When I first stumbled upon Mariama Lockington’s personal essay, “What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew,” I felt an instant connection with her. I remember reading the essay, nodding at all the things that I could relate to as a transracial adoptee. “Yes,” I murmured under my breath, “This is so good.“
Mariama represents black girls whose identities sometimes don’t fit into neat boxes, the girls who sometimes walk the tight rope between two cultures. In sum, she represents black girls like me.
Read on for our conversation about writing, the importance of representation, and Mariama’s definition of home.
You first book, The Lucky Daughter a poetry chapter book, deals with themes like race and family. How much of the poetry draws from your own life experience?
Writing for me has always been about survival, about finding mirrors and windows in which to see myself and the world around me better. My poetry tends to be pretty confessional in nature, but not all of my poems are directly related to something that happened to me. Some of my poems are personal poems and some of them are re-memories and re-imaginings. In general, I like to say that in all of my poems there are emotional truths that ring true to my personal experiences.
You also wrote a MG novel-in-verse, For Black Girls Like Me, which will be out next year. Why did you choose a middle school audience for this particular book?
For Black Girls Like Me in its very early stages was my MFA grad school thesis— a collection of about sixty prose poems about a nameless pre-teen adopted black girl. It was much more abstract and I thought that I had written it for an adult audience, but I was having trouble taking the manuscript to the next level after grad school. When I published my article “What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew” on Buzzfeed in 2016, my now editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, reached out. She asked if I’d ever considered writing a fictional book based on my own experiences as an adoptee, but for a middle grade audience. I was SO excited by this prospect, since my other passion in life is teaching and working with youth. I have a Masters in Education and I have worked with education nonprofits for more than ten years. When I thought about this girl I kept writing poems about, about writing her story more concretely for a younger audience, giving her a name, something just clicked. I was able to dive back into the manuscript and rewrite it for this younger audience with renewed vision and excitement. So in some ways, the book itself chose its audience.
Today, For Black Girls Like Me is my Harriet the Spy meets Awkward Black Girl mash-up. It will be out in July of 2019, and it’s a novel-in-verse about a curious young black girl, Makeda, who lives with her adoptive white family. When her family moves across the country one spring, everything changes for Makeda. At home, Makeda’s sister is too cool to hang out with her anymore and at school, she can’t seem to find one true friend. Through it all, Makeda can’t help wondering: What would it feel like to grow up with a family that looks like me? It’s a story about family, friendship, sisterhood, race and identity.
I can’t wait to read it, and it sounds like it was inspired in part by your childhood. In your Buzzfeed article, “What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew” you describe growing up in a color blind home, where your parents basically told you that race didn’t matter. You wrote that one of the effects of that was feeling like you had to shield your parents from the racism that you experienced when you are young, and then as an adult you felt you couldn’t have conversations about racism in America. After so many years of not talking about race and racism with your family, at what point did you start verbalizing your observations of racism?
Well there are two answers here.
I always get mad when adoptive white parents of black or brown kids tell me that their child is “too young to be talking or thinking about race.” That’s just false. Young people— toddlers and children— are VERY observant and aware of the ways they are being treated and what they are seeing in this world. They notice patterns and tension, and yes, sometimes they don’t always have the analysis or the language to fully process the moment, but they are able to process their feelings and feel their observations. For example, when I was four or five my parents moved to Boulder, CO— a very white city. One day my mom took me to the grocery store and I saw a black woman in one of the isles. I stopped in my tracks, frozen, and pointed at the black woman in excitement and surprise. “Look mama,” I yelled,” It’s a black woman. She’s like me.” It was a seemly innocent moment, but my mom was horrified that I had acted so surprised to see someone who looked like me. She quickly realized—what she as a white woman had not realized until that moment— that seeing yourself reflected in the majority is a privilege. A privilege I had been denied. I may not have had the language to process all of this, but I knew in that moment that it felt affirming to know that I wasn’t the only one. That there were beautiful black women who existed in the world. Six months after this incident, my parents moved us back to Denver. I wouldn’t say that my parents NEVER noticed race or the ways we were treated differently, but they just had a hard time talking about it with me and my siblings. It’s awkward to treat your children as if color doesn’t matter, but then step into the world and be confronted with the ways it does. I don’t think my parents were ever given the tools to address moments like these with us.
