NaBloPoMo probably doesn’t work this way, but I’m posting twice today to make up for yesterday.
Time to revisit this article, because it’s really been bugging me.
“I would begin to tell the story of Josephine Baker, and people would start to laugh,” says Matthew Pratt Guterl, the author of a new book on Baker’s later life, Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe. “And I would start to wonder what that laughter signified.”
First, there’s a deep discomfort at her unapologetic marshaling of children to act out her own utopian racial narrative. Second, we think we understand what’s going on here; we see early incarnations of celebrity eccentricities from our own time. In the big adoptive family, we see Angelina or Madonna; in the celebrity theme park, we see Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
But why does that make people laugh? Why are Angelina and the Neverland Ranch funny? Are we made uncomfortable by the “unapologetic marshaling” or are we not? Why, when the author says we should take the Rainbow Tribe seriously, does she feel compelled to talk about Baker’s political aims and the fact that other people did such things at the time as if those things are something other than “early incarnations of the celebrity eccentricities of our own time”?
To me, the marshaling that makes people laugh is the same thing people think they know about Madonna, the same thing as Baker’s political justifications, and the same thing as the fact that rainbow families were trendy then just as they are today. So, assuming there is one, what is the real second reason to laugh? Maybe the book gets to the bottom of the laughter, but I don’t think this article has. I don’t know whether I can either, but as I was drafting this post, something struck me; so here’s what I think.
I think the second reason for laughing is a second kind of discomfort, one nobody ever seems to acknowledge or even consciously feel. It goes beyond “Ugh, those poor kids” to a deeper place. It’s the discomfort of putting one’s self, however briefly, in the place of those children. It’s the knowledge that, even though your parents were married and were not killed and were not poor and were not from war-torn countries–despite all that, this could have happened to you.
It’s the flip side of the adoptee wondering why s/he wasn’t good enough to be kept. It’s the knowledge that nobody is good enough to be kept, that nobody earns or can earn their parents’ love, just as nobody earns their children’s love: most of us just receive it, worthy or not.
I know people react defensively to that knowledge sometimes. I know it by the way they react to discussions about abortion with a knee-jerk, sphincter-clenching that could have been me! And I’m not claiming to be a mind-reader here; many people consciously frame their objections to abortion in just that way, as if it is something that can happen to a fully formed, feeling, thinking person. “What if it were you?!” they ask, meaning Dear Lord, what if it were me?
Because here I go walking around planet Earth thinking I belong here, that I have some kind of control over things, that I can Good myself into some measure of safety…but I don’t, I don’t, and I can’t.
All of that terror and insecurity is what people shove aside in a heartbeat when they insist they wouldn’t mind being adopted, that they’d be fine with it as long as they had a loving family. And once shoved aside, that mess is gone. When people insist they wouldn’t mind being adopted, what they’re really saying is that they would be a better adoptee than the one they’re talking to, that they would be more grateful and less curious because that is how one earns one’s new parents’ love. How one renders one’s self safe.
I think many (not all) non-adopted people feel entitled to their own lives. They’re here, so they deserve to be here. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; I am, in fact, jealous. I think if I’d ever felt that way, I’d have accomplished more in life, made better choices, and insisted on better from some of the people who claimed to love me.
This is why people who have nothing to do with adoption rush to assure us that our adoption was meant to be, that god wanted it, that our APs are our real parents, that our soul chose this before we were born. They want everyone to have earned their way here, because that keeps them from thinking about the fact that nobody did, not even them.