The Anatomy of a Transracial Child

My wife and I were on the road for a long drive when she put on an episode of NPR’s Code Switch discussing the experience of transracial adoptees. From the outset, the hosts were careful to remind listeners that when they said “transracial” they didn’t mean it like on that episode of Atlanta where a black teenager thinks he’s a 35-year-old white man named Harrison. They were referring to children of color who have grown up in white families and communities.

According to the podcast, in 2011, eight out of every ten adoptive parents of kindergarteners were white, while six out of ten adoptees were of color. Not only that, but in the past eighteen years, more than 270,000 children adopted by American parents were adopted internationally.

As we listened, I pretended like my thoughts weren’t a scratched record spinning in my head. I pretended—like I always do—that I was comfortable in my own skin.

Before I could even speak, I was taken from my birthplace in Northeastern Brazil and brought to the United States, where I was raised by my adoptive parents. Both my parents are white. I am racially Frankenstein’s monster, the bastardized hodgepodge of African, Latino, possibly Indigenous Native, and who the fuck knows what else. I have no siblings. All of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents are white. My high school’s population was nearly entirely white, as was the neighborhood I grew up in.

I am American and I am not. I am Latino but not Hispanic. I am black but not African-American. I was an outcast throughout my childhood, always an exception to the norm. While I cannot say my heritage was hidden from me—my parents have always been up-front and honest with me about my adoption—I had no one to set an example of how to own my culture.

What I did have were books.

Speculative fiction has always been a special refuge, where everything that is foreign feels completely natural. I feel safe in the strangeness of the characters. I feel welcomed by the hidden worlds of magic. There’s no need to be accepted by a world where everything is fantastical.

I do not think that I am alone when I say what first drew me to science fiction and fantasy were the expansive, intricate, and imaginative lands these genres took me to. My first memory of literature was how my adoptive father would read by my bedside the first Harry Potter books, before I could read them myself. Like so many other kids of my generation, I hoped more than anything to receive my Hogwarts acceptance letter in the mail at age eleven. But for me, this imaginary rite of passage meant even more than most. What if my birth parents were actually powerful wizards? What if I came from a deep lineage of magical royalty? I wanted my adoption to mean something, my abandonment to have grave significance. I wanted to believe that there was a reason that my birth mother gave me up, other than that she simply did not want me.

Once I grew older, I fell in love with the campiness of the Dragonlance Chronicles, then the political intrigue of A Song of Ice and Fire, and the mind-bending concepts from the canon of Philip K. Dick.

Still, as I entered my early adulthood, I began to realize even in these stories that I loved I could not find a genuine sense of belonging. The characters were always white. The worlds were always based in European history and mythology. Even if these stories were crafted in non-reality, they still resembled an environment that I felt estranged from. My letter from Hogwarts never arrived, and I was not granted the privilege of knowing that there was a second world where all my strangeness would be seen as an attribute.

For a while, I turned away from speculative genres, in favor of what I thought to be more “conscious” literature. I buried myself in the socio-political theories of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Claudia Rankine. I devoured the autobiographies of Malcom X and Nelson Mandela. I did my best to emulate the poetry of Tyehimba Jess and Patricia Smith.

When I graduated from college, I took a job as an editorial assistant. My boss was one of the strongest, brightest, and coolest black women I have ever known. She was truly a mentor to me and guided me through the early stages of my racial awakening. To work on books by notable people of color that I knew were reaching such a wide audience felt something like liberation.

When I ultimately left publishing, I had found a fresh perspective. I missed the fantastical worlds of my childhood, but now, because of authors such as Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, and Nalo Hopkinson, I was able to approach them from a fresh perspective. More than anything, publishing demonstrated how cathartic writing can be and motivated me to explore my identity further by creating worlds of my own.

But American Blackness has a cultivated mythology that extends beyond hip-hop culture and afro-futurism. What does it mean to be black, anyway? I wish I could tell you. I did not choose to be black. Blackness is something that has been painted onto me by all the white people that have passed me by. Blackness is something that has been given to me only to say that I don’t belong as one of them. My own family. My neighborhood. My childhood friends.

I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my uncle’s truck when a car passing in front of us cut him off. I was eight or nine years old, maybe. In frustration, my uncle shouted, “Goddamn, niggers!” I do not know if the other driver was black or if this was just my uncle’s assumption, though I do remember after he said this, he looked down at me. I was never sure how to interpret his look.

