Drawing Battle Lines
Catherine McKinley was one of only a few thousand African-American and biracial children adopted by white couples in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, her consciousness grew as she did. Her very identity—composed both of the whiteness and blackness mixed in her genes, and of the whiteness of her adoptive parents—began to tear her apart, and she eventually embarked on a quest to find her birth parents and move toward self-acceptance. In this excerpt from The Book of Sarahs, her new memoir, McKinley pinpoints a crucial moment: that time when her home became the field on which the combats of race, of identity, of being the outsider, began to be fought in earnest.
With my parents’ move to Vermont, it seemed as though a very final, pronounced line had been drawn between us. It was different from the boundaries I had drawn in the past, acting against the surety that they would still be standing right there no matter how firm I drew and redrew the battle lines.
In Attleboro, those lines were drawn like this: In our house, I built a haven for myself, constructing my bedroom the way I thought it would have been if I had grown up in a Black family. My shelves were filled with Black books, replacing the artifacts of a former self—the dolls from my grandmother’s travels, the complete Laura Ingalls Wilder boxed library, the collections of Scottish verse, the Peterson’s guides to wildflowers and the seashore. I stowed them in the crawl space under the eaves of the house and moved my mother’s copies of The Black Child: A Parent’s Guide, the SNCC freedom movement songbooks, Amiri Baraka’s The Dutchman and The Slave, the row of James Baldwin paperbacks, and Stokely Carmichael and James Hamilton’s Black Power out from between the Rachel Carson and Thoreau and Henry Beston books, the trail guides, and my father’s engineering manuals in the den. I covered my walls with clippings from Essence and Ebony and turned up the dial on the “civil rights station” (read: Black radio, aired only on late night and Sunday slots, picked up from the Boston airways) to let everyone know who was living there. And I put a ban on my room. My father, who was my ally, if only for his silence and quiet amusement at my lobbies against the family, was the only one allowed in, and only so that he could tend the African violets he grew on shelves he built into my bedroom windows. I liked the flowers; they were African, despite how suspicious they seemed to me, sitting in the living room of every old white lady in town.
The three feet of landing at the top of the stairs marked a great divide between me and the rest of the family. My brother’s room, across from mine, was done over patriotically, with white walls and red and blue trim. I had helped to pick the American flag curtains and bedspread from the Sears catalog, and my mother ordered him a red, white, and blue shag rug. The rest of the house was filled with the outdoors. Gear catalogs and wildlife magazines piled the tables and shelves and tops of toilet tanks; a spectacular assortment of containers and thermoses and utensils, NASA tubing to ration and pack food for our excursions, insect repellent, ski wax, fly-fishing gear, bicycle tire gauges, seed packs, cork and cat gut, and kayak patch was in every kitchen cabinet or drawer. Dried foodstuffs, iodine tablets, a snakebite kit sat on the shelf above the liquor stash. There were shells and bones and feathers, moose horns found in a glacier in the Grand Tetons mounted on the wall, snake moltings and rattlers, porcupine quills, and owl pellets on the fireplace mantle, on the corners of living room tables, and the edges of bookshelves. In the hutch with the china, you might find something rotting in a covered dish. And always there was a hint of my parents’ upbringing and its expectations: The New Yorker magazines, a piece of furniture or a painting, a fussy something, the Abercrombie & Fitch clothing in a closet full of overalls, and Sears & Roebuck farm wear.
Other lines were drawn this way: My parents and brother had developed an interiority, a language and an emotionality expressed through nature that I wanted them to extend outside of that closed world. As we moved about in our lives in that house, different longings and a different material life were possessing me. I had an argument with all that obsession about the woods and bird watching, fly-fishing, animal tracking and nature conservancy.
When we sat together at meals, I would imagine that I was at a table with the characters from my books— maybe Indigo was eating gumbo by my side, and M’Dear was asking me about school. William and my parents would eat and watch the suet sacks hung outside the window, a pair of binoculars and a journal they used to record the birds that came to feed on the table between them. I would sit there, imagining I was Zora Neale Hurston, anthropologist, and create my own catalogs: He smells this way, because he is white; I feel this way, because I am Black; she burns her chicken and doesn’t use pepper, because she is not my Black mother.
I remembered sitting at the dinner table one evening—it must have been early in high school—cataloging my grievances with them in just this way. My anger got the best of me, and I went after my brother over whatever I felt was one of his recent sins of ignorance or his currying of my parents’ favor. I cannot remember what the matter was, but I do remember that part of his response was “because you’re half-Black,” and that I launched all of the artillery of my rage at him.
“I am BLACK!” I shouted. “In America, if you have one drop of Black blood, you are BLACK!”
“Well, you don’t have to…,” he stammered.
“Don’t tell me what to do! I don’t have to do nothing but STAY BLACK AND DIE!”
William didn’t understand anything about my anger, or what I was saying. I felt that connection between us that made us brother and sister sever a little bit more.
The Black world was like Mars to him. He didn’t know any Black people, not even my friends, and in those years—the early 1980s—in a place like Attleboro, not even television or radio or pop culture allowed much acculturation. Our lives became increasingly remote, even as we moved through the same house. The previous summer, we had been together at a summer program at the boarding school I would later attend. We ate lunch in the same cafeteria every day, but we hardly interacted in those six weeks. I stuck to my Black friends, and he moved with the Frisbee and drama crews, and when we passed each other, we said a few friendly things and moved along. I remember on the last night of the session, before we packed up to go home, my brother came to give me a message from my mother and found me sitting with my boyfriend and his sister. My brother was being friendly and trying to exercise some “cool.” He said, “Hey, boy…” to my boyfriend in this affected redneck-sounding voice, and I knew that if he went much further, he was going to get stomped on. He had no idea that he had crossed a serious line, even when it seemed like time had stopped, then went on fast forward.
