|Heather Andrea Williams|
A remarkable book, Help Me To Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery makes the similarities ever more clear. Author Heather Andrea Williams, a historian and associate professor at the University of North Carolina, has amassed a rich collection of newspaper advertisements, letters, diaries, and written narratives attesting to the worst legacy of slavery: the separation of families, and the lifelong search for reunion. "Babies were snatched from their mothers' breasts and sold to speculators. Children was separated from sisters and brothers
and never saw each other again. Course they cry; you think they not cry when they was sold like cattle? I could tell you about it all day, but even then you couldn't guess the awfulness of it."--Delia Garlic, a former slave.
AMBIGUOUS LOSS WORSE THAN CERTAINTY OF DEATH
|Lorraine after reunion with her daughter|
Of course slavery is a different institution from adoption. We women, especially white women from the Forties through the early Seventies, were not beaten and sold; but the social pressures on us to relinquish our children were enormous and only withstood by the courageous few, who, with brave and understanding families, managed to keep their babies. Some of us were told not to bring their "bastards" home; all of us felt the "choice" we faced was no choice at all. While a slave woman could rightfully know that she absolutely had no choice when her child was taken, many of us were left with the psychological burden of further guilt, feeling that somehow, maybe, we did have a choice, when we did not. And among her people, a slave woman could grieve; we were supposed to hold our sorrow and go on, acting as if that chapter of our lives had closed and would forever stay that way. The message we heard, from family and social workers and employers and friends was this: tell no one, and move along.
My book is full of paper stickers, directing to me to particularly poignant passages, but one stopped me cold, as it was about what psychologists call ambiguous loss, that is, not knowing what happened when loved ones disappear without the possibility of learning their whereabouts or status. Williams quotes family therapist Pauline Boss:
"'Of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate,' she says. 'One cannot tell for sure if the loved one dead or alive. Not only is there a lack of information regarding the person's whereabouts, there is no official or community verification that anything is lost--no death certificate, no wake or sitting shiva, no funeral, no body, nothing to bury.'"Yes, this is how we mothers of loss to adoption experience closed adoption; this is how mothers who enter into "semi-open" adoptions that snap shut feel. Even worse might be the pain of mothers who lose their children and know they will end up half way around the world. There is no end to a first/birth mother's grief, no period to put on our loss, the questions remain to haunt us endlessly. There is no end until we can connect with reality in the faces of our lost children.
CHILDREN SOLD AWAY FROM FAMILY
Numerous passages tell of the experience of the separation of family members, as most slave owners did not concern themselves with the impact of uprooting son from mother, mother from father, father from brother. Families were often torn apart upon the death of a slave owner, as the slaves--inheritable property--were divided up among the children. Former slave John Brown tells how, when he was eight, he and his mother were separated from the rest of their family after their owner's death, and were taken fifty miles from their Virginia home. At that time, fifty miles might as well be on the other side of the world. When he was ten, when there was a great demand for slaves in Georgia, John Brown was sold to a traveling speculator. "I looked round and saw my poor mother stretching out her hands after me,' Brown states. "She ran up, and overtook us, but Finney [the speculator] would not let her approach, though she begged and prayed to be allowed to kiss me for the last time, and bid me goodbye." John Brown had lost his last relative.
Kate Drumgoold, who was born around the time of the Civil War, lost her mother when she was suddenly sold to pay for a substitute to serve for their owner in the Confederate Army. The family lived in Virginia, her mother was also sold to a man from Georgia; she did not even know her mother was sold until she was gone. Drumgoold relates:
"...the saddest thought to me was to know which way she had gone, and I used to go outside and look up to see if there was anything that would direct me, and I saw a clear place in the sky, and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it three and a half years, not knowing what that meant, and it were the whole time that mother was gone."Freed blacks occasionally succeeded in purchasing their relatives, even though this might infuriate the white owners as being too uppity, and they would prevent it. One Robert Glenn in North Carolina, whose father's unsuccessful attempt to buy him failed, turned to two white women for help, asking when he might see his father again. "I don't know child," one woman replied, "go and sit down." As I write, fellow blogger Jane and I are in touch with the friend of a woman who signed termination papers as she wept in the hospital two days after her baby was born. Her grandmother looked on but did not stop her from signing. The social worker, anxious to get the papers signed, ignored the warning sign of her tears, and told her crying wasn't going to get the papers signed. The very next day the woman called the Bethany agency in central Florida and said she wanted her baby back, she had made a mistake; the social worker told her she could contest in court, to get a lawyer, and hung up.
