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Interview: September 25, 2019

In MOTHERHOOD SO WHITE, an unflinching account of her parenting journey, Nefertiti Austin examines the history of adoption in the African American community, faces off against stereotypes of single, Black motherhood, and confronts the reality of raising children of color in racially charged, modern-day America. Austin talks to Carol Fitzgerald, the president and co-founder of The Book Report Network, about her decision to write a book that focuses on her path to becoming a mother, her shock and disappointment over the lack of parenting books for Black women who choose to adopt like her, the advice she would give to a single mother looking to adopt, and her outlook regarding the prospects for her two children and other Black youth growing up in America at this time.

The Book Report Network: At what point did you know that you wanted to write a book about your path to becoming a mother?

Nefertiti Austin: Once I decided to become a mother in 2006, I noticed almost immediately that finding narratives about motherhood written by women who looked like me was not going to be easy. There were so many parenting books in publication, but only one or two were written by Black mothers. I thought, This is ridiculous, it's the 21st century! To add insult to injury, almost every season, a feel-good movie about white motherhood was made, and once again, Black mothers were nowhere to be seen. I knew I needed to raise my voice about this erasure.

TBRN: Before reading MOTHERHOOD SO WHITE, I did not realize how different adoption for a Black woman could be than for other women. You wrote about the lack of parenting books for mothers who chose to adopt like you. Were you surprised that there was little to nothing out there on this subject?

NA: I was shocked and disappointed. I never expected to search high and low --- library, internet, movies, television programs --- and come up empty. I knew the adoption community was white and was stunned that, given the history of Black women who have raised white children in America for hundreds of years, we had no presence. It was like we had never parented before and had nothing to add to this important discussion. This marginalization let me know that my experience did not matter and therefore I did not either.

TBRN: You write about having two children. The number of interactions in your family went from one-on-one to three possible connections, which is the reason it’s not just double the work. Were you prepared for the exponential change in your life?

NA: No! I had no idea that two children would not only double the fun but increase the emotional, physical and financial demands on me exponentially. Raising children solo is hard, and having two children with distinct personalities, six years apart and of different genders, has been quite a ride.

TBRN: You would actively seek out male role models for your son. Do you continue to do that as he matures? Have his needs changed through the years, and has that influenced who you are looking to guide him?

NA: Absolutely. My son is almost 13 years old and entering a phase of uncertainty about his body, friendships and place in the world. I regularly enlist his male village to answer questions about puberty, how to effectively respond to a roast from one of his boys, and how they were once slim kids who filled out later. We've been lucky to have the same group of men in our lives, and they've watched him grow from snaggletoothed kindergartner to needing braces. This helps because he feels comfortable with them.

TBRN: Do you feel that young Black women have an easier time of it than young Black men? And does that affect how you parent?

NA: In some ways, the assaults on a Black girl's self-esteem present differently. Thanks to the lack of images of Black girls in cartoons and children's programming, magazines, etc, Black girls worry about their appearance --- hair texture, skin and eye color --- earlier than Black boys. As a parent, I have to actively seek positive Black role models in all areas and point to commonalities she shares with women like Misty Copeland or Simone Biles, so she can see all that she is capable of. It's harder in some respects because she loves glitz and glam, and images of Black characters in her age group in the media do not always depict Black girls as beautiful or as the lead or the one the prince kisses at the end of the movie.

TBRN: We live in a world of connectivity. Have you found a way for other mothers like yourself to bond together?

NA: Yes. I have been intentional about finding spaces where I can meet and interact with mothers of Black girls. It's a lot of work to cultivate these relationships, but my daughter benefits and learns at an early age that we are an economically, socially, religiously, educationally and physically diverse group who share the awesome task of raising Black girls, whose kindness, talents, intellect and beauty are not always celebrated.

TBRN: You included commentary from three other mothers. At what point did you decide that you wanted to add other voices to the book?

