Good afternoon everyone. It is not lost on me that I speak today during our chapel in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a campus nestled in what Dr. King described in his “I Have a Dream Speech” as “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.” It is from those hilltops on which we ski and hike and camp and gaze that King imagined freedom resoundingly ringing. Rightly so, we remember Dr. King as a champion of equity and inclusion. It is equally important to remember, however, that this on-going struggle for equity and inclusion is often personal, intimate work. To that end, I will share with you my story -- one that is also an American story, intricately intertwined with assumptions about race, class, and gender.
My story has several beginnings, the first of which takes place in Vermont, the Green Mountain State, just four years after Dr. King’s assassination. On February 21st, 1972, a teenage girl gave birth to me at a place called the Elizabeth Lund Home and then gave me up for adoption. Fortunately, just two months later, I was adopted by an African-American couple -- my parents -- and was raised in the Boston area. My birth mother was white; my birth father, also a teenager, was black.
Fast forward to November 2011, when, with more hesitation than you can imagine, I made a phone call. A woman picked up and I said, “Hello. My name is Christina Lynn.” After what seemed like an eternity of silence, the woman responded, “We’ve been waiting for this call for 40 years.” But I’ve jumped too far ahead. As Ralph Ellison so perceptively writes (and AP Lit students will recall), “The end is in the beginning, and lies far ahead.” So I’ll return to the beginning so that the end — what is the end for now — makes a bit more sense.
I pick up the story with my decision in college to search for my birth parents. Since my adoption was a closed one, all I could legally obtain from the Lund Home was “non-identifying” information that does not reveal who my birth parents are. The document did share that my birth mother -- I’ll call her Leslie -- had “fine features,” was a 10th grade honors student, a cheerleader, and one of five children including an identical twin sister. My birth father had “average features,” was an average student and an athlete. At birth, Leslie named me Christina Lynn.
As you now know with that phone call 20 years in the making, I’m pretty slow about moving on my adoption information. Intentional, let’s say. So, finally, three years later when I started graduate school, I decided to continue the search for my birth mother. I managed to connect with a private investigator who helps adoptees and birth parents with searches. The PI cautioned me from the start that she might not be able to find out much. But that detail about my birth mother having an identical twin was key -- plus the entire family never left their Vermont town. One catch: the PI wasn’t sure which sister the address she obtained belonged to. The PI warned me, “You don’t know what kind of people you are contacting, so be careful. You never know how people will react when their ghosts return.” (She actually wrote that to me.)
In the fall of 1996, I cautiously wrote to Leslie and signed the letter “Christina.” I had never used that name before and it seemed so alien to me as my hand forced that signature. Yet, when Leslie called me one month later asking for Christina, I responded affirmatively without hesitation. It turned out that the letter I sent went to Leslie’s twin sister, Sophie, who was quite upset when she read it even though she already knew about the adoption. According to Leslie, hearing from me created some discomfort for the family, who never let her forget that “she had a baby with a black boy.” As we spoke on the phone, Leslie shared that her relationship with my birth father did not last long. She described him as “cunning,” “crafty” and “manipulative” -- and kept saying, “you know how those people are.” She did not use his name. Based on the way she spoke, she seemed unable to imagine the child she gave birth to as someone other than what she was — white. Leslie also shared that her own parents had decided she would put “the baby” up for adoption “if the baby was too dark.” They signed me over to the state immediately after I was born -- after Leslie named me. She told me she wasn’t sure what happened to my birth father after I was born, but she thought he either spent some time in jail or went away to a school for problem teens. Leslie and I ended our conversation promising to write each other. I told her my name was Nicole. She liked that name, too.
The first letter Leslie sent me was short, but it meant the world to me. It included a picture of her, and I felt like I was seeing pieces of my face in someone else’s -- something I was not accustomed to as an adoptee. In subsequent letters, Leslie insisted she could not meet me and that her sons could not know about me. She had just divorced their father, who was emotionally abusive and constantly reminded her of her mistake. She didn’t want to create more disruption in her sons’ lives. I understood and honestly felt quite nervous about meeting her and my half-brothers anyway.
As I became more comfortable with the idea of communicating with my birth mother, she grew less comfortable with being in touch. Suddenly, in her fourth and last letter to me, the letter she wrote after receiving my photo, she told me to never contact her again. She said other things that were very hurtful, things that made clear she still carried the guilt not only of having me, but also of giving birth specifically to a biracial child. It was also clear that what other people thought of our communicating weighed heavily on her. She wrote, “My sister is really upset that you are contacting me. Please stop contacting me and my family.” She punctuated the request with, “Don’t make me regret not having an abortion.” I never wrote her again.
In that last letter, Leslie did share the most important piece of information not contained in any records available to me: My birth father's name. Jack Green. An infuriatingly common name, hard to do a search around. I felt deep hurt at my birth mother’s abrupt last letter, yet for some reason I still gave credence to the way she’d painted Jack as shiftless, shady and irresponsible at best. And he did vanish seemingly without a trace from that small town in Vermont. In my fear and confusion, I decided the man -- at least the figure Leslie described -- was not someone I wanted or needed in my life. So I let him go. I let it all go.
Instead of searching for Jack Green, I reconnected with the Lund Home; I volunteered over the next few years, helping them build their library collection. I know some of you are thinking, “How does this woman keep ending up in libraries?” But I digress. Part of my service to Lund was traveling to Burlington to do archival research on materials dating to as far back as 1890 -- the year Lund was established as the then “Home for Friendless Women.” On one visit, I took Mr. Furlonge and our children with me to a fundraising event. While there, a reporter approached me asking how I was connected to Lund. I shared a short version of my story and she took a photograph of me and then 5 year old Logan. I didn’t realize until a few months later, while attending an event here at Holderness actually, that that picture made the front page of the Burlington Free Press. A Trustee of Holderness School who lived in Vermont had seen the article and, it turned out, had a family connection to Lund. We chatted and he offered to reach out to people he knew from my birth mother’s town to see if he could find out anything about my birth father.
