In a closed transnational adoption,1 memory is scrambled until it is nothing but an illegible frequency: a fracking black noise that threatens to loose the oil of the body. Ever since I was a child I’ve been hemorrhaging this way. My therapist says that adoption is trauma, and that I have poor memory because of complex post-traumatic stress disorder—“complex” meaning multiple sustained traumas. She says that our bodies know to let go of what is too heavy for us to carry and that this manifests as forgetfulness. But my story was hiding in plain sight the entire time.
At the time of this writing, my legal last name is Bogart. It is the family name of the people who purchased me from a private agency in Kentucky that coerces birthing people into retailing and foreclosing their relationship with their children.2 Only later, as I grew older, did I realize the doublespeak of this name, Bogart. The whitewashing machine of colonial narration uses dirty tricks and sanitized language to launder lives.
It started at birth. According to Kentucky state law, the birth certificate “shall show the adoptive parent or parents as the biological parent or parents of the child.”3 A birth certificate is a form of administrative data powering predictive risk modeling in the family policing system.4 They track and retract us, blacken and redact us. But black kinship exists in excess of the spreadsheet. They cannot capture how haunted I have been by their data. And yet, as a child, I knew none of this.
The means of knowing were withheld from me.5
All we knew was that we wanted to be returned to our mother and father; but we weren’t allowed to express that desire or to feel that longing. This confined us to an unbearable insularity.6 Insulated, I would fantasize our father had accidentally misplaced us, daydream him swooping in to pick us up and bring us home. Imagine: away from the violent whiteness of the probable sundown town in Oregon to which we were bogarted.7 He would bring me to a black place where my twin, whom I will call Taiwo, and the seven Haitian children adopted by members of my legal parents’ church weren’t the only black people I knew. A place where people would look like me. A place where I wasn’t supposed to be okay with becoming a nigger.
I didn’t cry the first time I was called a nigger at seven years old, at the construction site of a white family whose house had burned down. But I felt violated in a way I had never known before that moment. I went to Mrs. Bogart and tattled on the racist white child who had commanded, “Go get me a hammer, nigger!” She patted me on the butt, “It’s okay, go back to work.” And I did. I did. I believed it was okay.
I was twenty-five when I read James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and by this I mean that I was twenty-five when I learned what had happened to me when I was seven and what had lodged in my spirit like a blade. They told me that I was black because I was a cursed being. A descendant of Ham.8 Inherently criminal. Inhuman. Nigger. But in that essay, Baldwin became Uncle Jimmy to me, as he instructed both his nephew and I that the only way you can be destroyed is by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. And, he said, the only reason he told us this was because I love you.9 Before him, for nearly two decades, I believed I was a nigger. Love was, for the first time, returning me to myself.
In that probable sundown town, our black bodies were a spectacle. The oft-repeated line Mrs. Bogart would use when people asked why her children were black was, “I drank too much chocolate milk when I was pregnant.” She’d let out a satisfied laugh and chuff, “That would always shut them up,” storying our bogartedness as if it were a natural consequence of her overindulgence. It was, but not how she meant it.
Spectacle is the right to capture, writes Christina Sharpe, to capture what is deemed abjection, and the right to publish it. Spectacle is a relation of power.10 To shut up those gawking at spectacle. Black children are to be a spectacle, not sounding alarms. My entire life was someone else’s attempt to subject me to a legal fiction with no look back. But this did not stop glimpses across to a world that could have been: a Ghost Kingdom.11
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.12 I read these words years before I read the letter. I’m a teenager. In that time, and because I was bogarted, I was also forcibly un/related to a consciousness that would allow rage. Rage was punished in the house that was not home. Banished. Beaten. Drugged. Blackness was niggerdom. I hated my body and its experience of life. I had to wear a mask to survive.
The shape makes the black.13
The curve of the signature’s cursive letters on the legally binding document.
