Larger in the Past

Grateful for so much as my history unfolds in reverse. Summer’s first journey to my birth mother’s home, with a family whom I’m so proud of with me. Upon our return my paternal side manifested. A grandfather in the Jim Crow South. Voice on the line who shared this family’s history of migration to the north, who invited me to holiday gatherings and told me, “You’re not alone in this.” Music and accomplishment has flowed through both sides. My genetically aspirational test results confirming Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica as ancestral places. And out of the sky, my long-failed career as a recording artist is suddenly not quite so failed (recall: history in reverse).

Kenza, for piano

Today is the second birthday of my second child Kenza, firstborn to my wife Nehal El-Hadi. Just before her birth, I wrote a short three-movement work for piano dedicated to her.

Like the work written for her older sister Remi, the music here is diatonic, in the key of C major/A minor throughout. I work with simple forms and materials to create something that is both childlike and abstract.

“Fourths + Fifths” is structured around a sequence of six diatonic modes, each associated with a melodic pattern. Each pattern is built up from a single arpeggio into a homophonic canon by layering the pattern against copies of itself with different starting points or octaves, although this process is only made clear with the first pattern. The intervals of the fourth and fifth predominate both melodically and harmonically throughout.

“Moon” builds the texture once again from a single line to homophony, harmonizing a melodic fragment with chord clusters and a descending bassline. The second section expands the bassline by one note and replaces the earlier chords with arpeggios. The title refers to Kenza’s favourite single-word expression of wonderment.

“Golden” is dated “12 12 12” and like the first movement features a sequence of six modes. Here, a twelve-note pattern is played against pedal notes in the bass and treble, varying with each change of harmony. The pattern comes from my kalimba piece Lonely Little Boat, and is in this way an expression of continuity. The title refers to my wife’s nickname for me, as well as my daughter’s first and middle names Kenza Aurélie, which translate in Arabic and French respectively as “treasure” and “golden.”

Happy birthday, dear Za!

Composed 2012
Recorded 2013-2014, Roland digital piano direct to file

Photos by Nehal El-Hadi

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2014

III. Biology (Linea Nigra)

This year I was reunited over long distance with my biological mother.

After 45 years of no contact at all with any birth relatives, no knowledge of their whereabouts or identities, I was able to return from the left-for-dead (tactfully, not on Easter weekend).

It has always seemed important to me, since before there was an internet to compound errors in judgement, that I remain mindful of my position as a person who identifies as an adoptee with respect to the privacy of my birth family. It is certainly not a position I would expect any other adoptee to take up; it is a personal principle based on my circumstances.

Last spring I was in a music rehearsal for a fundraiser for a friend. A few short weeks earlier I’d taken up the online offer of a search angel, herself an adoptee reunited decades ago, and provided her with birth information I had obtained through the Children’s Aid Society and the Ontario government, which included identifying data made available by recent legislation. And 45 years into the long set of moves that proceeded this one, I put the search the back of my mind and focused outward.

During a break in rehearsal I checked my phone. There was a text and an email. Not only did my phone now know this new thing about me that I did not yet; in its cache was a virtual person with a bio, history, website, media coverage, posted images, and social networking accounts. And one unfortunate pocket tap could have messed things up quick.

Fortunately, the woman who helped me was extremely experienced in dealing with all of this. Her passion for it, working out of one corner of her own very busy life, was apparent. I am thankful for her.

But hold on, I was a few minutes away from going back to singing and playing music as the guy who was suddenly a previous update of me, who had known nothing about this one primal relationship. I have an adoptive mother who raised me, and we have a strong and continuous bond. And now I also had a new backstory. Which included evidence of my bio mother’s formidable and still active career in music.

Among other attainments, she once performed in a premiere by an iconic composer at the opening of a legendary venue. She had supported herself most of her long life as a musician. And at what would be retirement age for many, she had recorded a CD of virtuoso material she was still well in command of. She was in the process of completing a new academic degree. She was also a great grandparent.

