The Many Silenced Faces of Britshness: A close reading of Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers

Editor’s Note: More Black Diaspora Literature of the 20th Century can be found here: [ ]

Within Jackie Kay’s collection of poetry The Adoption Papers she presents a text that utilizes three different fonts to represent the three dominant voices; each voice is represented by a font, each font assuming the voice of one of the three females (in addition to a few other social voices, including an adoption agent and a desk clerk). The predominant voices within the text are a “birth mother,” an “adoptive mother” and an “adopted daughter.” The voices are “distinguished” through variations in typography; for the daughter, Kay adopts a Palatino typeface; for the adoptive mother she issues a Gill typeface, and for the birth mother Kay distinguishes her by using a Bodoni typeface (Kay 8). The fonts that the poet uses separate the voices in a way that Chris Dobbish describes as “egalitarian” in nature, suggesting that while the fonts are visibly different, one font is not greater than the other fonts. (It is not my intention to enter into a discussion about the multifaceted and intersecting histories of fonts at this point in time). The visual similarities that exist between the adoptive mother’s typeface and the Birth mother’s typeface are, at some points within Kay’s text, indistinguishable from one another.

Front Cover.

           My initial read of Kay’s collection left me with a sense of alienation and a number of questions. My confusion was alleviated with a closer rereading of Kay’s text—during which I took specific notice of the ways in which Kay interweaves the narratives of the three females together. In short, Jackie Kay’s usage of the three “distinguished” typefaces is used to represent the various voices, as well as the individual, and intersecting narratives that are present within her collection of poetry; demonstrating the author’s consciousness of multifaceted histories—each aspect a contributing factor to the construction of self-identity amongst the characters.
           Alienation through an uncertainty of identity is a theme within Jackie Kay’s collection of poems The Adoption Papers. Within her collection of poems Kay uses idiosyncratic language and typographical variations to represent the speeches of the mothers and the daughter. The opening couplets of “Chapter 6: The Telling Part” address the concept of identity from the adopted daughter’s perspective. In this chapter the daughter self identifies as an adopted child without using the word “adoption,” she states:

My mammy bot me oot a shop
My Mammy says I was a luvly baby

My mammy picked me (I wiz the best)
your mammy had to take you (she’d no choice)
My mammy says she’s no really ma mammy
(just kid on)

