By Angela Tucker and Lisa Marie Simmons
This is a story about Oterious and Isell, our Black fathers who wanted us, and the system that prohibited them.
When Lisa was born, U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Isell walked the echoey halls of the hospital, looking for someone who could tell him where his baby was. When he reached the nurses’ desk in the neonatal unit, he was told it was too late: his firstborn, his baby girl, was gone. “She’s been adopted,” they said. He slumped against the counter, defeated. Even as the pain in his head accused him — “you’re too late” — he knew he would keep looking. Years later, at home with his new son, Isell whispered in his ear: “You have a sister; we’ll find her one day.” Decades after that, the phone rang, and Isell answered: “Dad? Is that you? My name is Lisa.”
With a confident stride, Angela walked up to Oterious and said, “I think you might be my birth father. Do you know someone named Deborah? She’s my biological mom.” She looks like me, but it doesn’t sound like she’s from around here, he thought. “Naw, I don’t have any kids.” But, after a moment’s hesitation, he stared into her earnest eyes, and her bright, toothy smile, his smile and added: “I wish you were my daughter, though!” A DNA test confirmed their kinship. At 54 years old, Oterious became a father.
The Federal Social Security Act requires states to have in place procedures for putative fathers to be notified if there are any court proceedings regarding that child, including adoption.
Angela’s father, Oterious, didn’t have a permanent address, so a lawyer published notice in the local paper of a court hearing to terminate his rights three times. Lisa’s father, Isell, was not mentioned by Lisa’s mother, so the adoption agency petitioned the judge for the involuntary termination of parental rights for John Doe, AKA, every single male in the United States. However, because Isell went to the hospital of Lisa’s birth, attempting to assert his parental rights after returning from where he had been stationed, his name was added to her records, though he was notified nothing of her whereabouts.
Neither Isell nor Oterious joined a putative father registry, which is currently available in only 24 states. Putative father registries are established to ostensibly allow men who declare that they are the birth fathers of unwed women’s children to claim paternity and the right to be notified if their parental rights are threatened as well as affording them the opportunity to be a part of their children’s lives. Notwithstanding the fact that this system seeks to aid putative fathers, a few presumptive fathers seek to use it to serve their own purpose, which may not include the child’s welfare.
Neither Isell nor Oterious would have had the possibility, as there is no such registry in Colorado, and Tennessee didn’t implement its registry until 2010. Even still, birthfathers today aren’t likely to know about such registries, given that they aren’t advertised on billboards, park benches, subway cars, or in the men’s bathrooms at bars and restaurants, rendering them essentially invisible to men who may benefit.
Despite studies debunking the myth that Black fathers are, at best, disinterested, or worse, disreputable, that image has clung to America’s consciousness. This prevailing narrative of Black fatherhood, combined with the systemic racism in our family court system, has become institutionalized. The “absentee Black father” narrative has been touted as far back as 1842, and as recently as 2021 when Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee and Utah Republican Burgess Owens tussled over Owens’ insistence that Black father figures were chiefly absent from their children’s lives. Owens maintained that “70 to 80 percent of Black fathers desert their families.” Owens’ assertion, aside from being rooted in prejudice, is faulty, he does not take into account the changing trend of the family structure from the traditional concept of the nuclear family (wife, husband, children) to the current model — 64% of unmarried parents collaboratively raise their Black children. It has always been convenient for some to ignore the ways that these myths — rooted in systemic racism — also have been used to presumptively exclude Black fathers.
The details of our birthfathers — vague, small, invented — seeped into the minds of both of us and shaped our understandings of them. Of Oterious, there was half a sentence in the adoption papers: “The alleged father is Oterious…” An afterthought. That word, alleged, carries connotations of criminality, and most certainly colored my view of my father’s reliability and intimated a perceived promiscuity on my mother’s part (who had only a few pages of vague details in the adoption papers).
In my case, my adoptive parents conjectured that my birth father Isell was unwilling and unable to accept responsibility because he was a drug addict or alcoholic; this microfiction communicated: “He did not want you.”
Lisa: When I found Isell, he was 85 years old. He proved to be everything I had dreamed of in my Ghost Kingdom — in that self-soothing spot within my mind’s eye to which I would retreat as a child and imagine my birth father’s world, his character. He was stalwart and proud. He had been nominated in 1975 by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce as their Military Citizen of the Year; he was Chair of the Mayor’s African American Advisory Council; he was a nurturer. When I finally met him, just as I had fantasized in that Ghost Kingdom, he said, “Lisa, I’ve been looking for you.”
“The system failed Lisa and me,” Isell said.
Angela: When I found Oterious, he was 54 years old. I was welcomed into his large, boisterous, connected extended family.
“How could they take away my rights before I even knew I had any?” Oterious wondered, near the end of his life.
Two closed adoptions. Two Black men who weren’t allowed to be fathers to their daughters. One system designed to shut them out.
Angela Tucker is the founder of The Adopted Life, a media consulting company with a mission to help center adoptee stories and bring clarity and truth narratives about race, class, and identity. She is the subject of Closure (a documentary that chronicles her search for her biological parents), the host of The Adoptee Next Door podcast, an advisor to the writers of Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill and NBC’s This Is Us, and co-author of the Inclusive Family Support Model published in the Journal of Child & Family Social Work. Angela’s debut book will be published in Spring 2023 by Beacon Press.
Lisa Marie Simmons is an adoptee and a multi-disciplinary storyteller. She is a singer/songwriter (Ropeadope Records), essayist (Huffington Post, Family Stories Project, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Jazzfuel, AfroElle), and published poet currently based in Italy.
Watch Angela and Lisa’s mini-documentary: Lisa & Isell: A Story About Adoption and the Ghost Kingdom on Lisa’s search for her birth father.