About a year ago, I interviewed Mariama Lockington, and we talked about a lot of things, including her upcoming YA novel, For Black Girls Like Me.
I eagerly anticipated reading her book, and recently I finished it in one afternoon. There’s so much to love about this book, and there is so much that I could relate to as a transracial adoptee.
In For Black Girls Like Me, Keda (short for Makeda) is an eleven year old black adoptee who is trying to figure out where she belongs. Keda’s white adoptive parents are both musicians; her dad is a professional cello player who travels with a symphony, and her mom is a former violinist who stays home with her two daughters. Keda’s older sister Eve is a typical fourteen year old, spending most of her time on her phone or trying to hang out with her friends.
In the beginning of the novel, Keda’s family moves from Maryland to New Mexico. Because of the cross country move, Keda has to leave her best friend Lena (who is a Haitian adoptee!). When Keda moves to New Mexico, she and Lena continue to communicate with each other through letters, phone calls, and eventually a shared Tumblr blog.
I loved the representation in the novel with both Keda and Lena. It is rare to read about a Haitian adoptee, and it was interesting to read about the struggles that both Keda and Lena have growing up in white families and communities. In the novel, Lena’s youth group leader tells her in front of everyone that she should be grateful that her parents decided to save her through adoption. Keda, while not an international adoptee, also deals with feeling like she is always in the spotlight. In the beginning of the novel, Keda avoids using the rest stop on their cross country trip in order to avoid the stares of people trying to figure out where she came from and how she fits into her family.
Another issue that comes up in the novel is hair. For most of the novel, Keda wears her hair in locs, a hairstyle that her mother chooses for her and helps her maintain. But Keda comes to the realization that the hairstyle is not her, and she decides to cut her locs off and wear her hair short. This was such an important part of the book, because it’s often not the hairstyle that’s important, but the ownership of it. Keda choosing her hairstyle was symbolic of her embracing her “true” self and not letting others define that for her.
The novel includes many situations that black adoptees often themselves in. There’s the questioning of nationality. (No really, where are you from?) In addition, black adoptees who grow up in white families sometimes have their racial identity questioned. (Why do you talk like a white person?) Also, Keda is called an oreo, the infamous moniker used to describe someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside. Like Keda, black adoptees are often on the receiving end of racism, and in the novel, one of Keda’s classmates uses the “n-word”. Keda has to decide whether to tell someone or brush it off. In the novel, Keda’s parents do take action, but Keda is left feeling embarrassed and alone.
Although Keda is adopted and the novel focuses on her struggles with identity, there is no “resolution” to Keda’s adoption. In many adoption narratives, an adoptee’s story is complete when they find out more about their biological families or they are reunited with their biological families, but (perhaps because of Keda’s age), none of these things happen. Instead the novel focuses on Keda’s family dynamics. Her adoptive mom struggles with mental illness, and her illness comes to a dramatic head, forcing all of the family members to evaluate their family unit. Through the incident and the situations that follow, Keda is able to express some important truths to her family about her identity.
The characters are all flawed (including Keda), but that’s what makes the novel so relatable. Keda’s parents are not portrayed as villainous adopters, nor are they portrayed as saints for adopting. While Keda’s family does have a lot to learn about race and racism, the novel is a reflection of adoptive families and families in general. The characters are doing the best with what they have and what they know. The novel is also an accurate representation of what it means to be black and adopted and all the complexities that come with that title. For Black Girls Like Me is beautifully written , and it was a joy to read.