White slave owners and writers of the era, including Thomas Jefferson, apparently found comfort with the fiction that the blacks did not have the depth of feeling that white folks did. Williams reminds us that Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia, wrote of blacks: "Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether Heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In generally, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection." Others writers said the same: blacks feel less, they get over their sorrow quickly.
Susan Hamilton's assessment of those times would have surprised them. She was "particularly bitter" in her condemnation of salve owners when she was interviewed at 101 years of age. "People was always dying from a broken heart," she said.
WHO MAY GRIEVE, WHO MAY NOT
Yet many slaves felt they had to hold in their grief, especially when husbands and wives were separated. Children too, learned to hold in their feelings. John Brown said that he was so "stupefied by grief and fright" at the time he was sold away from his mother that he could not shed a tear though his heart was bursting. While there are many accounts of mothers weeping and holding onto their children until forcibly separated, and sometimes beaten, the theme of children having to hold in their grief is repeated several times. Louis Hughes, sold from his mother at age eleven, says: "I thought of my mother often, but I was gradually growing to the idea that it was useless to cry, and I tried hard to overcome my feelings."
Williams interprets the stunned, stoicism of many because they knew their demonstrations of grief would bring no relief, or sympathy. She writes:
"The reality is that many people expressed their sorrow and their anger and resentment in many different ways, and public expression, whether by a mother or a wife or a husband, was often constrained by the limits of what owners and other whites would tolerate. Even the mothers of infants were sometimes punished for grieving too long and too openly. According to Kenneth J. Doka, who studies death, dying, and grief, 'There are circumstances in which a person experiences a sense of loss but does not have a socially recognized right, role, or capacity to grieve. In these cases, the grief is disenfranchised. The person suffers a loss but has little opportunity to mourn publicly.' Societies, Doka contends, construct norms, or grieving roles that specify who may grieve, for whom they may grieve, and for how long. Some grief is acknowledged, but other grief is not recognized.'"SEARCHING FOR LOST FAMILY MEMBERS
After the slaves were freed, a huge hue and cry was heard as separated family members urgently searched for one another. A Freedman's Bureau, established by the federal government, and the Freedmans Association for the Restoration of Lost Friends, founded by a "group of white men" in Washington made efforts to help them. More interesting were the numerous advertisements that the freed slaves placed themselves in black newspapers that began publication after the Civil War. These advertisements were a starting point for Williams when she was doing other research. What began as a casual observation became an obsession for her, and she ultimately found some 1,200 "Information Wanted" or "Lost Friends" advertisements, like this one in the Colored Tennessean placed by Thornton Copeland. twenty-one years after he was sold away from his mother:
"INFORMATION is wanted of my mother, whom I left in Fauquier county, Va., in 1844, and I was sold in Richmond, Va., to Saml. Copeland. I formerly belonged to Robert Rogers. I am very anxious to hear from my mother, and any information in relation to her whereabouts will be very thankfully received. My mother's name was Betty, and was sold by Col. Briggs to James French.--Any information by letter, addressed to the Colored Tennessean, Box 1150, will be thankfully received."Or this one, dated a week later, Oct. 14, 1865, six months after the Civil War ended:
"INFORMATION is wanted of my two boys, James and Horace, one of whom was sold in Nashville and the other was sold in Rutherford County. I, myself, was sold in Nashville and sent to Alabama, by Wm. Boyd. I and my children belonged to David Moss, who was connected with the Penitentiary in some capacity. CHARITY MOSS."Well before slavery ended, people tried to stay in touch with family members by writing to their former owners. After obsequiously asking about the welfare of their former masters, they would get to real reason for the letter: to find out how their loved ones were, to ask them to tell them where they were.
