Over the past few months, I have enjoyed listening to Trevor Noah’s book, “Born a Crime.” While Trevor is neither North American, nor Adopted, his experience in South Africa spoke to a deep-rooted reality. Noah, who is Swiss by way of his father and Xhosa by way of his mother details his experience being bi-racial in the context of South African Apartheid. In Chapter 9, “The Mulberry Tree,” describes his reality well. He felt moving from the black community where he was an outcast, to a colored community created a deep inner turmoil for him. He describes the reality of being biracial black as not fitting in with any group. He states, “People are more willing to accept you as an outsider trying to assimilate into their world. But when they see you as a fellow tribe member [and they perceive as] trying to disavow the tribe, and that is something they will never forgive.”
To me, Jonathan Taylor Thomas–famous in the late 80s and early 90s–was the definition of cool. I can remember when I was about 12 or 13 I decided to wear my hair like his. The way his hair just fell down and tucked behind his ears was awesome. I had my dad try to cut my hair the same way Jonathan Taylor Thomas wore his. After seeing the results, it dawned on me that my hair texture wouldn’t let me do that! In fact, I was so ashamed of my hair that I buzz cut it every time afterward. I was convinced my hair was ugly, since nobody I knew had texture like mine.
For me, I really began to unpack my personal journey around 17 years ago. I was staring at the bars inside of a jail cell in the old 4th Ward neighborhood off of Ponce De Leon road in downtown Atlanta. At that moment I can remember feeling completely powerless. I will never forget it because it was that moment I realized how deep in my pain really was.
My thoughts were interrupted by the officer that caught me. He asked me, “Where are you from, son?” I answered him, “Alpharetta.” He said, “Alpharetta? Boy what are you doing down here?” I shrugged in shame. He looked me right in my eyes and said, “Son, God has given you so much, why would you throw away all your opportunities for this?” I told him I was ashamed. He stopped filling out that intake report and instead told me that he was going to let me go. Just a few hours after he brought me in, I walked out that day as a free man.
At that time, I didn’t see what that man saw. In fact, I completely missed it. I was on the run. My journey to identify with my own “tribe” led me to make some foolish decisions, which led to some great pain and heartbreak between the ages of 15 to 22 years old. In painful reflection I wrote out my thoughts.
Who am I?
Who are you?
Can you hold still please?
So, I can watch you, sketch you out then drop you.
Model and observe your behavior. Can you please be my savior?
I have no clue how to be me.
Teach me to be you, how can I improve?
To fall back on a soft cushion, a pillow of similarities must be nice.
I have no idea what it means to be two in one, should I think twice?
Should I be more like you? Should I be one of two?
I tried so hard to be you, but never could escape me.
So, I’m going to do me, and be free, so I’m free to be me, right?
Who am I?
Who are you?
What music should I listen to, yours or mine? What’s my line?
Martin Luther King marched for a dream that blacks and whites could reconcile.
How come this doesn’t register in my file? Could you walk a mile in my skin and still smile?
Who did he represent, me or you? Both, it’s true, right? Who speaks for me? When will I be free?
How should I dress? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dress to impress.
I burn bright, in the midst of a crowd of black and white, what’s my fight?
I have no clue what to do with all these clothes I’ve been given.
What do I wear and who is going to care? Would you even consider me if I share?
You seem like you fit your clothes just fine, so let me try and claim them mine
Why don’t they fit the same, look the same, feel the same? Is Jonathan even really my name?
Never met my birth parents, can you fill that void? The fact had destroyed me.
It employed me, destroyed me, most of my thoughts, it controlled me.
No peace of mind, am I really defined?
I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t know what to say.
God, how much more do I have to pay?
Who am I?
Who are you?
One of two, but no clue which one to pursue?
Can’t I just be me? Or do I have to be you?
I’m alone, where is my zone? What is home?
Who do I look up to? You? No no!! Just take a stand and be a man!
You’re right, I’ll just keep quiet and do you, I’m too weak to be me. When will I finally see?
Cry with me, please? Feel my pain? Understand my plight? Please help me fight!
I come from a place you could never understand, so will you please take my hand?
You come from a place I can’t understand, please show me the plan!
I apologize if you don’t even know me, chances are I don’t even know me.
Make me rich, what should I wear, Abercrombie and Fitch? I still don’t fit the stitch.
Make me poor, a common struggle. What I dream for, so much more, it’s become my drug.
Wait a minute, please I implore you, speak for me, and I promise I’ll adore you.
Who am I?
Who are you?
I’m a one-man soldier
You could never relate, so please don’t underestimate my state.
Do you really know how it feels to be discriminated against every morning you wake?
To be Judged every time you talk? To be assumed of a different family than your own?
Flesh is flesh and bone is bone, I am the one created by him on the throne.
Yet can’t I please just have a clone? Relate with me, please, walk with me.
No culture to fall back on, no one to stack on, let me confess my stress.
Sit and learn, don’t call me black or white, just understand my plight.
To have no skin tone that’s relevantly known, but yet brightly shown, yet still I roam.
Maybe I should stick to rap or rock.
Conform or perform, navigate to repudiate signs of weakness I abate.
Black or white? Is this just a game of cultural psych. A definition by premonition of an ongoing, or future, fight?
These are the words of a troubled 22-year-old transracial adoptee. I was desperate and impatiently waiting–– scrambling for an identity. I am reminded of the end of Exodus Chapter 2. At a time after Joseph had died, the ESV says, “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God….” You see, waiting was anguish. I could not bear what I was! My desire to belong, to be valuable and to be seen, was driving my behavior.
I will never remember what that police man looked like, but in reflection I will always remember that he saw something in me that I never saw in myself. Over time, God would be faithful to continue to bring many more people to pour into me. Exodus 2:24 says, “…and God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel –– and God knew.” How deeply true this was for me too. And so I conclude:
Who am I?
Who are you?
One of two and two of one, somehow in sum I still equal one.
Where I’m from, I’m the only one, son of two but who are you?
Divine design, so I must be one, or have I just been running from the Son?
Get behind me you who I once pursued, what can you offer me? You scar and scoff at me.
This is how I’m finally free? The one who died and suffered for me?
Sin’s paid, my path laid, my mind is made, so what’s left to say?
What man should I fear? Even if my end is near, the path I need to walk is clear.
I’m more than defined, molded in the fire and strongly refined!
Would you mind reading between the lines, to see the freedom of my mind?
As ugly as it was, being forced to wait actually bore fruit. You see, what I thought I wanted–to belong to a socio-cultural group–will never fully be in my grasp on this side of heaven. Yet over time that desire, though never far from me, was overtaken by the incredible amount of love I gradually experienced throughout my 20s. I had to read between the lines.
You may worry for your future son or daughter, for their identity, or about your mistakes. Always remember it’s a journey: it neither defines, nor confines you. I will leave you with a verse that is tried and true for every challenge, obstacle or trial. I absolutely did not see it while I was in it, but in reflection I see the man I am today. And while I’m not free of struggle, I can smile.
Over 2000 years ago, ancient wisdom unfolded, James the Brother of Jesus, gave us context with purpose in mind:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing…. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 2:2-4,12