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‘You Should Be Grateful’ tackles complex truths of transracial adoption

April 25, 2023 at 6:00 am

Special to The Seattle Times

Angela Tucker is author of the new book “You Should Be Grateful,” which she’ll discuss at Town Hall Seattle on May 3. (Shadia K’David)

Born to a Black woman in Tennessee, Angela Tucker was adopted by white parents in Washington. She became a mentor and facilitator at an adoption agency, and an advocate, speaking publicly about the complexity of transracial adoption. The search for her biological family was documented in the 2013 film “Closure.”

Her new book from Beacon Press, “You Should Be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identity, and Transracial Adoption,” explores Tucker’s life experience, her work with transracial adopted youth and the history of adoption in America. It’s both a powerful manifesto and a hopeful text that calls for reshaping how we talk and think about adoption.

Ahead of a May 3 event at Town Hall Seattle, Tucker discussed how the book builds on her work, the relevance of language regarding transracial adoption, adoption as trauma and the importance of curiosity and hope.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“You Should Be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identity, and Transracial Adoption” by Angela Tucker. (Beacon Press)

The book uses terms from John Koenig’s “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” and you use terms like “ghost kingdom” and “postnatal culture shock.” Can you talk about the importance of language relating to adoptee healing and the adoption industry?

In the same way John Koenig feels there aren’t enough words to adequately describe all of our emotions, I feel that way about transracial adoption. We’re kind of boxed into things like, for kids, you’re an Oreo: Black on the outside, white on the inside. That morphs in adulthood, and what I hear adoptees I mentor talk about is [being a] racial imposter. I think it’s important we find new words that can articulate the complexity of our layers and also honor the truth of it.

You write about what you call a trifecta of gratitude, confusion and pain for transracial adoptees. Can you talk about that?

It’s a beautiful thing to grow up having parents who understand at the root that an adoption is a sad thing, that we wish an adoption didn’t have to happen. I had parents who acknowledged that pain for all of us. I know so many adoptees for whom that part is not allowed any space. Even for those adopted for reasons that are legitimate, there’s still a loss. And bypassing that and going straight to, “You’re here now, look at this great life,” many adoptees now can articulate it feeling like gaslighting. “Maybe I am crazy to wish for and to long for being connected to my kin. I have my own room, I have three square meals a day, I get to do all these extracurriculars. I must be crazy for not being more thankful for it.” That gaslighting is, in this sense, synonymous with confusion.

I found the most healthy adoptees are those who are able to embrace three of those things. It’s a central theme in my book to help clarify that no amount of sweet talk can replace the inevitable loss, the inherent loss, that is adoption. There’s a humongous amount of adult adoptees trying to understand their identities because they didn’t have freedom to allow those things to be in place.

Capitalism is embedded in the phrase “adoption industry.” How did you reckon with that in the book?

It’s uncomfortable to understand that adoption operates on supply and demand. That, yes, Black babies cost less to adopt. That children with disabilities are negotiable. It’s uncomfortable because it tells us something about us as people who have really bought into the nuclear family structure. I used examples from my own story, and that the adoption agency was willing to reduce the price in order to send me across the country to this one family that was open.

When I worked within the adoption agency, I kept a separate Excel spreadsheet to try to actually track the cost for a child, and I was often disillusioned when I realized how little we would spend on caring for expectant mothers. For a woman who was pregnant who needed rent, we’d pay for a few months before the baby was born. But once the baby was born, then it was a real sticky thing if the woman still needed support. Our response was not an automatic, “Yes, we’ll support you.” So that makes it pretty crystal clear what this is about. I don’t ever want to be stopped out of the discomfort that comes from talking about money and children. I’m trying to give a lot of voice to adopted youth. Kids will say, like I wrote in my book, “What if my birth parents got that money? Could they have kept me?”

In a scene with a mentee, you write that you shared “an insatiable curiosity for truth and a hopeful desire for a contented spirit.” Can you elaborate on that?

The book is half exercise in truth in all the things we’ve talked about, like that society needs to know adoption is trauma, that adoptees shouldn’t be made to feel grateful. But the other part of the book is my search for contentedness. I talk about the different coping strategies — music, playing piano. And I delve into the complexity of the conversations I have with my biological mother. I just got off the phone with her, and when she says, “How’s your mom doing?,” I still am like, “Wow, you can say the words ‘your mom’ about my adoptive mother with such ease. Does that mean you don’t think of me as your daughter?” I think that sort of questioning will be my future forever.

With the book, I was trying to say, “This is it. This is the most resolve you’re going to get.” That’s partly why the book cover looks the way it does. It’s purposefully beautiful. It’s a collage of fragmented pieces that are cohesive. That’s the challenge of my life: to see that as complete, as opposed to the metaphor that a lot of adoptees use, which is feeling like I have a missing puzzle piece.

But a positive around the complexity of the identities of transracial adoptees is that our experience offers a beautiful perspective on the intersections of economic class, religion, nationality, citizenship for transnational adoptees specifically, power relations. Those layers allow me to speak in a nuanced way that can add a lot to the conversation.

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