..."I have though[t] that I wanted to see mother but never befour did I [k]no[w] what it was to want to see a parent and could not....I wish to [k]now what has Ever become of my Presus little girl. I left in Goldsborough with Mr. Walker and I have not heard from her Since...."Some wrote to their former owners hoping to find out what happened that way. One Letter to the Editor in Oberlin, Ohio, before the Civil War, began: "Nature prompts me to action...." from the son of a man who escaped slavery in Nashville. He assumed that his need to find his father was only natural and would be generally understood. Many of the notices were placed by men looking for their wives and children. One brother was looking for a brother he had been separated from thirty-five years earlier, when his brother was five. Williams writes that beyond the sadness of loss, something else was at work in the desire to find lost family. "Perhaps beyond the sadness or grief there was something else, some sense that families belonged together--a sense that if you had a brother out there in the world, you ought to know where he was."
Does that sound like the plaint of a first mother--if you had a child out there in the world, you ought to know where he was? That nature might prompt you to action?
TOO MANY MILES, TOO MANY YEARS
"But most people never found their relatives," relates Williams. "Too many miles and too many years lay between them." Stories of reunification are rare, but it did happen. People had to relearn who their mother was. "She came out of the house to get us and at first I was scared of her cause I didn't know who she was. But she put me up in her lap and loved me and I know then I love her too."--Anna Barker, whose mother demanded custody of her children from their former owner following the war.
Some of the stores of reunion hinge on remarkable coincidence and one, upon a striking physical resemblance. Two brothers who were separated as children found each other, decades later, because a man who worked on a boat that traveled between Wisconsin and Michigan thought he saw a man in Cleveland who resembled one of his co-workers. A second man also asked one of the brothers, Louis Hughes, if he had a brother, for he knew another man who looked amazingly like him. Louis asked if his look-alike was missing a finger tip, because he had accidentally cut off part of his brother's forefinger when they were children. Anxiously waiting for the news of the man's hand, Louis says that he could scarcely work. When he got the news that the other man was missing a finger tip, he wrote: "Words failed me to express my feelings at this news....The prospect of seeing my brother, lost so many years before, made me almost wild with joy. Louis took leave from his job and traveled to meet his brother.
"When we met neither of us spoke for some moments--speech is not for such occasions, but silence rather, and the rush of thoughts. When the first flash of feeling had passed i spoke calling him by name, and he addressed me as brother. There seemed to be no doubt on either side as to or true relationship, though the fathers of each had long since faded forever from the memory of the other."The two men, Louis and his found brother, Billy, told each other their stories since they had parted. Billy had gone back to the plantation in search of his family, but found no trace of them. Louis's narration continues:
"It seemed, and indeed was, wonderful that we should have met again after so long a separation. When I came to saying good-by to him, so close did I feel to him, the tie between us seemed never to have been broken. That week, so full of new experiences and emotions can never be erased from my memory....As I looked into the face of his [Billy's] wife and children, I seemed to have entered a new and broader life, and one in which the joys of social intercourse had marvelously expended."If stories of reunion are rare, Williams found even fewer about what happened after the initial reunion. A young man named Mingo White, for instance, who had been cared for by another woman after he was separated from his mother, "would have had to adjust to his mother's personality and would have noticed that she did some things differently and perhaps had rules for behavior that were different from those of his surrogate mother, Selina White." Amen to that. Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt wrote fictional accounts, though Twain said his story was based on a true event. In his account, a mother is looking for an eight-year-old son and finds instead a soldier in the Union Army. Chesnutt's story is about a couple reunited, only the man has become educated and risen to a position of authority, while the wife has remained uneducated. Fictional or true, both of these are circumstances we can relate to.
The connection to other historical movements that separate families became obvious to Williams in the course of her research, and she herself makes the comparison in the book: the orphan trains that took children from New York to western states in the early twentieth century; the aboriginal children who were separated from their families in Australia to be raised "white;" the Holocaust; the Native American children in the United States sent to schools in the East. I thought of the several thousand children from England sent well into the sixties to Australia, many of whom have tried to trace their mothers back in England, and was the subject of a recent movie, Oranges and Sunshine, which the children were promised in the new land. It didn't quite work out so happily.
