Photo Album

Signs2016

by Aaminah Shakur

Somewhere there is a photo
     Of my mother and father
I’m told I look just exactly like her
     Only she was darker
My mother who was Indigenous and Black
     On her father’s side
     Indigenous and Scots-Irish
     On her mother’s side
My brother said our aunt showed it to him
It is her favorite photo of her brother
     My father
     The two of them together
     Her Indian brother and her best friend
She won’t talk to me, my aunt
Her paranoia and fear of opening up 
     To complete strangers is too great
Through my brother I am informed from her
     That we were stolen
     Right out of her arms
     On the reservation
She told him she’d give him two copies of the photo
     I don’t know if she never did
     Or if he’s the one withholding my copy
     Because of his own paranoia
He inherited her schizophrenia
     I inherited our father’s bi-polar
I haven’t heard from my brother now in
     At least two years

The first family member I called told me
     They had a photo of all seven of them together
My dad’s siblings who were separated
After their mother died
They were sent all over, some in pairs
My uncle said as adults they found each other
     But my dad was sorta a loner
They have one picture of all of them together
My uncle’s wife on the speakerphone
Says my dad stands slightly separate from the rest
“He was always just different,” she adds
“Well, probably because of that time
     He was kicked in the head by the mule,"
     My uncle laughs as he tells me
Some story about how my dad and aunt
     Went to live on the farm of their uncle
"I don’t know anything about us being Injun,”
     My uncle tells me later
     “I don’t know why he would say that.”
My father told the agency both his parents
     Were full bloods
My uncle’s wife takes down my contact information
     Says she will send me a copy of the photo 
     And any others she finds
I never hear from them again

Other than the stories from my aunt
     My father’s sister
     Told to me via my brother
I know so little about my mother
She was institutionalized at six
     Released decades later
Met my father, I don’t know where or how
     Gave birth to me
     Gave birth to my brother
     Had a nervous breakdown
I imagine the real world was a bit unfathomable
     After decades in a hospital
The official story is that she gave us up
     That my father signed off on it too
Paperwork from the adoption agency
     Sketches this bare bones story
     No photos included, no identifying information
It’s all a big secret really
My aunt’s story is much more complicated
     But can be boiled down to
Our mother left us with her and my father
     She said she had to go back to the hospital
And then social workers and police came
     And took us away against protests
My aunt says there were others too
     On the reservation this was a common occurrence
     In the years just prior to the new law
     That made it illegal

The only photos I have access to are post-adoption
1970s coloration and fashion sense
White parents and older sister
     White grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins
Birthday parties, classroom portraits, and church group
     Performance photos abound
I am surrounded by a range of skin tones
And in most of them I stand slightly apart
     Or when placed in the center I am preoccupied
     With ribbons on my dress
I only look direct at the camera and smile
     In posed photos surrounded by stuffed animals
Or sitting on the stairs cuddling my little brother
I’m told I was “a little mother” to him
I wonder if that’s what someone called my aunt
     My father’s sister
     Was she the caregiver when they were sent away
     But she was the younger of them

My father was dead by the time I found his name
     On a piece of paper from the original adoption agency
The paperwork was covered with black markings
     To hide identifying information
But they had left his first name one time
On another paper they left my mother’s first name
     One time
And Medicaid cards gave our original last name
I put two and two together, as they say
But two years too late
They had never married so there is no way
     To look up my mother
     No way of knowing her last name
The Bureau of Indian Affairs couldn’t find
     My father on their rolls
But reminded me, that only means he wasn’t from a local tribe
They tried to access our adoption records
     Said they had a hell of a time
     And could only tell me our mother
     Never signed the paper to allow us access
I think about my aunt’s story and know
     My mother wasn’t given the chance to sign
The adoption agency gave me the run around
     For months
Before telling me all our records were lost
     In a fire
Such a stereotypically Indian story

Art by Aaminah Shakur, “Signs” (2016) available at Shakur Arts.

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