Angela Tucker meets her birth mother Deborah
Angela Tucker grew up in Bellingham, Wash., in a happy, active adoptive family with compassionate parents who viewed all of their kids (birth or adopted) as just that: kids.
Not black or white, able or disabled. Just kids, full of potential, who needed good parents. Along with their biological daughter, David and Teresa Burt raised eight adoptive children from diverse backgrounds.
But even in the midst of what she calls a "great childhood," Tucker had questions about her origins. She is African-American, and her mom and dad are white. She wondered about her birth mother and father: Who were they? What features and traits had she got from them? And, most difficult, what were the circumstances of her closed adoption? And, she admits, she fantasized, the way most adoptive children do.
"For me it was 26 years of thinking (my birth mother) might be Halle Berry," she said during a recent Seattle screening of the film Closure, a new documentary created by Tucker and her husband Bryan. Tucker's fantasy pick for her birth father? Magic Johnson.
Closure, filmed and directed by Bryan Tucker, follows a determined and tenacious Angela Tucker in her search for identity and blood connection during the two year process of finding her birth parents. As it turns out, their names were not Magic and Halle.
Tucker was conceived by Deborah and Oterious, an impoverished on-again, off-again couple in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tucker's birth mother had other children and could not manage one more. She made the heart-rending decision to release Tucker for adoption soon after she was born. Oterious was, and remains, a drug addict. Neither he nor any of the couple's family members knew of the pregnancy or adoption.
Even though they would never have matched up to her any childhood fantasies, Tucker says she would not trade the birth parents she discovered by hours of painstaking records searching, several wrong turns and some amazing luck, for anything.
"Now that I have met her, I think the world of her," Tucker says of Deborah. "I think she's amazing and I'm very aware of the difficulties and struggles and the reasons she couldn't parent."
It's a powerfully told, emotionally gripping and often suspenseful story that moves Tucker, who studies psychology in college and lives in Seattle, from west coast to east and from fantasy to reality. The 70-minute film, which started as Bryan Tucker simply trying to videocam the reunions for Tucker to view later, is peppered with humor and insight and stands to educate those touched by interracial adoption as well as those who know little about it. That's because along the way from Washington to Tennessee and back, this Closure explores hard questions about what it means to be family. It alludes to the impacts (good and bad) of cross-race adoption. And, without addressing it directly, it puts the question of whether or not a child is better off raised by their own kin in poverty or by others with greater resources smack in the viewer's face, leaving her to chew on her own thoughts.
Tucker has written for Woven Together and Perpetual Child: Adult Adoptee Anthology: Dismantling the Stereotype. She also writes a column on adoptees and ableism for The Lost Daughters. We talked with Tucker about her experiences growing up black in a largely white, middle-class community and the process of connecting with her birth family.
Did you always have the desire to find your birth family?
I have always been curious about where I came from. I'm glad that my parents indulged in fantasies with me – up to a point – affirming the similarities between myself and Magic Johnson, (track star) Alyson Felix and others, but also politely helping me to see how those possibilities were unrealistic. I'm glad they didn't allow me to continue to have thoughts that were untrue, but at the same time by fantasizing with me they were acknowledging my desire to know where I came from.
Do you feel every adoptee should be able to meet their birth family?
During the time of closed adoptions, birth parents were told that they would never be found and that their identity would be sealed forever. Aside from this being an unprofessional promise for any social worker to make, it's certainly not fair to the adoptee, who has a right to know where they came from. I am glad to see that as we've entered into a world of open adoptions (whenever possible), that birth parents have rights, too, whether that's by stating that they'd love to meet up with the adoptive family monthly or yearly, or they're open to meeting in a few years, or they want to see photos and exchange emails. That feels respectful to me as an adoptee. The bottom line is that all within the adoption constellation should be respected. Personal, genetic, medical and basic information shouldn't be withheld and dictated by an outside party.
Tell me about your adoptive parents. Were you worried about them during your search process?
They are welcoming people who decided to adopt and who felt quite capable of parenting children with special needs. The truth is, my parents do NOT love being told that they are heroes or that they are amazing for adopting all of us kids. They simply feel that they parented their kids to the best of their ability!
I knew that there was the possibility for everyone in my family to feel like they could be replaced, since we didn't know who I might find. I'm thankful that despite fears of the unknown they decided to stand alongside me during the journey. I would've chickened out halfway if they weren't there! It is an honor to hear my mom say that if she were me, she'd want to know where she came from, too. I felt safe in knowing my mom knew that my attempt to find my birth parents was not about her. It was not a dis on my parents or family. I wasn't saying, "I don't want you to be my parents anymore." My desire to find my birth parents never meant my parents losing their titles of mom and dad.
You are black, your adoptive parents are white. Where do you stand on the line between those advocating cross-race adoption and those opposed.
Many of my siblings – myself included – had medical needs when we were adopted. My parents were more occupied with trying to keep us alive and meeting our needs than with race. But they were always very aware of our races, and it's in their personhood to try to see the world from our point of view. By doing this they learned of the stereotypes, stigmas, and racist comments that I and my siblings were set to hear for the rest of our upbringing.
I'm really interested in why more black parents don't adopt. I've blogged about it and received messages back about black families adopting informally and engaging in adoption without getting an official adoption decree, which is great. But the statistics remain: There are more minority children in foster care than there are minority parents willing to adopt them.
I think if social workers had more options of families to choose from to parent these children, then the priority should be to keep a child within their race. But, I know that I was in foster care for a year, while the agency looked for a black family to adopt me and no one came. My parents' experience with special needs led to me being placed with them. I'm glad for it! But it does make me wonder why black families didn't step up then, and why they still aren't stepping up now.
Despite a difficult first introduction with your birth mother, you continued to meet and connect with your birth family and she soon came to welcome you. How did this impact her?
In the end, the fact that my birth mom was able to get a large secret off her chest has improved her life in many ways. She seems freer and happier. I'm glad about this. This makes me all the more hopeful that closed adoptions are a thing of the past. They are so damaging for so many people.
What has it been like to navigate the socio-economic chasm between your birth and adoptive families?
The area I grew up in (Bellingham) is different from Tennessee in so many ways! It's been fun, yet admittedly a bit uncomfortable visiting Tennessee and spending time with my birth families. Even though I look like more of the people in that area of the country, the rest of me is very different. We all acknowledge that although we are genetically related and we come from the same place, our upbringing has shaped us into different people. At one point in time I think I thought that I would have a feeling of being right where I belong once I found my birthplace. This certainly isn't the case – but it's okay.
What advice do you have for children experiencing the yearning you felt? And their adoptive parents?
Go for it! And I would hope that parents would treat this yearning just as they would any other desire the child may have. I hope that adoptive parents can understand that searching is not about them – it's about their child learning about who they are.
Do you feel closure since finding your birth family?
I feel a sense of wholeness within my soul knowing who I came from and why an adoption plan had to be made. But there are certainly more questions that are as yet unanswered and may never be answered. But life feels easier knowing that I have a direct line of communication available to access these answers if I really want. I used to harbor a feeling of injustice – that feeling of being unable to know something that is mine to know! Now that I don't have that feeling anymore, my millions of continuing questions are easier to accept.
More About This Story
The documentary film Closure is currently available on DVD for $19.95 or for digital download for $9.99 through the movie’s website.
The movie will be screened Feb. 28 in Redmond at the Refresh Conference for Foster and Adoptive Families. For more information on the conference go to www.occ.org/refresh.
Cheryl Murfin is a contributing editor and writer who lives in Seattle and Los Angeles. She’s mom to two great teens.