Racism, drugs, childhood in the 1980’s
I never thought I would get into drugs; drugs were always seen as a black thing. Not something white people did, or if they did, the did it right. Crackheads, crack babies, AIDS patients, a lot of black people. I was black, adopted by an older black couple who took in black foster children for the money to move to mostly white Long Island. They wanted to distance themselves from the black ghetto, media code words, “inner city,” and “urban” and “low income” were used so educated whites could represent the “N word” in spirit. The words actual aggressive use was for white trash. But we all know what was meant. Long Island native summed up white America’s view of black America in the song “We didn’t start the fire” with the line AIDS, crack, Bernie Geotz.” Wow, until I wrote that sentence I thought that song was talking in general about the 89’s but now I’m certain he was using code words to sum up conclusions made when people who looked like him gazed upon people who looked like me: Drugs, disease, child abandonment, criminals, gun violence leading to premature death and paralysis, black on black violence when black people have guns and shoot other black people. If a white guy shoots black teens he is lauded as a heroic vigilante. I wasn’t sure it was racist of Goetz bc the teens were doing exactly what we suburbanites were warned would happen in the “bad” areas of “The City.” They were indeed trying to rob him of his jacket.
As a child I did not like being black because every bad situation was primarily black. Who lived in “bad” neighborhoods? Who fills up the prisons? Special Ed classes were for mostly black students and the few whites I figured must be really dumb. In second grade I mournfully brought home a notification that I was being tested for the earliest gifted and talented class. Please God, no. I was horrified, certain the already relentless verbal abuse from the lady who adopted me would crescendo when I was found lacking. Just as I was unfavorably compared to the children on the show “Those Incredible Kids,” an off shoot of the popular show “That’s Incredible.”
I lived with two other light skinned children, older by 7 and 8 years, but all adopted at the same time. The lady, Arlene, was a medium brown, made dark skinned foster kids call her Mrs. Burrell bc she didn’t want anyone to think “anything that black came from me.” We adopted kids were the right color but she hated us for being what a totally f****d up society said was the one way a black woman born in 1933 could be pretty. And what did a woman matter to society if she wasn’t pretty? I was a beautiful child until the acne kicked in when I was 11 as if God caught himself accidentally throwing me a bone in life and took away that blessing so that I could taste the loss as well as suffer from the affliction
When I arrived at age 3 til I escaped 14 years later, me of Arlene said I was after her husband, my blameless adoptive father. She emphasized her superior status telling a confused small child whose gift with words was not yet developed enough to understand that, “he snores in my face every night, not yours,” Later I understood she meant her rightful place was in the marital bed. Did she really believe I’d seduced daddy? I don’t know. Did she think me capable, yes. And did she set out to destroy what she couldn’t fully appropriate for herself through adoption? You bet. I understand now that none of her thoughts was original, she was reciting a script centuries old. Some of us write part of our stories, but we creative ones, to a lesser extent, choose from the scripts society presents us and we hope to out our own twist on it. Arlene stayed true to her role as the bitter, barren woman who tries to make a life out of three kids cast away by our respective white mother’s, and all three of us exhibiting some…issues, the same ones that made our mothers unable to keep us. Arlene noticed and drilled our shortcomings into the brains of whoever had to listen to her rants. You know you have a gift when even your enemy cannot deny it but can only try to minimize: you may be smart, but…no common sense, crazy, goes from one extreme to the other, can’t talk to people, spiteful, hateful, sneaky, grudge holding, disliked by other kids, evil like the child portrayed in the movie The Bad Seed (tv didn’t do me a lot of favors in my early years. Lol!) She predicted I would suffer all my life but when it happened I’d never give her the satisfaction of admitting it (too true!). When told her how bad I was she also learned of future promiscuity (hmm…how many girls are labelled potentially promiscuous by adults who realize men will be attracted to the female and somehow this made the female bad? I was never raped, but it’s kind of how I experienced being blamed for what men might want to do as a form of asking for it. Arlene loved when my clear skin betrayed me and enjoyed making speeches about how I used to be cute but now I was a spotty faced leopard who had been a waste of money to acquire. All truly felt by her, and to varying extents all labels accurately applied to me. My adoptive father worked long hours as a school fireman (janitor) and had a long commute between Brooklyn work and Long Island home. Like many many men he came home to dinner and bed, and offered no opinion,comments, or decisions to the home front. He didn’t stop her, agree or disagree with her. I doubt he was attached to the strangers’ kids that came through the door, the door always swung both ways. Nope, I wasn’t having that. I demanded from Daddy, relentlessly, “my daily dose of hugs and kisses” but he might have ignored me like he did the varying cast if foster children and my adopted brother. My adopted sister only lasted 3 years after her adoption at age 11 when I was 3, then she was off to a home for teen mothers, never to return. I scratched out a spot as daddy’s obvious favorite since he responded to me as I pulled every moment of companionship be following him like a puppy when he came through the door after I raced down the stairs to greet him when he drove up, always after dark. “Daddy’s home!” I shouted, moving at full throttle, silently counting running steps in my head on the two short staircases–one, two, three, four and jump down the last two stairs. One, two, three, four, and jump down the last two. I was in his lap soon as he finished his dinner in front of the tv. He’d fall asleep in his recliner with me in his lap til Arlene deemed me too old at age 9 to continue. I resented that huge loss then but now I know it was appropriate to stop sleeping in my snoring daddy”s lap in early puberty. I remember those best ays, snuggling in as he pushed the chair nearly parrallel to the floor, and me, purely happy, nowhere else I’d rather be. I always tried to sync my breath to his snores but his breathing was too long and slow and my lungs felt like bursting as I tried to wait out his breaths while I held mine so we could begin the cycle simultaneously. I had to take slightly over two breaths for each inhale and exhale. Oh yeah, I compulsively counted certain things, but kept my lists to myself to avoid looking crazier. I didn’t know til later why I was called crazy but I did know to be ashamed of any mental frailty.
As a child of the 1980’s I did test into gifted and talented, and the particular label of “college bound” focussed me on my workable escape plan to get out of that house of meanness and yelling and isolation. Speaking of escape, it didn’t escape my notice that to be academically successful in Long Island meant being surrounded by white skin except for your view of your hands all school day. My script was the kid trying to forget I was the only black kid and reminders of my outsider status humiliated me. Insult to injury, I had no social skills for reasons I’d learn when I found my birth mother in my next life. The lady who adopted me had no friends and didn’t allow me to be with other kids. Not that I got invited to any bar mitzvahs or confirmation parties in my exclusively Jewish and Catholic area. Daddy’s mother was an orphan raised by nuns in Hondorus so I was lucky to fit in by attending the same church as all the other Catholic kids. I had seen black churches in TV and did not know if all the church hullabaloo was accurate (it is) and I’ve never been comfortable with the dramatics and the length. I was not on speaking terms with God bc I was lonely yet I was grateful for common ground with other kids.
I escaped to college in 1991. So very happy to be free from people who said they regretted taking me in, yes even Daddy joined in. But I didn’t expect a void where family fit in. I was totally alone. My student loans my only lasting companions, as it would turn out. But I knew there had been people in my life, vague memories, and a unshakeable certainty convinced me there was more to my story. My original birth certificate had been issued when I was 3. If I found out why the lost years would be restored. But how?
By my 19th birthday the mystery was solved. A clutch of cash, a federal crime, co-conspirators, and government lies–coming up next.