I have shared in this venue many times that my sons are adopted. Charlie is Black and Elijah is of Black and white ethnicity. My wife and I are white so it is pretty obvious that there is a story behind our family composition. It is our story and it is part of who we are. We share freely with people who respect our family and how it came to be. We are very open about our transracial adoption experience.
Our journey has been interesting and eventful. We have learned much about ourselves and about parenting. More importantly we have learned about how race and ethnicity are part of group cultures. We have learned that our boys, regardless of the community they are raised in will eventually have to make their way in the world and they will likely become involved in the Black community. I have written many other blogs and articles about how we learned to reach out to the Black community to find answers for questions that my wife and I are not qualified to answer. A woman in the grocery store once asked me, basically, how I was going to help Charlie become a culturally-connected young Black man. (Essay in Portrait of an Adoption — ChicagoNow 2013 Where did you get the idea you could raise a black child? ) That has been an ongoing effort for us. I never considered turning to Spotify.
We have had a number of discussions with Charlie and Eli about race in our country. We have discussed current events and historical events. We try to let the discussions happen naturally, but we are always prepared to talk to them about topics like this. I have to admit that sometimes the discussions feel staged and rehearsed and I feel like we are force feeding them something that they should be absorbing on their own. We are doing our best, but I can only pray that we are doing enough.
The boys love music. There is lots of singing and dancing in our house. Eli is a ham and will sing any time. Charlie has an incredible voice but he is pretty shy about using it in public. It has only been the last year or so that he would sing in front us. I was in my office last week when I heard the boys using Spotify on my phone. That is fairly commonplace in our house. After a few songs, I heard “Glory” from the movie “Selma” come on. There was no accompaniment from the boys at first. Then Eli joined John Legend. He was learning the words so he did that half-listen-half-sing thing we do when we aren’t sure. There was silence from my sons when Common started his part of the song. The song was replayed with Eli Legend and Charlie Common picking up their parts. I love that song and it has a powerful message so I was pleased that they were listening. I was busy writing some masterpiece or another so it was only after about the eleventh or twelfth time that I realized it was being repeated. I put the finishing flourish on my latest masterwork and went upstairs. The boys greeted me with huge grins and insisted I listen to the song. I had to remind them that their mother and I both play it occasionally and enjoy it.
Charlie was excited and wanted to listen to it one more time. I got my phone out and showed them the video. They both watched intently. I played it again. “I know who Dr. King was, but what is Selma?” Charlie asked. “Who is Rosa?” I managed not to give him my “Seriously?” face. We have several books about Rosa Parks in the boys’ room and we have discussed several times since the movie came out why Selma, Alabama is significant. It wasn’t the way I hoped Charlie would become connected with his cultural history, but I figured it was better than simply not knowing. I got a piece of paper and wrote down a few names, places and phrases. “Google these,” I said. “Take a moment and read what you find. I’ll answer any questions you might have.” This was a risk. Charlie struggles with reading, unless he is really interested.
I left Charlie alone. He was intently looking at his phone, and later my iPad. He didn’t ask many questions. He read as much as I have ever seen him read without threats and direct supervision. I fought the urge to join him. He knew where to find me if he needed me. This wasn’t about me. Some things are best done alone. Occasionally John Legend and Common could be heard coming out of whatever device Charlie was using.
A few days later the boys were upstairs playing in their room. It was relatively quiet. That usually means trouble. As I made my way upstairs I could hear music. Eli’s sweet five-year-old voice was keeping up with John Legend admirably.
“One day when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours . . .”
Eli sang with heart and happiness, because he doesn’t know how to do things any other way. I smiled as he finished the verse. I wasn’t quite ready for what I heard next. It stopped me in my tracks.
“Hands to the Heavens, no man, no weapon
Formed against, yes glory is destined
Every day women and men become legends
Sins that go against our skin become blessings . . .”
The voice came through strong and clear and adult with a masculine baritone. Common was somewhere in the background. This man’s voice with a man’s message was coming from my 10-year-old son. He couldn’t see me standing in the doorway as he rapped with Common. We swayed back and forth with the music and gestured with his hands.
“The movement is a rhythm to us
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtapositionin’ us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough . . . “
He turned as he rapped and saw me watching him. Normally the show would be over, but this was different. I couldn’t believe he knew what juxtaposition was, but that wasn’t really important. He smiled a little.
“One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus . . .”
He looked at me as he rapped with Common and slowly raised his hands above his head. He closed his eyes . . .
“That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up . . .”
I watched my son connect through music. I watched him grow up a little. He chose his moment. I turned and walked into my bedroom and sat on the couch and listened. He didn’t need me there at that moment. He wasn’t singing to me.
Several minutes later Charlie came in my room. I told him that I enjoyed the song. He smiled a man’s smile. “Rosa Parks went to jail because she wouldn’t give up her seat on a bus. I learned that in school, I think,” he said. “But I didn’t get it until I heard that song.” I nodded. We talked about what he learned and how those things made him feel. The moment was over as quickly as it started, but it was real and powerful. I have never been prouder. A few days later the boys did the song in the car with their mom listening. She held my hand and cried a little.
I am not afraid to admit that when it comes to raising Charlie and Eli I am kind of making it up as I go along. I mean my wife and I understand that we want the boys to have a connection with and understanding of their culture. Most parents want that for their children. Our situation is a bit unique because we are raising them in one world and trying to help them connect with another. In that respect, we are using every resource at our disposal. Sometimes we have to work as hard to understand the question as we do to find the answer. Sometimes we get lucky and the boys really like a song that helps us help them to connect. We are taking our victories when and where we get them.
We stumbled on to this victory with the help of Spotify, John Legend and Common. We will take it.
Thank you for reading for the get-well wishes I have received. We will talk again soon on This Side of the Diaper.
(Glory lyrics by John Legend and Common)
Connecting Through Music by Curtis Rogers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.thissideofthediaper.com.