“What did you say, cuz?” my boyfriend said. And everything started to rumble.
“William, you are so fucking ignorant! Forget, him ya’ll. He’s my brother, but he doesn’t know any better,” I said.
Other people were standing by, waiting to see what would happen. My boyfriend was backing down.
“Damn, Cathy, your brother is fucked up,” he said, shaking his head.
“That’s your brother?” Stefan, one of the student leaders, was listening to us and started shouting. “You are not William McKinley’s sister! You are not William McKinley’s sister!” His mouth was actually hanging open.
My brother and I were standing next to each other, and everyone was adding up our differences—his white, blond, preppy figure, and me, brown-skinned, hair in cornrows, and dressed in a Lee outfit like my friends from Trenton. I almost couldn’t breathe, because I felt so leveled from different sides.
I know that I was crying the next day when I told my mother what had happened. “I’m surprised at William. I’ll talk to him. But you and your brother are different—you don’t have to have the same friends or the same interests. You just have to respect each other. William has his trumpet, and you have your Black activities…,” she said, with some desperation.
I needed her to step in and make our worlds a little closer. I did not want to give up my family’s world. I wanted to be Black, to be a part of a Black world, and I wanted them to share in that world wholly. Instead, I was feeling more and more like they were homogenizing as McKinleys, and I was an appendage to their lives. I was fixed on my outsidership and how I didn’t belong, and he was daily perfecting his McKinleyness—working on projects with my parents, applying to the college they had attended, being a good son. In my rage-distorted lobbies, I was begging all of them to see that the McKinleys were a white and Black family, and that demanded that they be attuned to particular things.
So, when my parents began to pack up the house in Attleboro, I felt that their move to start a life as farmers was a signal of some final undoing between us. I went to visit them in Vermont a few weeks after they had moved. The time I spent with them was filled with the waves of sadness that had begun at graduation. I remember moving in circles around their new house, sifting through the boxes where all of our life in Attleboro had been stashed. I found my father’s old steamer trunk full of darkroom equipment and hundreds of old slide boxes and photos, and I settled down on the floor next to them, trying to distract myself from the racing panic I had been feeling in my chest for several weeks. As I worked my way through the trunk, I found an envelope with photos of me with a boy about my age—were we seven?—lying next to me buried in sand. The photos framed our faces, with green and red sweatshirt hoods making bright, spongy liners between our deep, sun-browned faces and the sand trapping our heads.
I called my mother and handed her the pictures. She looked at them curiously. “I don’t know who that is. Oh, well, that must be Jimmy,” she sighed. Jimmy, my cousin. My mother’s sister’s adopted child, who had stood in the same brown relief against our family as I did for two or three years and then disappeared. I can still remember the call that came one evening, when I overheard my mother and her sister in Kentucky talking about Jimmy being “sent back.” Later, my mother explained to me and my brother that my aunt and her ex-husband had decided to give up being parents to Jimmy, because single parenting was proving too hard. When they had divorced, my aunt took her own two children (it was never said this way, but the truth of it was evident) and left Jimmy with her ex-husband. Her ex-husband was battling alcohol abuse. Jimmy had “problems with his feelings” and was acting out, and the situation had become too difficult.
I remember feeling frightened by his being “sent back” and what it revealed about the adults’ feelings: There was a difference between your kids and your own kids. It had always seemed like William and I and the cousins were treated with a sameness in everyone’s affections, but now it seemed like distinctions could be drawn. And the absence of my parents’ outrage—or maybe they’d just hid it and tried to explain what had happened to us without judgment—betrayed their covenant of Responsibility, No Matter How Difficult It Is. It made me afraid for myself. I didn’t really understand why alcoholism or divorce made it hard to be someone’s parent. It was all around us. I knew that Jimmy was no different from me and not even so different from William, since we were all adopted. The only difference was that Jimmy came “late”—when he was four years old. I was beginning to feel confused by all of this and by the waffling I was seeing in adults’ ideas. Sometimes they were insisting that to be Black and transracially adopted was a special thing. (Didn’t my school principal pull me into the teachers’ lunchroom, which was in itself a great privilege, to show me photos of her adopted Black granddaughter?) But now it looked like being Black and transracially adopted was also a special problem.
The photos, and my mother’s slow memory and lack of emotion, became a flash point for all of the feelings that were overwhelming me. I started to go at her, and I remember her eyes narrowing the way they do when she’s angry. “I’m tired of all this race business,” she said as she walked out of the room.
I know that her words were more a sign of exhaustion from the changes we were all undergoing, but I let them punctuate my sense of being utterly lost to her and to any sense of family. I sat there for a long time, feeling my chest hollow out, while my old struggle resurfaced—wanting protection and wanting to let go. I decided to take her words at face value. I thought: I cannot love you. I cannot love white people. They cannot love me. She could be tired and turn her back. I was going deeper in.
For the rest of my visit we barely talked, and then I left to return to my job in New York before leaving for graduate school.
This is when I decided that, in some way, what I now had was freedom to remake myself. And this was the beginning of my decision that my search for my birth family would be everything by way of a remedy to my sense of loss.
From the book The Book of Sarahs: A Family in Parts, by Catherine E. McKinley. Copyright © 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Counterpoint, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.