OUR PREDICAMENT SHARES THE PAGE
But of course the predicament of adoption, and my own deep understanding of the searing emotions she wrote about were there with me page after page. Ambiguous grief? Closed adoption. Yes, as someone who both gave up a child, and then buried her forty-one years later, the giving up of my baby to an unknown future to unknown people was worse, a million times worse than accepting her death. In those years between surrendering her to adoption and finding her--fifteen years later--a part of me was an open wound with no way of healing. Time passed, but I did not heal. Dry tears only replaced wet ones.
No avenue for public grieving? My daughter's father, who picked me up at the hospital as we left our baby there, asked me not to cry as we left. I'm fighting tears, and he says, "Don't." He didn't want a scene, and I did what he asked. Within days, I was looking for a job, because I had to. I did have one girlfriend to talk to, as well as Patrick, but he did not deal well with messy emotional issues, and neither did she. Alone with no way to grieve? Yes, that is the adoption we remember from the so-called swinging sixties. I was hanging by a thread, ready to snap. I remember one woman writing here about her grief after surrender, and her father telling her to "put on her big girl panties," and stop her belly-aching. Having to hold it all in I am sure aged us all, pushed the grief down where it could not scream, though that is what we felt. Dry-eyed I applied for a job in Toronto and made up some stupid story about why there had been a six month break in my employment. I was not believed, and I did not get the job. I felt like a fugitive, a criminal with the rap sheet of a slut. It was not because I had had sex; it was because I had lost my baby to the way things were.
The word bitter? It's a word often used against us. Birth mothers who don't sit down and shut up, who speak up and criticize adoption, who know the system is nasty and biased against first mothers, are called bitter. It happened just last week.
The advertisements for the lost family members? They reminded me of every registry in the country, especially the ISRR registry on the Internet where first/birth parents and adopted individuals post whatever information they have; the data posted on Facebook pages, including one that I shared on my page just last week of a photograph of a woman holding up a poster with her birth information. It went viral on Facebook and yielded up her mother.
The words of longing when people were separated, the joy at reunion? I hear and read those words in memoirs and at other blogs, and in our own writing here, and in comments both birth mothers and adoptees have left. Williams' book is not about our predicament, per se, but it is about the feelings we know all too well. That passage about the girl looking up in the sky for a direction as to how to find her mother? After my daughter and I reunited, she said that before I found her, on clear nights in the winter, with snow on the ground and a full moon overhead, when "everything looked navy blue," she would look at the moon, and imagine that somewhere, I too was looking up at the same old moon.
If people knew what adoption was like, for the mother, for the adopted, if people could see and feel the utter agony of giving up a child, the grief it causes the individual given up, would it end? Slavery in America did, but unnecessary adoption, based generally on class and money, in America proceeds apace.--lorraine
Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (John Hope Franklin Series in African American History & Culture)
"Williams explores the heartbreaking stories of separation and the long, usually unsuccessful journeys toward reunification. Examining the interior lives of the enslaved and freedpeople as they tried to come to terms with great loss, Williams grounds their grief, fear, anger, longing, frustration, and hope in the history of American slavery and the domestic slave trade. "--Amazon
"Williams examines the historical fact of family separation and renders its emotional truth. She is the rare scholar who writes history with such tenderness that her words can bring a reader to tears. . . . [The book] has a propulsive narrative flow, and with each successive chapter the suppleness of Williams's prose grows."--New York Times Book Review
ISRR - International Soundex Reunion Registry
Why Is Adoption Like Slavery?
The Adoption Contract vis a vis Slavery, Continued
Dear President Obama: Please Consider the rights of the adopted
Oranges & Sunshine
In 1986 Margaret Humphreys, a British social worker, investigated a woman's claim that at the age of four she had been put on a boat to Australia by the British government. At first thinking it incredulous, Margaret discovered that this was just the tip of an enormous iceberg. Up to 150,000 children, some as young as three years old, had been deported from children's homes in Britain and shipped off to a "new life" in distant parts of the British empire, right up until 1970. Many were told that their parents were dead, and parents often believed that their children had been adopted in Britain. In fact, for many children it was to be a life of horrendous physical and sexual abuse far away from everything they knew. Here, Margaret reveals how she unraveled this shocking secret and how it became her mission to reunite these innocent and unwilling exiles with their families in Britain. Originally published as Empty Cradles--Amazon (There is also a movie that came out last year. Excellent for our people!)