NA: In 2014, I had an idea to compile profiles of single Black people who had adopted. I knew my story wasn't the only one and wanted a place to showcase these men and women who answered the call to adopt. I felt it was and is important to debunk the myth that Black people do not adopt. Having a book filled with beautiful pictures and a short narrative of their journey to parenting would go a long way to show that we have a rich history of raising children to whom we did not give birth.

TBRN: There are many white parents who have adopted children of another race. Your book has a lot for them to consider as well. Was that a thought when you were writing?

NA: Not initially, but it is impossible to write about adoption and not address the high rate of transracial adoption. Also, much of the available literature about adoption is specific to white parents of children of color without the cultural aspect of what that experience should require. Since I had the opportunity, I tried to point out how they could use their white privilege to help their children. And I wanted to make it clear that love is not enough. Racism, micro aggressions in education and violence against Black children are real. They need to be prepared.

TBRN: What advice would you give to a single mother looking to adopt?

NA: Single women who plan to adopt should make sure they have a support system in place. She will need to lean on other moms for advice, rest and information about everything from navigating playdates to meal planning to work/life balance. She will need to build community for her kids, especially if her future child is of the opposite gender or LGBTIQA+. Finally, I would advise her not to be afraid to advocate for her children at school, on the field or at the doctor's office.

TBRN: There has been a mantra in publishing to publish more books about diverse topics for children. Have you seen growth in this area when you looked for titles for your children about their experience?

NA: Actually, no. While there are countless books for transracially adopted kids, Black children who are adopted by Black people are, once again, excluded from this genre. This goes back to the myth that Black people do not adopt, and therefore our children's adoption experiences are not important. Now there are more titles that celebrate textured hair and YA books with Black protagonists situated in urban experiences. I love these books and wish there were more.

TBRN: Was it painful for you to write so candidly about your own difficult childhood years?

NA: I would not describe the experience as painful, though it was scary to reveal so much. I am a private person and was uncomfortable with the level of vulnerability my memoir required. Ultimately, I'm glad I did it.

TBRN: Your grandparents were such huge role models, yet when you came to the decision to adopt, you were on somewhat of an island. Did this surprise you?

NA: Yes and no. They surprised me by not being open to my desire to raise a child I did not birth. We have a history of Black adoption on both sides of my family. Both of my grandfathers were raised by their grandmothers, even though their fathers were present in their lives. They raised my brother and me, so the fact that I would follow their example should not have been an issue. And, given my track record of walking to the beat of my own drum, they should have assumed that I might pursue an alternate path to parenthood. I think they believed that since I had fulfilled traditional expectations, like graduating from college and graduate school, I would continue on that trajectory. Surprise!

TBRN: It feels like your own parenting experience gave you more of a perspective on the challenges that your own parents faced. Did it make you more sympathetic?

NA: Absolutely. Both of my parents were raised by their parents in single family homes in nice middle-class neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Seemingly, they were ahead of the curve, but drugs, crime and incarceration played a huge role in their inability to parent. Despite their shortcomings, it must have been difficult for them to let us go, but I am grateful that they did.

TBRN: What lessons have you learned from being a mother?

NA: I have learned that patience is my friend, because as soon as I master one aspect of parenting, my kids enter a new phase. Sometimes, it's hard to keep up.

TBRN: Do you maintain a hopeful outlook regarding the prospects for your children and other Black youth growing up in America at this time?

NA: There is always hope. Black children are growing up in such dynamic times, with so many opportunities to thrive. If we can get a handle on the violence in our country, eliminate stereotype threats of Black boys and girls, acknowledge how racism impedes the trajectory of Black youth, and then take step meaningful steps to right so many wrongs, I think their prospects will dramatically improve. We can't do it alone, though. White people will have to own their privilege and use it to help everyone, not just their kids.

TBRN: Your work is groundbreaking. Do you plan to write more books that would offer new perspectives for your children?

NA: Eventually, I'm going to have to write something for my daughter. Though MOTHERHOOD SO WHITE is my story, my journey to parenthood is wrapped in my desire to adopt a Black boy. I had not expected to adopt a second child, let alone a baby girl, so her entrance into our lives comes at the end of my memoir. I already know that when she comes of age, she will be looking for herself on the page.