FAMILIES Sarah and Michael

The social worker thought it was odd that Sarah wanted to adopt a child. Sarah had to admit it was.

In 1970, at the age of 26, Sarah was teaching philosophy at Bishop College and living on the campus of the all-black school. A large, warm, outgoing Jewish woman from New Jersey, she quickly became a friend to the lively black children who lived around her. Every afternoon she handed out milk and cookies, applied Band-Aids, read stories, answered questions. But when dinner time came, the playground emptied, the doorbell didn’t ring anymore, the children all went home. Sarah, unmarried and living alone, stood in her suddenly too large, too quiet living room and wished for a child who wouldn’t go home, a child of her own.

The plan formed slowly. For several months she kept it to herself and let it grow. It was daring but feasible. Or was it? Was it absurd? She wasn’t sure.

At last Sarah decided to put it to the test. She went to the Dallas County Welfare Department with her proposal: She wanted to adopt a child. She had an education, a secure job, friends who’d vouch for her character. She wasn’t fussy about age, color, or sex, though she’d prefer a little boy. A bi-racial child would be fine. She’d heard it was hard to find homes for them.

The social worker, a bustling, middle-aged woman in a dark blue suit, fingered her pencil and avoided Sarah’s gaze. She read and re-read Sarah’s papers. At last she burst out, “I don’t know. It’s odd. It’s just plain odd.”

“What’s odd?” said Sarah, startled.

“Everything about it is odd,” the social worker answered. “It’s odd that you’re a woman teaching philosophy in a university. It’s odd that you’re a white teaching blacks. It’s odd that you’re a Jew from up North teaching down here. You’re not married, but now you want to adopt a child, black, white, even biracial. Well, it’s odd, that’s all.”

Sarah didn’t speak. The woman had a point. It was odd.

“What I want to know is,” the woman went on, “what bothers me – I mean, you’re a philosophy professor and everything. What I wonder is -” She stopped, then plunged, “- can you hug kids?”

Sarah laughed, relieved. “Try me,” she said.

A couple of months later, the social worker told her about Michael. He was two and a half, a bright, happy little boy who’d talked at nine months and made friends with everyone he met. He’d lived all his life in a foster home in Amarillo, with people who didn’t want to give him up but wouldn’t adopt him.

“Why not?” Sarah asked.

“His father, his natural father, is black,” the social worker said. “His mother is white, and Michael is light-skinned. He could be Mexican or something.” She lowered her voice. “But they just can’t get over the thought that if they make him their legal son, they might have black grandchildren.” She studied Sarah. “Now, of course, he’s virtually unadoptable.”

“Unadoptable?” Sarah asked. “Because he’s biracial?”

“Well, that, and his age,” the social worker said. “People want babies, not older children or children with handicaps. Who’s going to want a half-black, half-white child who’s nearly three years old, no matter how smart and handsome he is?”

Sarah looked at her. “I do,” she said decisively. “He sounds like exactly the child I’ve been looking for. Can you work out the details?” Sarah was approved for the adoption.

At five o’clock on the Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, the phone rang in Sarah’s office at Bishop. The social worker said, “Michael is ready to go, but his foster parents are upset and uncooperative. If you want him, you’ve got to go get him right away. Can you be in Amarillo by tomorrow afternoon?”

Could she! As she hung up, Sarah’s mind raced. She’d not expected things to develop so fast and she’d not done any shopping for the child. Michael’s room was freshly painted, but it was empty – no bed, no clothes, no toys, no books, no nothing. She looked at her watch. She had about five hours till the stores closed, five hours to make a home for a little boy. Not long, but long enough.

At five-thirty the next morning Sarah, ready to drive to Amarillo, took one last proud look at Michael’s room, still not sure how she’d performed the miracle.

She recalled how she and her friend Barbara had dashed from store to store, checking off items as they went, carrying armloads of packages. They’d bought the bed last, at Sears, and had it sent down to customer pick-up to be loaded on top of everything else in Barbara’s station wagon. As they went out through the toy department, Sarah’s eyes fell on a miniature racing car, a gaudy red, orange, and yellow striped piece of junk with a noisy siren, completely unlike the Creative Playthings Barbara had helped her choose earlier. She bought it, and they left.

Barbara had brought her home after ten and the two of them had laid the new red rug and set the bed up. Then Barbara had to go home to her family.