Years before, I had decided not to search for my birth father. But now, with this serendipitous offer, why not? Almost a year later, after more work than I’m sure this Trustee had bargained for, he had a solid lead -- a last known address of, he believed, my paternal grandparents. He also had a lead on Jack Green--but suggested that I not contact him directly. Jack had quite a few PO Boxes in his name and the Trustee thought that might be a sign that Jack wasn’t stable or was unsavory. We just couldn’t shake this single story we had of Jack.
I took the information and filed it away -- until the day I made the phone call I mentioned at the start of this talk to Vanessa Green, Jack’s sister-in-law. Once it became clear that I was who I said I was and she was who she said she was, Vanessa said, “I’ve been waiting for this call for 40 years,” her tone a mix of relief and disbelief. She shared that, from her perspective, Jack and Leslie really cared about each other. They kept the pregnancy a secret for as long as possible (so no prenatal care) and had unrealistic plans of staying together and raising me -- unrealistic because neither of them had the resources to even support themselves. When Jack’s parents found out, they decided they would adopt the baby, me, and consulted a lawyer to do just that. In contrast, when Leslie’s parents found out she was pregnant and who the father was, they went to the Green’s home, used vile, racist language to address them and their son, and told the Greens that if they ever learned they were raising the baby, they would have Jack sent to jail. The Green family felt trapped. They wanted to adopt me, but they were afraid of what Leslie’s family would do to Jack. Remember that this is 1971/72. The Green’s are an African-American family in rural Vermont. Leslie’s parents had financial resources and standing in the town that they did not. And the relationship between Jack and Leslie was culturally and socially taboo.
Leslie’s parents sent her to the Lund Home to have me without telling the Greens. Although it was his legal right to do so, Jack did not have a chance to sign the adoption papers; Leslie told Lund she did not know where he was and they did not try to find him -- even though trying to do so was a legal requirement at the time (this I confirmed with Lund later). Vanessa was furious to hear that I’d been in touch with Leslie because, in a bizarre twist, Vanessa works with Sophie (Leslie’s twin sister). My aunts see each other every day. And they’ve known each other for over 40 years. When I reached out to my birth mother 20 years ago, she did not let the Green family know even though my Aunt Vanessa would ask her now and then if she had heard from me.
My paternal grandparents had passed away, but my birth father was still living. Vanessa said she was going to call Jack right away and tell him to call me. I wasn’t sure I’d hear from Jack. But Jack called me right away. What do you say when your biological father calls you for the first time ever -- and in almost 40 years? All I could say was, “Hi.” I didn’t know what else to say. The words we exchanged first may, on the surface, seem like mere pleasantries — “How are you?” “Where are you now?” — but they launched a connection we’ve chosen to maintain for almost seven years now.
Jack shared that he left Vermont shortly after I was born and joined the Marines. He was stationed in various places. And all those PO Boxes -- from California to Ohio to Florida to Vermont to Texas -- were registered in his name just in case I was looking for him. He and his family hoped that I would contact them one day. His parents were African American migrant workers. In the fall, they’d go to Vermont to pick apples. In the spring, they’d go to Florida to pick oranges. They settled in Vermont permanently in 1969 when Jack’s father was promoted to farm worker manager. They’d lived in housing provided by the farm owners which is why their names and actually anyone identified as black didn’t show up in town records -- including census records -- when I’d looked for them. Before we ended that first call, Jack asked me two questions: “Do you have a good life?” and “Are you healthy?” I told him I do and I am. I have since met my birth father and siblings and we keep in touch. One day Vanessa called to tell me that she went to the grave site where my paternal grandparents are buried to let them know that “I’d been found.” I’m still unsure what’s more difficult to navigate, though: being the one who was given away, or being the one who was missed for so long.
To end, I want to leave you with this: In Just Mercy, our All School Read runner-up, Brian Stevenson talks about the importance of “getting proximate” -- that is, of getting closer to the issues we are addressing and to the people we are trying to empower. In talking about the intimacy of social activism, Stevenson highlights that social justice work should be personal. By extension, while we might marvel at change agents like Dr. King and their resolve to fight against injustice out in the world, sometimes the issues we need to get proximate with are our own personal ones, our own assumptions, perceptions, and fears. For me, getting proximate meant recognizing that I made certain assumptions about people in my very own emerging story, a story framed by and intertwined with all kinds of notions about race, class, and gender.
Admittedly, I struggled through this entire search process to feel empathy for Leslie, to try to understand why after all this time she would replay the same narrative her parents played, laced with race and class loathing and distrust. By extension, I still don’t understand why she would keep Jack’s family from connecting with me -- why she would choose to withhold information. But in my more generous moments, though I am not ok with it, I know that fear -- of change, of confronting ghosts, of the other -- can be tough to fight through. And I know that as a young white girl, Leslie was vilified by her family and upper middle class community in ways that Jack was not by his own family. He was vilified in other ways, by the community beyond his family, and that is my other admission: that I, too, bought into a narrative Leslie told about this man, a story that taps into larger narratives too often perpetrated about boys of color and black boys and men in particular in this country: that they are up to no good, that they are to be feared and not trusted. I fell prey to that flat, single story at moments because of my own complicated fear. It was truly good fortune, small moments of willingness on my part to imagine that there might be more to the story, the willingness to lean in, be curious, and get proximate, that allowed me to find family and to begin thinking more fully about how the story of race, class, and gender in America is very much a family affair.