in the hands of Black boys could be misconstrued as a threat. Colton was free to roam about the country at will; August had to be vigilant about where he was at all times.
When we finally arrived at the park, most of the protestors were gone. We missed it. I hadn’t known what to expect but was willing to walk into a scene of grief, anger, shouting and volatility. That was not the case. It was as if providence wanted me to keep August’s innocence intact a little longer. I was disappointed but relieved and happy to have shown up, not just for August but for all mothers of Black boys.
August asked, “Where are the people?”
I looked at the throng of footprints in the sand and noticed a few stragglers, sitting quietly at the tables where the old Jews played chess. “They’ve gone home,” I said, kissing his cold cheek. “Thanks for being such a trooper tonight.”
“Now can I get on the slide? Please.”
“No sir,” I winked. I took my job as mother seriously, not only about teaching August how to tie his shoes or his ABCs, but about the institutional racism that was and would be a part of his life. No matter how fancy our zip code, he would need that information to stay alive. Woke to the broader meaning of Black motherhood, over the past few years I turned inward to examine my own life to determine why I decided to become a single mother via adoption—not an easy path for any woman, but especially a Black woman, to follow—especially when parenting in America is still filtered through a white lens.
Excerpted from "Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting In America." by Nefertiti Austin. Copyright © 2019 by Nefertiti Austin. Republished with permission of Sourcebooks.
This segment aired on September 16, 2019.