I went back to singing and playing that afternoon and being the guy, secretly updated. I told only family and one or two friends. I still had to find out whether there would be actual contact.

And there has been. The process was slow at first, and I can only imagine how frightening it might have been for her for me to suddenly come forward. She trusted — with some vouching for — that I would not be indiscreet or invade her privacy.

She called me on a weekday morning, when I’d inexplicably delayed leaving for work. We spoke for exactly ten minutes. We spoke nervously and quickly, sometimes overlapping. I asked her if she was well and she said yes; I took great comfort in this one exchange. She took my address. I didn’t go into work afterward.

My wife thinks things may happen inexplicably but not without a reason. My paraphrase.

I had sought a quiet place to take the call and found myself in my older daughter’s room, the child who had been my first introduction to a blood relative. Afterwards I was numb on a whole new level. Still, I buried my face deeply in the covers of a bed I was too long for and had to curl up to fit on, silently cried and whispered thanks.

She told me she had tried to locate my biological father after hearing from me. It had been many years and she was unsuccessful. She told me his name and that he was from Detroit. That she had been pregnant with me while she lived in Ethiopia. They were both musicians, who played together professionally.

She promptly sent a letter, her CD and recent photos. She looked young for someone of her years, and beautiful. Eventually, after months, I reciprocated. She was positive about my music which was affirming. I was in awe of her talent and a little dumbstruck. We have spoken again since, once on the anniversary of the March on Washington.

We joked about Auto-Tune as fellow musicians, that was trippy. Even trippier was seeing her name automatically appear in my iTunes. Update indeed.

I am content to let things transpire slowly and naturally. I don’t have any particular expectation leading from the revelation and initial contact. I do have joy around it. What I want to have always is awareness and above all compassion.

It has been a year of origin stories. A genomics service to which I subscribe has also mapped out new countries of ancestry for my black side: Haïti and Jamaica. So I would also come to know a little more about my father after all.

I’m grateful to my wife for her support, and sometimes worry, during this process.

Alhamdulillah.

I Am Somewhere

For most of my life, I have been someone who was for the most part visibly, identifiably mixed race black, but lacking any other evidence of my ethnicity — biological relatives, genealogy, language, cultural items or history — beyond an adoption file that listed me as “Negroid.” I had no roots.

I knew that my white heritage was English and Irish. Unlike black peers who have often been asked where they were really from and to protect their dignity might simply answer “here,” I didn’t even have somewhere to refer back to had I chosen to disclose. Beyond being racialized, I was/from nowhere.

This year, I made contact with a birth relative, learning more about my background in the process. At the same time, an app on a genomics site pointed to Haïti and Jamaica as my countries of ancestral origin [update: Cuba, the Bahamas, Italy and Nigeria are listed, too, in addition to my birth and parental roots in Canada, the UK and the USA]. The plot only seemed to thicken during 2013.

With this theme in mind, the title of the piece is a reference to the poem “I Am – Somebody” written in the 1950s by Reverend William H. Borders, Sr. and widely popularized by Jesse Jackson.


There is a procedural approach to harmony, with root-progression clusters moving in parallel, alternating diatonic, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales. The music has nothing to do with the subject per se, but seems to fit with it terms of weight, density and tone. It is a reflection of my frame of mind during these developments. Some sense of mystery is present.

Composed August 2013, recorded October
Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

II. Sociology (Negroid)

This is my order, redacted. Me in a page, outlines obscured.

Adoption Order redacted 24Dec13
I have written before about being inside white culture, and outside black, as a young transracial adoptee. About feelings of isolation leading to a suicidally depressed period. About seeing myself identified on generalized adoption records as “Negroid.”

I’ve written about the joy I feel now many years later, reflecting back on earlier struggles with some wisdom of experience (albeit self-proclaimed), and gratitude.