Alone, Sarah had filled the shelves with books and toys – Playskool blocks, The Little Engine That Could, The Best Word Book Ever, Play-Doh, a musical Eeyore, Pooh, and Piglet, a toy train, the Creative Playthings. She put the new knit shirts and overalls, the pajamas with cars on them, and the socks and underpants in the chest, and made the bed with Bugs Bunny sheets. Tomorrow night a child – her child – would sleep on them.

Now she picked up her suitcase and turned to go. The racing car caught her eye. It really was a piece of trash. She picked it up and stuffed it in her purse. You never know.

Ten hours later, at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, Sarah sat alone in a bleak, dirty room in the welfare office in Amarillo, waiting for Michael. The bare, dusty floor and the ugly green walls depressed her, and her throat ached with fear. What was she doing here? The social worker came in carrying a child, set him down in the middle of the floor, and turned him toward Sarah. “Here, Michael,” she said brightly. “Here is your new forever and ever mommy. She’s come to take you home with her to live.” Then she left.

Michael watched her go. Tall and strong, with soft curly brown hair and skin the color of walnut shells, he wore a pair of rust corduroy pants and a yellow shirt with green stripes. He looked at Sarah. Sarah spoke to him. He moved away toward the door, one hand out, his big brown eyes beginning to fill with tears, watching Sarah all the time.

Sarah pulled the racing car from her purse and offered it to him silently. He took it, and sat down on the floor to examine it. Sarah sat down near him. He rolled it to her and jumped to hear the siren. She rolled it back. Without a word they played with the racing car for half an hour or more, pushing it over chairs, parking it under the desk, rolling it back and forth to each other. Suddenly Michael gave it a mighty push. It careened and turned over, and the right front wheel came off. He picked it up, looked at it, and held it out toward Sarah.

For the first time, he spoke. “Fix it,” Michael said.

The social worker came to the door and asked them to leave. “His foster mother doesn’t want him to come back at all,” she told Sarah. “This is a little irregular, but as of this minute he’s yours for good.”

Together the two left the welfare office, Michael holding the racing car. Sarah decided to take Michael to the park, and she stopped to buy a box of graham crackers to feed the ducks. Michael liked the park.

He swung on the swings, slid down the slide, fed crackers to the ducks and ate some himself, and chattered to Sarah as if he’d known her all his almost three years. She could see he was friendly and adaptable, and she began to relax and enjoy his company.

But as they got in the car and drove away, something seemed to remind Michael of his foster home. “Mama, Mama,” he began to sob. “Mama, Mama!”

Soon he was screaming at the top of his voice. Sarah drove around the strange city, frantically looking for a motel. It was getting dark and she was lost. She couldn’t drive back to Dallas tonight, as tired as she was, with this screaming, hysterical child.

At last she pulled up at a place, clutching Michael in her arms, and went to register. It was a nightmare. “What have I done?” she wondered as she carried him kicking and yelling down the hall to their room. She tried to soothe him, but he struggled out of her arms. For a long time he circled the floor forlornly, crying and crying. Nothing helped. She let him cry it out, till he lay down at last on the carpeted floor and fell asleep, one small plump arm around the racing car.

Sarah covered him carefully and let him lie. She washed her face, left the lamp on in case he was afraid of the dark, and slid into bed exhausted. Several times during the night she got up and went over to cover him and to look into his peacefully sleeping little face. It was all very odd.

The next morning he woke her with the racing car on her back. He took a long bath with the racing car, and Sarah, Michael, and the racing car went out for hamburgers, French fries, and chocolate milk shakes. It was their first Thanksgiving, and before it was over they were home in Dallas.

In a few months they received attention from the Dallas press and its readers.

Half White, Half Black

Foster Parents Accept New Adoption Trends Sarah M. is as proud of her three-year-old son as any mother could be of the beautiful, curly-haired, bright-as-a-button boy.

The fact that Miss M. is white and single, while her adopted son is of mixed black and white parentage, she regards as “no big deal.”

It sets her teeth on edge “when people tell me what a great, noble thing I’ve done.” She protests, “That’s just silly, and it’s wrong. I adopted Michael for selfish reasons, because I wanted him. People who adopt a child because it’s the good Christian thing to do have the wrong motive, in my opinion.”