The encircling of the hills that form Garden Valley, the Fog (of war)
that is shaping perception at these altitudes of life,
for this is a heightened experience of (capture.)
a shape making the black.14
Baldwin invited me to bend myself anew, towards a shape of black that was wakened to my relation to rage as a black inevitability, an ancestral inheritance. In doing so, he was becoming a kind of ancestor/ghost to me. This invitation, almost illegible, was difficult for me to accept because we were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of our ancestors into our lives or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory.15 Twin genealogical isolates … denied access to the social heritage of ancestors.16 And we knew, like most folks trafficked by the adoption and child welfare / family policing industrial complex, that we were supposed to be grateful.17 Grateful to bury the memory of our kin as if they were the dead, as if none were ever ours in the first place: memory, our living, or our dead.
For the Bogarts to acknowledge our ancestors would mean to reckon with the living-but-erased: their participation in the coercion of our mother, a lineage disrupted by Christian (kinship) imperialism. What is/n’t recognized as family? By whom?
For me? To be anchored by ancestors would be first to find a way to hear their voices, and then to tear the veil that masked my existence. Dying of thirst, I cobbled together a choir of voices and made myself the subject of their song; because black studies rarely specifically addresses the condition of those severed from kinship through adoption. I am having to pick up love. And put down the mask. Because love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.18
At all times, even as the mask was being constructed, it was crumbling.
I remember [REDACTED]’s negative space as a child through calls and cards. In March of 2023, he texted me a picture of a Father’s Day card I sent him in seventh grade, circa 2007. In it, I wrote, “Do you miss me yes no maybe (circle one). I know it’s not about Father’s Day, but that’s ’cause we don’t talk much anymore. See you later (probably not).” He tells me he searched for us, and every time he found us our adopters moved. I don’t know whether or not this is true, but I know that in my early life we moved a lot, from Kentucky to Arizona to a few different towns in southern Oregon.
We were told that when we turned eighteen we could go searching for [REDACTED] and our mother. Five years later, we are thirteen, and I overhear Mr. and Mrs. Bogart saying they are going to put Taiwo in foster care. If he is going to be sent away again, I WANT IT TO BE TO OUR KIN.
I scoured Facebook, searching for [REDACTED]. When I found him, I messaged him what’s happening. That he needed to save us. I would later forget that any of this happened (he reminds me February 2023, casually telling me I saved Taiwo’s life all those years ago). The following summer, at an Applebee’s restaurant in Corvallis, Oregon, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Bogart and Taiwo (who’d been, functionally, in escrow at a residential home for a year), I came face to face with [REDACTED]. He took Taiwo to Kentucky and left me behind.
At least one of us would escape.
Soon after, I would also forget that I had been left behind by the father I’d daydreamed was coming to bring me home.
Sitting in a therapist’s office at eighteen years old, I listened to an Evangelical white woman tie my poor memory to PTSD. I denied it, telling her I hadn’t experienced anything like trauma. She disagreed with me, but wanted me to stop talking about all the anti-blackness I was experiencing, the adoption. Why couldn’t I just get over it? Jesus wants us to be at peace with each other. In that room, there was an incision, a small opening that I was not permitted to examine as if it were my own.
What I forgot to mention earlier: Mr. Bogart was an ex-missionary, and Mrs. Bogart an ex-nun. Adoption, for them, is bound to Evangelical logics of being adopted into their god’s family. To become Christian, and then to look back, is a sin. In other words, to be adopted and then to desire to find your first family goes against the god who I am told predestined us for adoption;19 that act of holy repatriation from the earthly (black) father to the Heavenly Father and His servants (Mr. and Mrs. Bogart). If they wanted us to obey, they would recite the Ten Commandments.
God says, Children, obey your father and mother!
One day after church an adopted woman invites me to her home for a warm meal, pulls me aside, asks me to my face if I have “a birth-mother-sized hole in my heart.” What does she know that I haven’t been able to name? An emptiness? How to fill it?