I don’t know if I feel like I’ve ever actually entered black culture, if I belong to it, after twenty-seven years in the city, but to know it was here and to know something of what it might be in relation to me is enough. I will always feel parenthetical, which is a kind of belonging. And more recently, the identity revision of personal genomics is yet another kind: now I can say with some conviction that I have island roots.

My early childhood is sometimes stored more in memories of moods and sensations than anything else. My mother says at Christmas I would get depressed, and wonder aloud why my biological mother had not sent me anything, not even a card or letter. It was a time of closed adoptions so such a thing was highly unlikely. There are a few square-frame, long-faced holiday photos which survive, along with photos of adopted nuclear contentment.

It was somehow anticlimactic when, after forty years of generally not expecting anything, a letter arrived. From her. Last week. It added a geographical connection with Ethiopia to these narratives. It spoke to how there is always a return.

After all that time, this year I was suddenly adoptee, full circle. And suddenly something of an immigrant in all but birth. The letter wasn’t the first one, but it arrived around the time of my second daughter’s first birthday and near Christmas. I don’t connect with the holiday the way I did in my youth but the significance, coincidental, wasn’t lost.

Over a decade ago, I received non-identifying information including an oral history from my birth mother. Not just a narrative but a story. Five years ago, new legislation allowed me to obtain the long form birth certificate containing my biological parents names. Or one, at least. Two years ago a search angel, herself an adoptee, found my profile in an adoption group on social media and offered to help. My life had been so busy I missed her email for over a year. Within days of putting that one name forward, a person came back.

Being a parent, to at last be in the presence of beings whose biological continuity I shared, is somewhat magical. Add to that a new sense of fulfillment through the potential to extend our shared line further back in time, locate ourselves elsewhere on the map.

Thanks to my wife Nehal El-Hadi for helping me put this post together.

I. Pathology (Black Mood)

It’s the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” It is a media event but more importantly a reminder and celebration of the prime meridian on the map, so to speak, of our era. In an age of spectacular technological innovations and creative visions, these words still define us. We strive to define them.

It’s another anniversary for me, though not one I’ve ever made note of before. Thirty summers ago as a teen I had a suicidal episode (the most dramatic of several that year) that led to a series of stays in hospital wards, concluding in what was then called a sanitarium.

Admission Note

By swallowing 54 pain relief pills, I handily gained two numbers in the DSM: neurotic depression #300.4, and schizoid personality disorder of adolescence #301.2. An all too common trope, although I wouldn’t know about those now nearly meaningless numbers until many years later. I was lucky that I was a lightweight when it came to staring into the abyss. After subsequent precarious situations, I eventually admitted it wasn’t my time.

Is it trite, trivializing, for me to suggest a connection between my turbulent youth and one of history’s greatest scenes? Like King’s speech, my break was a singular event, the memory of which continues to provide focus for me. I had been the good son, a successful salvage by white society from a life of sure abjection among any potential black kin I might otherwise have been adopted by. An infant, only weeks after King’s death. I cannot but help see myself as a reflection or a result of that profound legacy; this is just personal experience. To say nothing of my biological parents’ experience, which will never be mine.

I frayed around the edges at puberty after an early career in scholastic excellence and socially isolated nerdery. Random anecdote: one teacher, despite me having been his top math and science student, saw me perform in a talent show and later proclaimed, “You’re bound to be the next Harry Belafonte!” That spoke to the visibility of lighter skin (mine), and the assumed invisibility of shadeism in Canada, a nuance I would miss then.

Every report card comment could have been summed up thusly: “a novel presence until becoming difficult,” though I wouldn’t necessarily let you know just when “difficult” had arrived. After a sheltered but sometimes sad childhood, I kept my observations largely to myself. I was fed up with the experience of constant scrutiny and sought to avoid it; when I couldn’t keep silent or “normal” any more I drew scrutiny and rumour in around me through catharsis.