– Dallas Times Herald

Dear Miss M.,

I suppose you think you are a fine Christian by adopting that little colored boy. Well I can tell you I do not think it is the nobel thing to do. I can tell by your name your a foreiner. If god had wanted the races mixed he would nt have made some one color and some another Ham in the bible was punished by God by being black. Redbirds and blackbirds dont mix. You cant live with the White people so I hope you can find some colored man to marry you and take care of your so called bright as a button child. Go live with your own kind Mai Britt.

I will not sign my name for safety reasons.

Dear Miss M.,

A Jackass and a horse are mated together, from this union is born a mule. To the poor dirt farmer this mule is his greatest possession. So the question is, should the mule be damned, is this against the laws of God? Believe me, 1 don’t intend this as an offense against you and Michael. I feel that the mule was the important one, not the jackass or the horse. If my selection of words were wrong, please forgive me, truly. I have never had any reason to write to a teacher, but the photos of both of you looking beautiful and made for one another made me write.

– Jerry Warren

Union Correctional Institution

Two years later a black magazine saw a different issue in Michael and Sarah’s story.

Should Whiles Adopt Black Babies?

Sarah M. is a 28-year-old white woman. Four-year-old Michael M. is her biracial son by legal adoption.

For almost two years they have been a pair. Sarah and Michael represent a new type of social unit emerging from the complex adoption scene, a structure called the transracial family that cuts across color lines.

In the last five years no less than 14,000 black children have been adopted by white families with Texas, California, Illinois, and Michigan topping the list in transracial adoptions. These are all termed “a diabolical trick” by black social workers, some of whom insist homeless black children should remain in foster homes and institutions rather than be placed with willing white familes. They use words like “genocide” and “black pride” in decrying transracial adoptions.

One tiny voice which would dissent would be that of Michael M. His new mother insists: “He may have a strongly black identification, and that would be fine. But 1 don’t believe he could ever be anti-white.

“When he gets a little older, I would expect him to identify with famous black people like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther Kingr:”

– Sepia<BR>

Dear Miss M.,

You stated that you will teach your son about the many great black men in this coun-trys history, but wouldn’t be better to teach about the great men of the world, and tell him what countrys that they came from? 1 may be wrong, but don’t you think that if teachers were to teach children about such men as Dumas, Pushkin, Gandi, Plato, Tanner, and many, many great of this earth is more important than the color of their skin? I feel that it is so very wrong to raise children in a world where they join together because of thier skin.

– Billy Hunt

Miss M.,

I have just read the article in Sepia Magazine about Michael. I can tell from the picture that he is my child. My name is Marcus Bullington and he looks like me and my father and my grandfather. He looks like all the Bullingtons. I am living in California but I was living in Texas until 1969. As soon as I get enough money saved I am going to come to Dallas and show you undeniable proofs that Michael is mine.

– Marcus Bullington

In 1974 Sarah left Bishop for another position and moved to Richardson, where Michael started school.

“Boy, you black or white?”


“Are you black?”

“No, I’m tan.”

“You are not. You’re black and white. Ha, ha, you’re a zebra. Michael is a zebra, Michael is a zebra.”

Michael joined the Richardson Y and became a second baseman and a pacifist philosopher. “The white kids call me nigger and the black kids call me honky. The first time I hit somebody. Now I just say, ’So what? I’m a nigronky. Bet you can’t pronounce that.’ “

Michael’s teacher asked Sarah to come to school and tell the class about philosophy. As the 18 kids moved their chairs in a circle around his mom, Michael was excited but nervous. He hoped they would like her, that she wouldn’t be boring.

She told them that philosophy is the love of wisdom, and that the way to be wise is to ask questions about whatever people tell you.

“What kind of questions?” Andrea said.

“Well, your parents and teachers tell you not to steal, don’t they?” Sarah said. “Ask yourself the question, would it ever be right to steal? What do you think?”

“Maybe if no one was looking?” Ralph said. They giggled.

Roger’s hand shot up. “If somebody had a Doomsday bomb and was going to kill the whole world, you should steal the formula,” he said breathlessly.

“If your little baby was starving, you should steal food for it if you have to,” Marcie said shyly.

“If a mean man had the polio stuff and wouldn’t give kids any,” said Elizabeth heatedly.

“So sometimes stealing isn’t wrong?” Michael’s mom asked.

That was right. They looked at each other and nodded, amazed. Michael was proud. His mom was smart. He relaxed and listened as she began to tell them about Socrates. He knew all about Socrates but he liked to hear it anyway, especially the hemlock part.