           During this opening narrative, the child’s history, and her sense of being have been transformed into a commodity, and she is reduced to the status of a thing rather than a human with full agency. In addition to the commodification of the adolescent, and the diminishing of her worth, Kay also provides a metatextual commentary on subject of adopted children. Based on this opening statement one can infer that within the public sphere, adopted children are gradable–varying from “best” to (perhaps) unadoptable.
           The opening passage of “The Telling Part” also reveals the adoptive mother’s confession to her daughter, along with this confession is a state of vulnerability—for both mother and daughter. They are both paralyzed in a state of vulnerability that questions the very nature of their relationship and being, if the woman that the daughter refers to as “Mammy” is “no really… [her] mammy” then who is? The conflict within the situation alludes to the questioning of identity which is ultimately resolved by the purchasing of a “guinea pig” (33). A “contrapuntal reading” of this situation suggests that the guinea pig’s country of origin needs to be identified and in doing so, can reveal whether the subject possesses any connections to imperialism, or “places, or situations that referred to, made use of, overseas territories held by Europeans” (Said 63).  (Without getting into too much detail, the animal is not native to Britain). Thus, in an effort to provide consolation to her daughter and to reestablish her role as mother the adoptive mother imposes a pacifying object that is linked to a colonial past.
Before the adoptive mother reasserts her unquestionable role as mother she first engages in a deep introspective as she reflects on the words that she spoke to her daughter, the words “I’m not your real mother” leave her in a distraught state. In fact she evenquestions herself, with a sense of remorse, baffled as to the reason why she said such a thing, she states “Christ knows why I said that,/ If I’m not who is.” She says this after she recognizes the “upset” in her daughter’s voice (16-19). In this instance the identities of both mother and daughter are reaffirmed by the guinea pig, the mother is able to provide for her child while the daughter’s desires are fulfilled by the presumed mother. Still, through Kay’s text there are other instances in which the identities of each character are challenged and/or moved—in essence, they are moments that reconstruct the self-consciousness of each character.
           One consequence of the adopted mother’s confession to her adopted daughter is that the adopted mother is also been presented with an opportunity to discuss the social construct of color with her child. The depth of this conversation is not apparent within the text, however, their color difference is presumably one of the differences noted by people within public sphere (Waiting lists 16; Black Bottom 17-22). Whereas the child is described as Black (and called “sambo”) in the poem “Black Bottom,” the mother is described as having a red face. In the poem “The Telling Part” the mother’s face is described as “cherries” (42) by her daughter. Whether or not the discussion of color was addressed simultaneously with the mother’s confession is uncertain. However, the guinea pig appears close the dialogue, by reaffirming the identities of both mother and daughter. What is clear is that the subject of adoption was mentioned earlier than the daughter’s name change. In “Chapter 2: The Original Birth Certificate” the daughter discovers that her name has been changed; the scene reads like a flashback, and the voice of the adopted daughter appears significantly older in this passage than in opening couplets of “Chapter 6:The Telling Part.”
By withholding information about her adopted daughter’s status (a black adopted child that is also half Nigerian) the adoptive mother mutes the girl’s identity. While the text does not reveal the daughter’s name, the mention of a name change is presented within “The Original Birth Certificate.” In a dialogue between a desk clerk and the adopted daughter the conversation unfold “slow as torture;” he begins “Do you have any idea what your name was? Close, close he laughs. Well what was it?/Slow as torture he discloses bit by bit/ my mother’s name, my original name/ the hospital I was born in” (2-7). The exchange of words between the man at the front desk and the adopted daughter is one of several moments within Kay’s collection that highlights this female’s quest for identity. Within this coming of age narrative the adopted daughter receives information regarding identity, as she progresses from childhood to adulthood. One may consider that the information that she receives is provided to her in fragments. Part of the quest that the daughter participates in involves the discovery of her biological mother.
           The biological Mother separates herself from her daughter, and from the father of her child and in doing so she distances herself from the construct of motherhood. The adoptive mother suggests to her adopted daughter that her biological mother has not forgotten about her, or missed a birthday. Highlighting this situation I suggest that the identity of “mother” is mobile, and that Kay is suggesting that a child can indeed have two mothers. As metatextual commentary the paradigm of multiple mothers demonstrates a space in which multiple familial dynamics are acceptable. Utilizing this paradigm one can suggest that a child can have multiple mothers, and/or multiple fathers. However, within the context of Kay’s narrative the adoption process is the measure through which parenthood is legitimized.
           Within the collection of poems, both the adopted mother and the biological mother demonstrate a conflict within the construct of motherhood. For both mothers, the state (and other agencies) plays a role in authenticating and legitimizing a particular status—motherhood. One does not consider herself to be a mother because she has given her child away, while the other is unable to be a mother until she has been legitimized by the adoption agency. The relationship that both women have with the intersecting construct of motherhood is connected to the state (represented by the adoption agency) as well as biology. While the adopted mother cannot become a mother until she has been confirmed by the adoption agency, the biological mother cannot escape the aftermath of childbirth. The biological mother is wounded physically, hurt emotionally and parallels the adoption process to death; she states internally that “words/lie across my forehead/ headline in thin ink/ MOTHER GIVES BABY AWAY (Baby Lazarus 17-20).  Thus, the scars that she carries are not only physical but also emotional. The adoptive mother longs to inhabit the space motherhood, even at the cost of her political beliefs
           The adoptive mother within Kay’s poetry collection demonstrates solidarity with Black culture and communism. She keeps within her home a poster of Paul Robeson, literature from “Marx Engels Lenin.” She has these mentioned items within her home prior to the arrival of her adopted daughter. During the adoption process that is described in “Chapter 3: The Waiting Lists” the adoptive mother narrates the movement of these items to other locations that are out of sight. She moves “Marx Engels Lenin” to the “airing cupboard” assuming that the adoption agent will not spend time “checking out the towels” (30-31). She also removes the poster of Paul Roberson (a Black actor and civil rights activist—known for his role in Othello, and renditions of African-American folk songs) (Robeson Centennial). Whereas the items that are identifiable as Black as well as communist are removed from sight, a “bust of Burns,” and the complete works of Shelly are kept in plain sight. In selectively removing, relocating and hiding the items within her home, prior to the arrival of the adoption agent, I am suggesting that the mother-in-waiting is consciously muting parts of her own identity. In short she is attempting to present a specific type of Britishness.
           In muting her own identity, the adoptive mother, the mother-in waiting, the Briton presents a false and incomplete self to the adoption agent. The adoptive mother mutes her communist identity, which distances her from Russia and other communist countries. She takes down the poster of Robeson (and hides her copy of the Daily Worker), which distances her solidarity with class struggle, immigrant rights, America and Black identity. In Laura Servin’s text Poetry off the Page: Twentieth-Century British Women Poets in Performance, Servin suggests that the adopted mother reconstructs her identity so that it conforms to “motherhood,” and away from “constrictions of femininity.”  In the reconstruction process, Servin suggests that the adoptive mother is able to “accommodate” her political identity to fit the identity of motherhood (85-86). As a result of the reconstruction, the social worker moves the adoption process forward, even after noticing the 21 peace badges “clear as hammer and sickle” (Telling Part 61-65). However, as the adopted mother soon finds out, she is not a mother until she is legitimized by the state.
           A textual parallel, that may shed some light on the reasoning as to why a half Nigerian child may be put up for adoption, is presented within Caryll Philip’s novel Crossing the River. In his novel, his characters Travis (a Black American soldier) and Joyce (a native White Briton) produce a child; the child is later given up for adoption by Joyce when Travis is faced with his own troubles as a soldier. Simply put, he is unable to return to Britain after the war. The adoption agent persuades Joyce to give up the child (Philips). As a single mother, raising a Black child in Britain, during a time in which Britain was trying to shed itself of its colonial ties, the responsible social option appears to place the Black British Child up for adoption.
Rather than contribute to the ghettoization of the Black culture, by focusing on violence, or the “fete” life (demonstrated in books Selvon’s novella the Lonely Londoners), Kay shifts the focus of her narrative from focusing solely on the Black narrative. While the focus of her poetry collection could have been directed towards the woes of Black British life and the generalizations that are imposed onto people of color, she chooses to direct her attention towards personal experience. In the process one identifies that the overarching theme within the adoption papers is not simply race (a subject that generations of authors such as Sam Selvon, Olaudah Equiano, and to a lesser extent Caryl Phillips focused upon) but rather on personal identity. Within the collection of her poems the color of the daughter’s skin is not the focus, but rather one part of the entire focus.
           Kay moves away from writing about Black experience by including the adoptive mother which appears contribute a post-racial narrative. During the adoption process she even mentions to the adoption agency “oh you know we don’t mind the colour” (Waiting Lists). She announces this statement just prior to leaving the adoption agency. On one hand the statement transcends color lines; and reaffirms that a child is a child (regardless of color); however, on the other hand, one has to question whether the statement was motivated by multiple rejections on various fronts—the religious (1-4), the classist (7) and the ageist (9). It appears that only after months of waiting (at least six in total), that at the fifth agency’s rejection that the adoptive mother mentions that she does not mind “the colour.” As the poem progresses, evidence that the adoptive mother identifies with Black culture, is revealed, the poster of Robeson along with the records of Bessie Smith are the two largest signifiers of black solidarity.
There are three main voices within Jackie Kay’s text, one is the biological mother, the other is of the adopted mother and the final voice is of the daughter. The adopted mother is the Briton that, at the age of 19, gives away her child; a child that is part Nigerian. Throughout the text the biological mother’s voice interjects and the reader is provided with a sense of the emotional state that the childless mother is in. The adopted mother is unable to give birth to a child, and after multiple rejections granted the title of mother. The stories interconnect and the narratives appear to echo each other. Yet, one has to question why Kay did not continue with a tradition of writing about the Black experience. Her text largely focuses on the life of an adopted British child that just happens to also be Black. My conclusion is that the rise of television programs such as “Goodness Gracious Me,” Singers like Linton Kwasi Johnson, radio hosts like Una Marson and poets like John Agard have affirmed, without a shadow of a doubt, the Black identity that is present within Britain. Furthermore Kay’s narrative demonstrates a technological and historical shift within Britain.
           In conclusion the collection of poems “The Adoption Papers” narrates a time in which the cultural climate of Britain has shifted. As an author, Kay has access to transcontinental and global lines of communication. In addition she is also part of a post-World War War II era that is attempting to release itself from multiple oppressive forces—colonialism, sexism, racism and classism. As a result, her narratives are able to address multiple issues, demonstrating the multifaceted nature of individual existence. With this new found space within literature, that takes a multifaceted approach, perhaps it is now possible to write about the multiple spaces we each inhabit, and embrace the identities that we develop as well the ones that we inherit.
           In reflecting on the various spaces that Kay inhabits within her own poetry, to see that a poet can speak for multiple generations and peoples without abandoning her own, I sense that as a writer myself I too am able to insert diversified narratives back into the cannon of English Literature. The era of Milton, Milton and Shakespeare as the dominant writers within the English cannon is over. (If not by Agard’s human breath, then by my own, for I too am part of this ever-changing narrative).