I don’t think I really started talking consciously and openly about race until I was in college. Up until then, it was a lot of me stuffing my feelings and scribbling things in my journals. Of course growing up I KNEW I was black and that my parents were not. As mentioned above, I knew how it felt to be treated differently, or have kids at school call me “the whitest black girl” but I didn’t really know how to analyze and articulate why these moments of difference and tension were happening. In college two things happened, I took an entire class on Toni Morrison’s novels, and I started attending and performing poems at the University of Michigan U-Club Poetry Slams. In both of these spaces, I began to grapple with terms like: colorism, colorblindness, racism, microaggressions, colonization, etc., and I began to understand some of the bigger systems that were at play. It was both an empowering and terrifying period of time, and while I felt comfortable talking about these topics with my peers, bringing back my new found language and knowledge to my family was not comfortable or easy. It still isn’t.
That sounds like many transracial adoptees whose identities start to form when they leave home and attend college. Was there a particular circumstance that motivated you to start talking and writing publicly about your adoption and your identity? How has the conversation around transracial adoption changed, if at all?
I’d say that my time doing spoken word and slam poetry in college really helped me begin to share my adoptee truths more publicly. I saw other young poets of color getting up on stage and being really open and honest about their lives. After spending a lot of years stuffing or hiding my feelings, I admired and wanted to emulate this kind of honesty. In college, I screamed into a lot of microphones about my dad being a Colonizer (he’s originally from England) which is really dramatic and of course not directly true. But at the time it felt good to draw sweeping connections between some of the dark history of this world and my experiences growing up with white parents in mostly white spaces. I had a lot of anger to sort through in my 20s. A lot of valid anger.
I do think the conversation has changed a little bit around transracial adoption, but I think we still have far to go. I do notice that there are more support groups for white parents with adopted kids of color, and I am really grateful for all of the adult adoptees who are now speaking up about their experiences. Visibility helps.
Let’s talk about the idea of “home.” For many adoptees the concept of home and family may change as they grow up. You wrote that you grew up in Denver, moved to New Mexico and as an adult later moved to Michigan. Do you have a place that has felt most like home? If so, why?
Because I’ve moved around so much, I find home in people more than I do places. I don’t have that one childhood home that I go back to every holiday. Instead, I have memories of running around in Turtle Park in Denver with my friend Jesse and my sister. I have memories of driving around East Grand Rapids with my friend Lil Lizzie. I have memories of making forts in the woods in Baltimore with my sister and brother. Today, home is sitting on my porch in Kentucky with my dog, Henry, and my partner. We travel as a pack. Packlife = home.
Along with the complicated idea of home, many adoptees grow up feeling that they don’t know who they really are. Do you feel more “settled” in who are you now? If so, what has contributed to that?
Yes and no. I feel very settled in my career as a writer and educator, I feel settled in my partnership with my wife and the life we’ve chosen to build together, I feel very loved and supported by my friends and chosen family. And every day I am learning to ask for what I need, to stand in my truth, and not over apologize or be accommodating. But I have not searched for my biological family yet, so there is still a part of me that has a lot of questions, fear, and anxiety about who I am and where I come from.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a Young Adult novel— a queer love story between two black girls. It’s in the early stages, but I’m excited about where it’s going. Other than that, continuing to teach, cook good food, and get ready for For Black Girls Like Me to launch July 2019!
Mariama Lockington is the author of The Lucky Daughter and the upcoming For Black Girls Like Me. You find her on Twitter at @marilock and on Instagram at @forblackgirlslikeme. You can also learn more about her at www.mariamalockington.com