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Adoption and Slavery: Watching 12 Years a Slave Together

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I didn't know genes also govern minor but significant mannerisms. Our adopted daughter Rosa's older sister hugged me when she and her mom (or better their mom) came to visit us for the weekend from South Carolina. And then, while hugging, she tapped me with her left hand on the back. That is exactly how our 7-year-old Rosa does it; I always think it is the future Comforting Mother in her, but that creature hides also in her sister. This moment in the entrance of our Brooklyn home gave me pause: Rosa is part of our adoptive family, but she is no less part of her biological family, and not only physically. Her biological family is caring and understanding just like she is.

Rosa's mom, Carla, is a strong black woman from the North East where she fell on hard times, who moved back with four of her kids to her ancestral world in South Carolina. There she lives on land that possibly came to her forefathers, freed slaves, through Sherman's Special Field Orders, No. 15, after the civil war. She remembers that the fields around her house were planted with cotton.

Carla's hard times were the cause of our happiness: Rosa came as a baby to our family.

Carla's real hard times are over, but for most of us, her life would still be regarded as tough. In the early evening she gathers her two oldest daughters and a boyfriend of one of the girls, gets in a van and drives 57 miles to a food processing plant, where they all work from 10:00 p.m. till 8:00 a.m., and then drives back 57 miles home. After a short night in daytime she has to organize her household, also for her other two school going kids. Weekends are disrupted by the weird daily sleep schedule. Vacation is eight days a year. Thank God there is family around in the area.

When Carla is with us, we try to give her as much rest as she can get. Rosa, however, wants her attention, and then there are nieces, aunts and uncles, who want to see her and want to see the girl, their girl, who is now with two white dads and an African American brother. We have a dinner at our home with family from Brooklyn and the Bronx. Carla laughs like Rosa laughs and like her whole family laughs. Work in night shift seems to run in the family as well, so it doesn't get late.

One night in the weekend, which we had planned to go out for dinner the three of us, our son fell ill and my partner offered to stay home with him, Rosa and Carla's other daughter. "Let's see a movie," I had suggested that afternoon and Carla wanted to see 12 Years a Slave. "Maybe I need a shoulder to cry on," she had said. "You're welcome, but I am not sure if you really want a white shoulder," I joked seriously.

I had read -- and understood -- a fine essay by Enuma Okuru in The Atlantic which stated: "I could not think of one white person where I live with whom I would feel emotionally safe enough to see this particular movie about slavery." And now I was going to see that movie with the mother of our daughter. We first got a bite in a restaurant where she was the only person of color and then went to the theater on Court Street in Brooklyn, which caters to the black community. I was one of the few whites in the space.

12 Years a Slave is almost impossible to watch.The 19th century language gives some distance between the viewer and what happens on screen. But still, there is no other way than to identity with the people who look like you. So I sat there in that big movie chair as the disgusting, mindless and cruel Edwin Epps and as his wife Mary, a mean spirited, ice cold monster. And Carla was destined to be and feel like the kidnapped slave Salomon Northup and the mentally, physically and sexually abused Patsey. Sometimes we touched each other's arm or legs in the dark space. Sometimes I couldn't watch what was shown and sometimes Carla couldn't watch. But we couldn't comfort each other: my white shoulder could indeed not be an authentic support and I didn't dare to ask for such a thing from a black woman, while my people were nothing else than embodied evil.

Carla and I had a stiff drink at home and we knew that the situation that brought us together in that nice warm room, while our daughter was sleeping upstairs, was the consequence of those horrifying days in the past. And we realized, and were able to express to each other, that much of how we live our lives as first family and adoptive family, and how we had dealt in the past and interact now with each other, reflect those horrifying days.

White parents with black kids in America are not only parents with kids; they make something visible we don't like to talk about: profound racial inequality. Carla and I realized that we still have a long way to go before the white wrongs are righted. The one thing we both can do now is to be together good family for our daughter. We must hope that in that goodness the seed for Obama's 'more perfect union' is concealed. And the one thing white parents can do is to acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of that inequality and then try to make a difference one way or another, try to make the world a bit better. Our kids and their first families are watching.