by Dave Valentine
Once a resident of the Deep South, Canadian writer Dave Valentine shares these warm insights regarding the adoption and raising of a mixed-race child, his son Andrew.
It's a long way from a little village a hundred miles or so north of Toronto, Ontario, to Tallahassee, Florida. And it's a long way from a little boy with one pair of pants for through the week and a hand-me-down suit for Sunday to the father of three doing postgraduate studies at a Florida university. A long and interesting road with a number of twists and turns.
About the time our daughter was born in 1967, I had switched from Municipal Engineering to developing programs and curriculum and teaching in a new Community College. This provided much more scope for learning and socialising, including opportunities for leaves of absence or sabbaticals to pursue some academic interest.
Our first foray into the unknown was when we decided to accept an offer to work in Zambia, Central Africa, for two years, developing postsecondary curriculum and teaching in Civil Engineering and construction subjects. Our daughter was three, our son eighteen months, when we boarded a plane in Toronto and headed into "the Dark Continent."
The experience was positive in almost every way, and our children came back to our small Canadian town with an appreciation of other places and faces. Thanks to excellent nursery schools provided by the wives of mainly British mine workers and also to adequate primary schools in Zambia, our daughter was even able to advance a grade on our return.
We came back to our farm next to a town of some 15,000 people. In the weekend paper in those days there was feature, "Today's Child," describing a child, usually with physical or behavioural problems, who was available for adoption. One such was a little boy, obviously of mixed race, who caught the attention of our children. They wanted to know who he was and why he was in the paper.
Their experience with other races had been quite positive in Zambia, and they had developed a genuine affection for many people they'd left behind. This child's appearance and situation appealed to them, and they asked if we could adopt him. We had to explain there were probably many people willing to do so, but they insisted we should at least try.
We also explained some of the likely drawbacks to bringing a little stranger into our home, but they were not at all dissuaded. So we applied and several months later adopted Andrew. Andrew had serious strabismus and required five operations to bring one eye back in line. The hospital visits and stays were traumatic for all of us but were finally over, and Andrew developed into a happy, bubbly little boy.
His relations with his siblings were at least as affectionate and cordial as those in any other family, and from the beginning he fit in well with the family and relatives.
His maternal grandparents owned a condominium in Florida, and we occasionally visited them. They were well-respected and liked in the community, and when Grandma responded with "That's my Grandson" to the question "Who let that darky in here?" when Andrew was in the pool, that was the last comment we heard there about his mixed race.
In 1979, I was accepted into the Doctoral program in Higher Education at Florida State University in Tallahassee. After a week of crowded unsettledness in a motel, we found an apartment in a student complex that allowed our little poodle (brought back from Africa). We found schools for the children and settled in to enjoy our year in the warmth of the South.
Andrew began his primary school there, and our eldest son was in Grade 5, so they led quite separate existences at the same school. Our daughter was in grade 8 in upper middle school.
She and her history teacher spent an amusing year demonstrating to the other students that history was a view with different perspectives. She had a Canadian history text sent down, and a comparison of wins and losses in the War of 1812 probably had some students wondering if it were the same war!
Although he was subjected to a paddling early on, Andrew grew to like his Grade 1 teacher and seemed to fit in very well. Sometimes a classmate would come with him to the van when we picked him and his brother up at school. I remember one being impressed when he met Andrew's mother for the first time. "Is 'at yo Mama?"
I never did develop a taste for the fried fish and grits served on special occasions at the school, but relations were respectful and cordial, and the kids' academic performance was more than adequate. They were also able to take advantage of summer children's programs laid on by the University.
Our children were quite unaware of the tensions that existed because of the relatively recent integration of primary and secondary schools in Florida. When our daughter just looked perlexed when the white girls asked why she played with black girls, most of the whites then decided just to ignore her. Andrew was soon put in his place with the black children on the playground. It really didn't matter to either of them.
Back in Ontario, partly I suppose because of a small town and our long-term association with it, race never really came up. Only once do we remember another child being racist with Andrew, and it really upset him. In spite of our attempts to convince him that it was the other child who had the problem, Andrew claimed he was going to kill him and was shaking with anger.
Much of Andrew's schooling took place in private schools where students came from a number of countries and race was not an issue. Andrew, being the youngest, was the only one of our children to come with us to Edinburgh when I took a sabbatical to the University for a year. We enrolled in Heriot's School, one of the oldest in the city, with a picturesque building not far from the Castle.
One day he was standing on a street corner with an Asian friend and classmate who'd been born in Edinburgh, and whose accent was as Scottish as you'd like. An old lady took a look at them and suggested loudly they should go back to where they came from. I recall Andrew's friend's response was, "Where's that, then? Mayfield?"--Mayfield being probably the most posh area of the city.
For his final year of High School, Andrew joined an institution called "Class Afloat." His first term took place on a sailing ship, travelling from Copenhagen to Capetown via the Suez Canal. The trip's archivist was a black video producer who had considerable influence on him. Andrew wrote home for mustache wax or butch wax to encourage his dreadlocks. We mailed the package to one of his landfalls. He found that for entry to Saudi Arabia all males had to have short haircuts. He got a haircut in Egypt where the barber was suspicious of his inability to understand his language, thinking Andrew was Egyptian.
Thus, in spite of occasional instances of discrimination as he matured, my son now recognizes his mixed race background as an asset, letting him fit in with a variety of cultures.
Andrew is now using a short career in banking as a solid foundation for his present work in a charity casino. He's gregarious and relates to people from many places and many cultures. We're sure much of this foundation was laid that first year of education (in a number of senses) in Tallahassee, Florida.
BIO: Dave writes--
"I was born and raised in the small village of Norland, Ontario, in the tourists' 'Near North.' Took a degree in Agriculture at the University of Guelph, Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto and Resource Management at Edinburgh. Careers were County Engineer for 3 Counties, College professor and program coordinator at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough and Lindsay, Ontario. Now retired and living over son-in-law's garage near Carlisle, Ontario, west of Toronto. Husband to patient wife, Carole, of 38 years, father to two men and one woman, grandfather to one boy. Amuse myself with reading, photography, computer graphics, nature walks, music and grumbling about the dam' government . . . "
Write Dave Valentine at email@example.com.
COMMENTS on this article:
Compliments From: Ichiro Nakano of Gyoda, Japan
Message: Dave san, I realized why you have appreciated my trip reports for the first time. I will print out your article.
Compliments From: kekou kousemaker of Bussum, the Netherlands
Message: about Andrew... Dave, this is a touching story. I know a bit how you and your family must have felt at some occasions. In our family we also have one child that was adopted. Our "homemade" sons were about 9 and 10 years old when we came home from Indonesia with a little baby girl. It is another coincidence that we too have been doing some traveling in Africa, just for pleasure, that is. Everywhere we went, our daughter (and not us) was the cause of big excitement: her long black hair was being touched, pulled and gazed at. It was amusing for us, but not for her! We have never noticed any distressing sign of discrimination in the Netherlands where we live. Maybe it is because we have a big population of people from our former colonies. However I do recall one incident: When I was shopping, carrying my baby in a 'slendang', the way Asian women do, a woman approached me, pushing away the fabric and crying out: "O gosh! I thought you were carrying a little monkey." Of course I was taken aback at first, but later I understood that she really had thought so, because she only had seen a tussle of black hair, peeking out of the slendang! Now my baby daughter has grown into a lovely 19 year old woman. I feel proud of her, just like you must feel about your Andrew!
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