Petition the state—ask them to find my mother and they’ll ask her if she wants to be found by me. I want, need, to disregard the protocols of The Search. I end up not Searching, or, searching for how to Search differently. Mrs. Bogart says she won’t help me; it’s your responsibility to find her, she says.
My mother’s name is a mystery to me; therefore, I am unable to backmap my ancestry using Ancestry20. When I try, due to my sealed records, there is no public record that I am anything other than bogarted. Instead, I am prompted to fill out the Bogart family tree. On either side, third- or fourth-generation immigrants from Germany, Prussia, to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. I don’t care. I care enough to notice they had no business in Kentucky; I was the business. I’m a secret from myself. How to slowly unravel? Snail-mail my DNA to a different company after the first fails you.
Somebody will index my longing as data, send me the results. You are somebody’s child, but we haven’t logged enough longing to know whose. You are someone’s cousin!! Possibly. Maybe third or fourth. You’d have to ask them. I don’t. I wait half a year to message, Do you know my mother? Word travels fast. An hour later I’m on the phone with a woman claiming to be my aunt asking, Is my mother alive? What’s her name?
I leave behind everyone I know and travel from Baltimore to Kentucky just to lay eyes on my mother. It’s Fourth of July weekend, 2022. What kind of freedom am I supposed to celebrate at the family reunion? I’m still bogarted. I pay for Taiwo’s ticket, too. He’s not as bogarted as me. Aunties and cousins and nephews, oh my. No mother. Not yet. I wait with my entire being for her to show up. At first sight she shrieks, God gave me my babies back!! I’m so arrested by her words I take them on as my name. matthew omowale. But I want to tell her it wasn’t God. It was me. I returned your babies to you, ma. Just like I returned Taiwo to our father.
Seven, eight months went by. My father texts me. Since I was in Kentucky, I also met him. It was our second meeting, our first since he left me in Oregon and took Tai. He texts, what would u say if eye change ur birth certificate.
What do you mean change my birth certificate?
Do you got time to call tonight?
I have to consult a lawyer. I learn of Gregory Luce, the founder of Adoptee Rights Law Center, from #AdopteeTwitter. He tells me I could pursue a legal annulment of being bogarted but it’s next to impossible because it requires consent.
Consent from who?
I can’t annul without their consent?
Immediately, I text the widowed Mrs. Bogart and ask if she would consent to annulment, my mother and father want this, please. I beg for restoration. She says no, says she’s afraid that would mean she’d have to give up Taiwo, too. I want to say, You already did, but I know what she means. When my twin was returned (“rehomed”),23 there was no legal process. The state does not recognize his return. Which is why there is a warrant out for her arrest in the state of Kentucky for child abandonment. I could try to make a case around that warrant, or other things. It’s the only other way to file for annulment: abuse. But it’s too costly, financially and emotionally. Luce says the other option is adult adoption, which requires only that we be blood relatives. Luce says, Don’t forget to beg the judge for restoration of your original birth certificate. Ask, not beg.
In August 2023 I sit in virtual court and the judge, a gray-haired white man, asks why I want to be adopted by this woman. I say my last adoption didn’t work out. I don’t want to be adopted anymore, or again, but I can’t annul; I can’t get consent from Mrs. Bogart. The judge says I need to ask my father for consent. I don’t know if he means Mr. Bogart or [REDACTED].
It would be nice for him to know, he judges.
In all legal processes my consent is secondary, tertiary.24
In twenty days, I have court again. My mother and I will be asked if we got the necessary consent. Who are we to think we are too good to lie, cheat, and steal from these motherfuckers?25
By the time you read this, I’ll have stolen myself back as best I could.
1. As a legal term and within social work parlance, “transnational” typically refers to the adoption of a child from outside of the United States. Arguably, however, African Americans are a nation within the US; therefore the adoption of a black African American child by white Evangelicals is transnational in the same way we’d acknowledge it is so for a child from China or Korea.