Early in 1977, Sarah’s friend Tom, a black poet, came over to her house one night for dinner. Sarah had known him for a year or so, but Tom had never met Michael. During dinner Tom was quiet and preoccupied, while Michael talked as animatedly as always. Later Michael drifted over to the television set while they sipped their coffee.

Finally Tom spoke out. “You’re doing that child an injustice, Sarah. To say he’s black and white is wrong. Michael is black; he needs a black consciousness.”

“What are you saying?” Sarah asked.

“You’ve made him soft.” Tom stubbed out his cigarette emphatically. “Society will treat him black, and he needs to be ready for it.”

“He is ready for it,” Sarah protested. “Do you think I adopted him as a project for world harmony or something?” Impatiently she stood and began clearing the table. “That’s crazy. He knows he’s black. Don’t worry about him. He’s ready for anything.”

“You’re naive. You’ve got your head full of white liberal clouds.” They glared at each other.

“I’ll show you what I mean,” Tom said. He called Michael to him and took him up beside him. “Michael, you know Ford is president in this country, right? Well, in Africa there are black people who are president – black people just like you and me. Did you know that?”

Without a word Michael slid to the floor and ran from the room.

“You see?” Tom said. “He’s upset because I called him black.”

Sarah walked to the door. As she reached it, Michael raced past her back into the room and ran to Tom, toting his big globe. He set the globe on the table in front of Tom.

“Not all of Africa, I bet,” Michael said. “I know one place where there’s not a black president, not right there.” Triumphantly he put his finger on the purple mass of South Africa. “But there probably will be, won’t there, Mommy?” Sarah laughed. After a minute Tom joined in. “You win,” he said. “I guess you both win.”

At seven o’clock on a rainy Monday morning in October of 1978, Sarah stands in the kitchen scrambling eggs. She has been up since five grading papers. At the back of the stove a pot of stew simmers for dinner. Days when she teaches an evening class, she cooks dinner early for Michael and the baby sitter.

Side by side on the kitchen counter lie Michael’s lunch box, ready to be filled, and an open volume of Nietzsche, on which Sarah’s eyes are fixed. She has offered to teach a three-hour class this afternoon for a sick friend, after her own morning classes. She sighs. It’s hard sometimes. She doesn’t mean Zara-thustra.

From the next room comes the sound of Michael’s trumpet.

“No, Michael,” she calls. “That was an A. You want an A-flat. Get your mind on it.”

“Mom,” he calls, “do you think I’m ready for a Skill Level One Rocket Big Bertha?”

“Maybe,” she says absently, turning a page, “but not until after breakfast.”

The trumpet starts, hesitantly.

“A-flat, Michael,” Sarah calls. The music stops. Sarah looks up from the Superman to find Michael, trumpet in hand, standing in the doorway.

“Mom,” he says, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something important. Do toy specials go on at Christmas or after Christmas?”

“After breakfast,” Sarah says firmly, as she sets his plate on the table. “Never till after breakfast.”

Susie, who has been disco dancing, sits down when the gong sounds. Michael’s school is putting on The Gong Show. So far Susie has done best. She danced a pretty long time before the gong sounded, lots longer than Peter got to juggle or Mary Ann got to play Für Elise. Mary Ann is good, but nobody wants to hear Für Elise again, and Peter kept dropping the blue ball. The kids are tough. That old gong will cut in fast, you’d better believe it. Michael wipes his palms on his navy cords, pulls his best red and blue striped shirt down, clears his throat. It’s his turn.

Louis Armstrong saunters in to The Famous Door, waving his trumpet debonairly. Casually he wipes the mouthpiece and tries an A-flat. He’s off-key.

“Gotta get warmed up,” he explains to his audience, and turns to the bar for a quick whiskey, neat. “Thaaaat’s better,” he says, smiling that wide white smile. He gets another drink, smacks his lips juicily, sets it down, and runs a few practice trills on his instrument. Then he moves very quietly to the center of the floor. The crowd is hushed.

Satchmo lifts his trumpet and launches into the first notes of “Low Down Blues.” The music is pure and clear. When the last low sound fades out, the fans go wild.

On the applause Satchmo swings into “Saints,” dancing as he plays, moving his heavy bulk lightly around the floor, raising that old horn to the heavens, and letting it all out, man, letting it out.

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