If Gene Cheek's memoir, The Color of Love: A Mother's Choice in the Jim Crow South (Lyons Press, 258 pp., $22.95), were made into a movie of the week, his mother Sallie Tucker would be the earthy, blond, working-class heroine. She defied the conventions of her time and place (early 1960s Winston-Salem, N.C.), first by rescuing herself and her son from her abusive, alcoholic husband, and then by following her heart into a relationship with a profoundly decent black man and giving birth to their child. Sadly, real life rarely delivers a feel-good ending. Sallie's former in-laws and her own family allied against her, and brought a custody suit for 12-year-old Gene that forced her to choose between him and her mixed-race infant. Mother and son were torn apart. The meddling families were more interested in punishing Sallie than in caring for an adolescent boy, so Cheek spent his teen years in the custody of the state.
Cheek is a novice writerthe jacket blurb calls him a "blue-collar son of the South"but he very effectively describes the pain of his own experience, as well as the cultural and legal brutality that caused it. He conveys the hurt bafflement of a child ("Could things get any stranger than this?") as he recalls the hypocrisy and violence that surrounded him. His book works as a chronicle of the cruelty of the bad old days, but it's also instructive to consider Cheek's story in light of current debate about who makes a fit parent, and what defines a family. Laws to restrict marriage and adoption by gays may someday be as universally despised as the antimiscegenation laws that deprived Cheek of his mother.
Barbara Katz Rothman's Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption (Beacon Press, 274 pp., $26.95) is an altogether happier book, written from Rothman's unique perspective as both a respected sociologist and the white, Jewish mother of an adopted African American child. Although she touches upon the wider phenomenon of cross-cultural adoptions (e.g., the wave of Chinese infants being brought to the U.S.), she is primarily concerned with exploring the distinct issues around whites raising black children. Rothman argues that there is no place in the real world for idealistic "color-blind" parenting. For her, the color bar is still a firm boundary in American society, and anyone who takes responsibility for a black child had better be prepared to help that child cope.
Rothman the academic takes a clear-eyed, unsentimental look at the motivations of those who choose to adopt children of a different race, describing how such children fill various roles including "pet," "protégé" and "trophy." She also provides a fascinating dissection of the way consumerism infects mothering in this inescapably consumerist culture. Rothman the mom is equally unsentimental about her own experiences, but her stories are filled with humor and great love for her child. A chapter on learning how to do black hair ("Someday I'm going to go to the moon and the only other person there will be a black woman with a comb, a jar of grease, and a story") is bound to be a revelation for many white readers. Weaving a Family offers potent evidence that love and honesty, not denial, are the best tools for transcending racism.
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