There was a lot to sort out in my childhood that never really got sorted until much later, and which probably continues to get sorted. After my attempt and for months surrounding it, after I had headed both literally and figuratively for the belfry in our community church, adults and peers around me struggled to identify what had gone wrong.

Racism seemed obvious; one problem, no one had talked about race at all ever in my universe and I was not about to start talking on everyone’s behalf. Adoption issues as well seemed likely, though it was early in the process of understanding what those might be in the context, the great social experiment of closed transracial adoptions. And there was always just blaming my family for not being the Brady Bunch or the Drummonds of Diff’rent Strokes. Didn’t want to talk to that either.

The warm glow that the promise of King’s appeal and the March had created undoubtedly inspired my adoptive parents in their plan to have a multiracial family, but as with civil rights in the aftermath of King’s assassination, there was little momentum for sudden transformations of reality as it related to history. There was trauma written into my physical, psychic and cultural being, paradox as existence. A lineage of negation.

It was far easier to dismiss a few small town rednecks than to critique the “raised white with a tan” narrative I grew up in. Yes, some folks tried to kick my ass a few times, but it was mental and emotional aggression, the violence of being isolated and ostensibly deracialized, which did more damage than a sucker punch.

My suicide period spotlit but did not dominate my adolescence. Despite others’ attempts at compulsory pathologizing and guilt-based religious moralizing, I would learn my own coping/dealing strategies (as always, as the outsider) and move on from any potential career in institutionalization – at least of an expressly psychiatric designation.

I found music, something I knew I had some curiosity about and perhaps some small ability in, and then suddenly learned was something shared with my biological parents, both professional musicians. Perhaps it began as distraction, therapy; it became a core dimension of my person, an acknowledged gift even though I kept it somewhat protected from the world by not becoming a full-time musician myself.

Mine is the kind of story that people living with far more serious and overwhelming states of emotional and mental distress don’t need to hear, with its potentially dismissive “I got over that phase of ennui” quality. Yet I consider myself having survived my entire childhood as much as that interval of hyperbolic grief. In a lot of ways the latter woke me up to who I was, already that survivor. One year older than Emmett Till, with a responsibility to prevail and stay woke.

Life in these years is unquestionably, fully great, slowly built. I have struggled now and again with rumination especially around transition points or traumatic moments, it’s part of the expected landscape. I feel fortunate in that the initial deep depression resonates through the years like a tuning note; if it were clinical at all, it is not chronic nor overly present as the years pass. I can’t deny feeling more anchored than ever in a growing, loving family I am blessed to be a part of. I’ve lived to be able to share in the dream for our daughters, and there’s much more living to do, Insha’Allah.

“. . . We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics [and Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, Sikhs, Buddhists, Shintoists, Yoruba, Rastas, Pagans, secular humanists…], will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

Up on Garrison Creek

July 2001, early morning. I pass through an intersection in a quiet neighbourhood and walk along a street that appears impossibly green, even for Toronto. As I look in all four directions I see no one else. The light is golden, the air still cool and I have a rare unobstructed view into the distances. I am about to begin a new chapter. There’s a lot of fear but this moment is breaking it up. This corner of stolen land or what is built upon it seems briefly mine.

November 2011, mid morning. I reach that same intersection in a busy neighbourhood, to view the apartment home that my wife, children and I will live in. The corner is bustling. Much has changed here in a decade, in my own life to an almost unfathomable degree. Spiritually it feels like coming home; mentally the years are a discarded anchor; physically this is only a brief resting place.

July 2013, late evening. I stand on our balcony, staring out at the intersection. Always that. The year is barely half over, and already it has seen almost as much change as the dozen just passed. Change that flows out of the natural course of things, and sudden, surprising change. It’s not all good, it just is. Love is more difficult, but deeper. Ideals are more firmly grounded, less rosy. But dreams don’t die.

Halfway mark, insha’Allah.