Carroll knew the story of her adoption for as long as she could remember. Her birth mother, a white woman named Tess, was her adoptive father’s high school student. When Tess became pregnant with Carroll by her boyfriend, an older Black man who lived in Boston, Carroll’s parents, artists committed to zero-population growth, offered to raise the baby.
Carroll grew up in a New Hampshire town of 1,400, where she was the only Black resident. In addition to being an art teacher, her adoptive father was a naturalist who justified a rural life because he needed to be close to nature. Carroll’s need for affiliation with other Black people was at odds with a family culture that was “free of rules and religion, rich with art and laughter no matter how little money they had, each person an individual of his or her own making.”
In nuanced and richly textured scenes, Carroll reminds us how identity, particularly racial identity, is forged in a thousand different moments. At age 6, she meets a Black person for the first time, a ballet teacher in a neighboring city. When her adoptive mother asks if it’s nice to have a teacher who is Black, Carroll wonders why she is mentioning it, if she and the teacher could be related. Carroll’s deracination has left her unable to understand the significance of the encounter. Not long after, she writes her first essay: My name is Rebecca Anne Carroll. I am a Black child, in a poignant attempt to explain herself to herself, since no one else was bothering to.
Growing up, Carroll absorbs conflicting messages about Blackness. A teacher in elementary school comments that she’s pretty “for a Black girl,” since they’re “usually very ugly,” the teacher adds. Carroll recalls an image in her textbook of female slaves with “caricatured lips and tar-black skin and messed-up hair” and wonders if her teacher is right. But rooming with some Black girls during a high school trip “felt like moving out of my brain and into my body.” Later, in college, a Black classmate greases Carroll’s scalp. “It felt so immediately ritualistic, like a necessary chore and an act of love.”
It is Tess, Carroll’s birth mother, whom she starts visiting at the age of 11, who proves to be the greatest threat to Carroll’s evolving racial identity. Although she often appropriates a Black vernacular herself, Tess accuses Carroll of being inauthentic when she peppers her own conversation with “girl” and “fine.” Tess shares some photos of Carroll’s birth father, providing the physical proof of her Black identity. Then Tess suggests that he might have other children because “Black men are often out here having kids with a lot of different women,” a comment that “suddenly lessened him to a faceless, stereotypical Black man in America.”