When We Become Ours

Storytelling matters. It can make us feel seen and connected, and it can make us feel alone and strange. We know that adoptees need more stories — by us and for us. When We Become Ours is the first book of young adult short stories by adoptees about adoptees, published by HarperTeen in October.

Below is an excerpt from one of the stories included in the book: “Oreo,” by Shannon Gibney.

Louisa Halsted knew that she wasn’t Black enough, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from trying.

She joined the Black Student Union, tried to broker her math skills into a treasurer position, lost her bid, and settled for parliamentarian — the whitest position on the slate, according to her peers, and the most futile, according to her. No one followed Robert’s Rules of Order during meetings, and she couldn’t blame them. “Who the hell is Robert, and why is he telling us how to speak, when to speak, and for what purpose?” Janessa Keller said at their last meeting, and Louie had laughed while nodding. Everyone talked over each other, and there were tons of side conversations going on at each meeting, while a little bit of work got done. They petitioned the library for more books by Black authors, and got them. They planned their annual Black History Month banquet, which featured dry chicken and endless speeches by Black elders in ill- fitting suits and gowns who urged them all to stay in school, not fight, graduate, and attend an HBCU. This year they had successfully organized to hire a fly DJ for a banquet after- party, which everyone was excited about. But Louie, with her curly blond hair and green eyes, her yellow skin and tiny body, stuck out in all the wrong ways. Her hair would not be tamed into a cute bob, like all the other Black girls were wearing. “Afro” Lance Palmer and his crew would call her in the halls, and now also at the dance. “Why you tryna play like you down when you ain’t?” And she wanted to melt into the wall. Although the wall wouldn’t take her either.

“When We Become Ours” is the first book of young adult short stories by adoptees, about adoptees.

She locked herself in the bathroom late at night, practicing Black English, which she had realized all too late was a key marker of blackness. Something she had never had access to in her white household. “I’mma slap the black offa ya,” she would say softly into the mirror. This was something she had seen in a movie, but had never heard an actual real life Black person say. “We bout to light up this motherfucker,” she said out of the side of her mouth. She had noticed that swear words sounded different, even more powerful to her ears, in Black English. “She don’t know shit,” she said next. And then, a side eye and a disdainful frown for the imaginary white girl on the other side of the mirror: “Yeah, thanks, Katie. You a real G, ain’t chu?” Then she would shake her head and laugh at how ridiculous she sounded, the longing to hear herself in the language so strong.

Since Louie loved reading anyway, she turned to literature. While her peers jostled and flirted and ran into each other in the halls between classes and lunch, she would be propped up against a wall, reading The Underground Railroad, or Sula, or Killing the Black Body. On the bus, too, she propped her knees up and into the seat in front of her, her head below it, hiding in a book. Reading Baldwin and Hurston, she had the feeling of conversing with an old friend who knew she was Black, and didn’t need any performance or proof of belonging. She had just read another provocative line in Black Skin, White Masks when Nia Edwards sat down beside her. Louie was so surprised that she dropped the book on the floor.

“What is it with this tragic mulatto situation, anyhow?” Nia said dramatically. Her butt was only halfway on the seat, because Louie was in the middle, taking up most of the space. Nia pushed her left hip into Louie’s. “Are you really just gonna hide behind books for your whole high school career?”

Louie pushed herself up and moved toward the window, so that Nia could get herself on the seat properly. She gazed at Nia’s long, straightened hair and her finely manicured nails. With her almond brown skin, luminous eyes, and don’t give a shit attitude, she was seen as one of the cool Black girls at school. Even though she seemed to be a loner. In fact, Louie couldn’t remember a single time she had seen Nia with a friend.

“Wha—What are you doing here?” Louie stammered. She heard how stupid the words sounded as soon as she spoke them, and flushed red.

Nia laughed. “What do you mean? I ride this bus home every day, same as you.” She slung her bag off her shoulder and placed it on the floor between her legs. “It’s a free country,” she said, eyeing Louie up and down. “At least, that’s what I hear.”

Louie felt herself blushing again. What in the world did Nia Edwards want to do with her? Like two-thirds of the bus was empty. She had plenty of places she could sit. Plenty better than beside the weird mixed “wanna be” girl.

The bus engine revved up, and the driver shut the doors. They were about to leave.

Nia looked straight ahead, and Louie could think of nothing to say, so she leaned her head against the window and opened her book again.

The bus pulled out. Nia glanced over. “Why you reading that, anyway?” she asked.

Louie snorted before she could stop herself. “This?” she asked, pointing to Black Skin, White Masks. “It’s a classic!” Her Nerd Cred — basically synonymous with whiteness in the eyes of the Black kids — would rise astronomically after this conversation, but she didn’t care. Fanon had captivated her imagination, with his treatise on the colonization of the Black mind.

Now it was Nia’s turn to snort. “What it is is boring.”

Louie gasped. She had never wanted to fight someone before this moment. How could anyone even suggest that Fanon was anything less than breathtakingly brilliant?

The bus turned left on Grant. Just a few more stops and they would be at Everest and 19th, Louie’s stop.

Nia laughed. “Whoa, I guess the Tragic Mulatto ain’t so tragic after all,” she said. She eyed Louie playfully. “Sharing her unpopular thoughts on literature and everything. Speaking up for herself.”