Works Cited The Adoption Papers. 1978. Web 15 May 2013.            <>

Kay, Jackie. The Adoption Papers. Glasgow: Bloodaxe Boos Ltd, 1991. Print

“Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration.” Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration. Web.  13 May                    2013. <  >

Philips, Caryl. Crossing The River. IV Crossing the River.  London: Bloomsbury, 1993. Print

Selvon, Sam. The Lonely Londoners. New York:Longman Publishing Group, 1956. Print

Wikipedia.Org. Guinea Pig, Semi-Protected Until June 2013. Web 15 May 2013            <>


D’Aguiar, Fred. Butcher, Maggier, Ed. “Against Black British Literature.” 106-114. Sydney:

Dangaroo, 1989. Print.

Eldridge, Michael. “English 350: Black British Literature.” Humboldt State University. Harry Griffith Hall, Arcata, CA.  30 January 2013- 15 May 2013.

Gronniosaw, Ukawsaw. Phillips, Caryl, ed. “A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in    the Life of James Alber Ukawsaw Grionniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by                   himself. New York: Vintage, 1999. Print.

Johnson, Linton Kwasi. Dread Beat & Blood.  Bogle L’Ouverture, 1975,  Island Records 1980    Vinyl.

Olaudah Equiano, from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus      Vassa, The African, Written by Himself (1789).

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. 62-97.  New York: Knopf, 1993. Print
“The Coopers.” Goodness Gracious Me. BBC.  United Kingdom.  5 July 1991-  19 Feb. 2001.

Michael Ray

Bachelors of English Literature
Humboldt State University.

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