Cassava plants and apple trees: Ethnicity, race, and place Vignette #2

Terese and Marcel

This is the next vignette in my series on Race, Ethnicity, and Place. Dinner the other night at the home of a family from Rwanda is the setting for this next vignette. My readers I trust will provide the compelling conversation around it.

Back story: The young woman in this story, who I will call Terese graduated in June, from the middle school where I teach. She had been my student for two years.  I knew of her older brother, but only by name.  I never had an extended interaction with her parents, prior to this dinner I am writing about.

Her family has lived here for just shy of three years. They  speak Kinyarwanda, French and English to different degrees (the youngest daughter, who is ten is the most fluent in English, and Terese the most fluent in French.) Terese has been baby sitting for me for about five months now.

Vignette: A few nights ago our families had dinner together at their home.  I was a little pushy about getting invited to their house for dinner for three reasons: I wanted to change the dynamic from teacher student–to family family. I wanted to try to remove myself from as many vestiges of the power that being a teacher can hold over parents and student as soon as possible. I also knew that such an amazing kid had to have some incredible parents. And I am always looking for more models in the parenting department!

And yes, my final impetus for asking if we might come to dinner (I invited them here first, and Terese said they’d be more comfortable cooking for us the first time), was that her family is Black, foreign born, African.  This meant that I would be the only White person in the room for several hours, and the people around us, would look more like Sam than me. The people around us would look more like Marcel’s donor than me. The people around us would, I would like to believe share common life experiences as brown skinned people with my kids, that I can learn from. Furthermore as citizens of the world, I want to impart a message to my children that there is no one way, no “normal” way to live as a family, to eat French fries, or to say goodnight.

When you live in a city like Portland, Maine with an incredibly thriving and visible foreign born African Black population this becomes something to consider. A city with an incredibly invisible, and small domestic born brown skinned population this becomes something to consider. When many of your son’s closest brown skinned friends are from Egypt, or Congo and are Christian and Muslim, and the babysitter is from Rwanda, and their other sitter is another student from Sudan who plays basketball with them-you hold ethnicity in one hand and race in the other and work hard to understand what the relationship between the two may be for all of us to understand.

Where I land most often is here; Terese’s family and Sam’s family of origin may have little or no similarities from the inside out. But from the outside in, as in the way her and her siblings and my sons experience being children of color in Maine, and in the world,  would they all find many overlaps if a Venn diagram were at play here? Will their experience as students, athletes, young men walking down the street, dating, applying for college, getting a job, or picking a book out at the library that has a protagonist that looks like them have more the same than different? More similar to each other than to me?

Take hair care for example.  Sam’s hair has never looked better. Marcel’s curls have been bouncing and behaving too! Terese’s  brother noticed Sam’s line up, and the great condition his hair was in. I glowed from here to Powder Springs Georgia, where the little jar of Darcy’s Botanical’s organic coconut butter styling pomade is made. Terese’s mother, who wears her hair short and natural also commented on how well cared for his hair was.  We talked about tips, products and styles. We all shared information.

In conclusion: After an impromptu concert by Terese and her siblings her father asked his son to gather us in the dining room for a final blessing before we went home (three hours, one meal, one playground romp, one family musical performance later). We all sat together in a circle of sorts. I asked what they would like us to do. Close your eyes, I was told. Terese took Marcel next to her, as I whispered to Sam; just listen to the music of his words, and not to speak until he is done. Her father’s voice, which started quietly, and became louder, and more jubilant as he continued pulsed through the room.

When the word “Amen” concluded the two or three minute blessing, I saw tears in his eyes.  Terese’s older brother was asked to explain to us the meaning of the blessing which went from the general (blessing of work, food, and family) to the specific (hope for ease on our journey to Sam’s birth family, and gratitude for our two families connecting here). We left with the promise of the next meal being at my house where they would sadly be subjected to my cooking unless they preferred a pot luck!  Terese’s mother had Marcel in her arms, while her older brother and Sammy had to be asked several times to stop jamming on the guitar and keyboards, because it really was time to go.

At the car, unlike our first initial awkward greetings we were all hugging and laughing, and basking in our new set of shared one liners and stories.  The night was a huge success. The bag of Rwandan donut holes were safely packed away next to Marcel’s Legos, that only came out once during dinner.  The park behind the parking lot overlooking the bay was quieting down, with only a few Black men still playing ball by the dwindling light. I noticed one staring at us, smiling as if in recognition of something, more than someone. The momentary connect then like the longer one in Terese’s house felt newly familiar.

Perhaps none of this is about where you are from, or what your day to day life story is, but who you are open to becoming in  yourself, when you see the world as an all, and not a one. Perhaps all of this exploration has very little to do with my family or yours, and everything to do with looking at our own comfort in our familiar, and to notice just when it is time to take it out of storage, and give it a good shake, or at least a bowl of home made cassava stew.


Thoughts? Is this something you and your family experienced or talked about growing up? As adult adoptees of color, what strikes you about this conversation? As first parents how does this scenario land? As adoptive parents have you had any similar questions or experiences? What am I missing in this vignette that begs to be considered? Chime in! Speak up. Lurk not!


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