However, blackness has also given me a great deal. It has welcomed me into a community of folks who understand what it’s like to be dispersed from your people. It has given me the support of those who understand what it’s like to have your culture erased from within you. Blackness has taught me how to honor my skin, instead of incessantly trying to sever it from my bones.

There are moments when I feel like an imposter. In his song “1985,” J. Cole spits, “They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill. They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels and somewhere deep down—fuck it, I gotta keep it real—they wanna be black and think your song is how it feels.” I think this mentality extends to fiction writers, as well. Often, I find myself portraying characters of color in a particular light because I feel I have to prove to my readers that I know what it’s like to be black. In reality, I am perpetuating harmful stereotypes to prove to myself that I am part of a community that wants me.

I’m stuck. No matter where I go, I am robbed the privilege of authenticity. My Afro-Brazilian/Latino heritage does not fit neatly into American racial structures, and it never will. Especially when there is also a large part of my personality that is derived from my family’s whiteness.

I was twenty-one years old when I started to learn Portuguese, and this was mostly at the insistence of my wife, who was born and raised in Brazil. The act of learning language has always been a traumatic experience for me because it forces me to confront all that I do not know about myself. I resisted learning the tongue of my people for as long as I could, and it hurts to dam the parts of yourself that are always threatening to split through the suppression. At some point, our traumas always manifest themselves. The best one can hope for is to find a path that allows us to control the surging waters without letting them flood the banks.

This realization led me back to Brazil.

For years, the country of my birth had been as fictional to me as the Shire. I knew of it only in the images I garnered from movies and books. I had the stories my adoptive parents told me, but these were few—they had only been in the country for the ten weeks it took to adopt me. Brazil was real only in my mind. That is to say, it was a fantasy.

Though uncanny at first, I grew to love the country as my own. For the first time, I was surrounded by folks who looked like me. If I kept my mouth shut, no one would ever have known I was raised elsewhere. The more of the language and history I learned, the more I came to know myself. I finally felt like I was the central protagonist of my own life.

Though it may seem like this enlightening woke itself overnight, that is far from the truth. Portuguese is a hard language, and I often make a fool of myself when speaking it. The books I want to read, I can’t yet, and the books I can read are mostly for children. I have taken to reading A Series of Unfortunate Events in Portuguese to study. I am only on book three.

It’s emotionally exhausting to look at the favelas and the countryside shanties. This is the poverty I was born to. What did I do to deserve the life of privilege I have been granted? Nothing. It was never up to me. My survivor’s guilt intensifies with each trip back to my homeland.

However, I have begun to realize that the world I have been pining for all my life is the one that birthed me. The realm I have been searching for is built from a different kind of magic. It has no gnomes or jinn, no warlocks or diviners. But it is awe-inspiring all the same, and it no longer exists only in my imagination. It is tangible and real.

I could not have realized any of this were it not for speculative fiction. The stories of my youth inspired in me the necessary curiosity to question what is real. They showed me that things do not always have to be as they appear. They can shift like were-beings, look different to different kinds of people. Circumstances are only as rigid as you assume them to be.

Though growing up in a transracial family has been challenging, I do not mean to imply that it has not also been a blessing at the same time. I am a changeling. I can adapt to many different kinds of social situations because I am in a perpetual state of adaptation. Not unlike speculative fiction. Speculative fiction changes and adapts and always finds a way to make the strange palpable. Speculative fiction is a portrayal of the possibilities that can occur.

It is still difficult to confront the realities of my adoption, but not as difficult as it used to be. As I learn more Brazilian history, experience more of the culture, and improve my language, I know it will become easier. Though, the difficult part is that I know my identity will never quite fall in line with a social structure others can fully understand. With publishing turning further in favor of “own voices” stories, how do I identify what my own voice is? Again, I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. What I do know is that there are many others like me, who feel they don’t fit in, who feel their life’s narrative doesn’t align with anyone else’s. I try to remind myself of this often, because when I do, I am reminded that in something, at least, I am not alone.

Woody Dismukes is a Brazilian-American poet, author, and musician living in Jackson Heights, Queens. He is a 2018 Clarion West graduate and has taught at University Settlement’s Creative Center. His work is featured or forthcoming in Lightspeed, Apex, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @WoodyDismukes.

2 Comments

  1. What a powerful new voice! I’m so excited to swim through Woody’s visions of hope and beauty in the future!

  2. Wow! What a powerful voice unearthed! I look forward to seeing what Woody conjures in the future!

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