2. Coercion, legal severance from birth parents, and rehoming are common practice within adoption in the US. For additional context, see Amy Whipple, “The Dubious Ways Parents Are Pressured to Give Up Their Children for Adoption,” Vice, August 13, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en/article/qvg45m/the-devious-ways-parents-are-pressured-to-give-up-their-children-for-adoption.
3. KY Revised Statute § 199.570 (2022), https://law.justia.com/codes/kentucky/2022/chapter-199/section-199-570/.
4. The term “family policing” is used to connect the carceral logics of so-called child welfare to larger abolitionist movements. See Dorothy Roberts “To Abolish Family Policing,” interview by Zoé Samudzi and J. Khadijah Abdurahman, Parapraxis, n.d., https://www.parapraxismagazine.com/articles/to-abolish-family-policing.
5. Angela Y. Davis, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: A New Critical Edition by Angela Y. Davis (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010), 108.
6. Drawing from Frantz Fanon, “The Woman of Color and the White Man,” Black Skin, White Masks, Richard Philcox, trans. (New York: Grove, 2008), 33.
7. “A sundown town … is an entire community (or even county) that for decades was ‘all white’ on purpose… Also, institutionalized persons (in prisons, hospitals, colleges, etc.), live-in servants (in white households), and black or interracial children (in white households) do not violate the taboo.” “James W. Loewen (1942–2021),” Tougaloo College History and Social Justice database, https://justice.tougaloo.edu/sundowntown/roseburg-or/.
8. Ham looked at his drunk and naked father Noah, who then cursed Ham to serve his brothers. This rationale is used to justify the last five hundred years of what has happened to those of African descent. See David M. Goldenberg, Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
9. Drawing from James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1993), 4.
10. Christina Sharpe, “Preliminary Entries toward a Dictionary of Untranslatable Blackness,” Ordinary Notes (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2023), 247–48.
11. “The ghosts who trail everyone in the adoption triad make up a shadow cast of characters. These ghosts are too dangerous to be allowed into consciousness. Instead they are dissociated, consigned to a spectral place I call the Ghost Kingdom. It is not located on a map, but in the geography of the mind.” Betty Jean Lifton, 1994, available at https://lavenderluz.com/ghost-kingdom-maggie-gallant/.
12. James Baldwin, interview, WBAI Radio, New York, 1961.
13. Referencing the artist Torkwase Dyson, who said, “The shape makes the black.” Retold by Christina Sharpe in her keynote address for the conference Colonial Repercussions, available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEkltTe-NR4&t=3215s.
14. Poetry inspired by Sharpe’s rendition of black shapeliness in her keynote address for Colonial Repercussions.
15. Orlando Patterson, referenced in Sharon Patricia Holland, Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 14.
16. Holland, Raising the Dead, 14.
17. See Jessica Stites, “The Adoption-Industrial Complex,” In These Times, November 4, 2013, https://inthesetimes.com/article/the-adoption-industrial-complex.
18. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 95.
19. See Ephesians 1:5, NIV translation: “[H]e predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
20. See Ancestry.com, the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world.
22. Christopher Chamberlain, “Akinship,” in Queer Kinship, Tyler Bradway and Elizabeth Freeman, eds. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022), 208.
23. “An unregulated custody transfer, often referred to as rehoming, is the practice of adoptive parents transferring custody of a child to another individual or family without the involvement of the child welfare or other appropriate systems.” See “Unregulated Custody Transfer of Adopted Children,” Adoption Triad, August 2019, https://www.childwelfare.gov/news-events/adoptiontriad/editions/aug2019/.
24. See, e.g., my entire fuckin’ life.
25. Fred Moten, in conversation with Stefano Harney, Sandra Ruiz, and Hypatia Vourloumis, “Resonances: A Conversation on Formless Formation,” e-flux Journal 121 (October 2021), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/121/423318/resonances-a-conversation-on-formless-formation/.