by Francesca T. Royster
Abrams Press, 2023; 288 pp., $26.00Buy Book
In Francesca T. Royster’s heartwarming memoir, Choosing Family: A Memoir of Queer Black Motherhood and Black Resistance, she recounts her journey of adopting a Black baby girl with her wife in middle age. The path to becoming a mother leads her to reexamine the foundations of love and home in her life as she prepares to welcome a child into it. More than an adoptive parent’s narrative, this book is an homage to the ways Black and queer people have constructed chosen families throughout their existence in America.
Choosing Family is divided into five parts that cover Royster’s life before the adoption, the early years of becoming a family, and the subsequent, tumultuous years of raising a young Black girl during the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is interspersed with vivid vignettes from the author’s life and letters addressed to her loved ones, contributing to the sense that Choosing Family, overall, constitutes a love letter to the community that holds her. Describing a childhood road trip with her father, Royster writes:
[I] reveled in the beams of attention I soaked in from my father when it was my turn to sit in the front seat, listening to the mixtapes that he made for each of us, cracking and feeding him pistachios until my fingers were salted and flamingo pink with the dye.
With warmth and humor, Royster shares the love story of how she met and eventually married her longtime partner and spouse, fellow academic Ann Russo, who is white. Most of the book’s tension and introspection occurs in the timeframe when they are waiting for approval to adopt. The women get stuck wondering how to portray themselves in their adoption profiles, asking, “Should we sweeten the story that we’re telling about ourselves—posting our most flattering, youngest-looking photos? Or do we present ourselves as we really are, loveable warts and all?” The process requires them to be cognizant “that [adopting as a queer, mixed-race couple] could be a bumpy road, with hidden rejections and tensions, bringing up issues of sexuality, class, and respectability.” For Royster, impending motherhood does not only entail setting up a nursery or stockpiling diapers but also examining how her family origins and life as a queer young woman shaped her.
The book expertly carries the weight of its dual subtitle, meeting at the intersection of race and sexuality. First, Royster extends an evocation to her foremothers—Black women of Chicago and Tennessee—who taught her in various ways what it means to offer hearth and home to others. As part of her spiritual practice, she says, “When I call on my mothers, one part in memory, one part in prayer, I find affinity with the Yoruba religious tradition of the orishas, the spiritual deities who are intermediaries between the human and the divine.” African-centered spiritual practice and ancestor veneration help her “understand whom I come from and what kind of mother I want to be.” The early, limpid chapters are pools of reflection after a poured libation. Royster turns a queer lens onto her own family history, employing queer theory and artmaking to demonstrate that those outside the margins of society have always been, as Chicago’s own Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, each other’s harvest, business, magnitude, and bond.
Royster also spends a considerable amount of energy laying out her foundations in queer family-making. Although she is not religious, she describes her and Ann Russo’s decision to adopt as an act of faith powered by belief in other people, in community, and in each other. At its heart, Choosing Family is a work of radical imagination centered on the act of establishing a queer family as a vital institution. It is world-building at the level of human connection. “Through the nurturing of one small life,” Royster writes, “we’re also putting in the world a model we think the world needs: to care for one another, to see one another fully, to connect, to feed our imaginations with new stories.”
Adoption is at the center of this story, but the institution itself does not receive the full attention of the author’s scrutiny. Elsewhere in the book, Royster’s introspective discussions of class, privilege, and reproductive justice illuminate her personal story, and she delicately probes her positioning as a middle-class professor living in Chicago. But this lens is missing a tense from Royster’s adoption narrative. When her child’s birth mother, noted as “K,” nearly reconsiders the adoption after her family promises support, the lack of resources that often precipitates adoption becomes clear. However, Royster centers the story on her anxiety as a potential adoptive parent instead of exploring the complexities of K’s situation. Even though she and her spouse chose an agency that facilitates open adoption of African-American children, she acknowledges that “adoption is both a coming together and a rupture,” with the breaking point between the biological family and the child.
Notably, Choosing Family pushes back against assumptions that the conventional modes of making a family, including a house, spouse, and child(ren), are in opposition to what Royster calls the “contrariness and unconventionality” courted by queer folks. One of her central arguments is that the traditional, too, can be queered and refashioned. She writes, “We are rewriting the story, claiming the joy that others . . . said wasn’t meant to be ours.” In this way, choosing family and making a family are also powerful acts of agency and reclamation.
It could be tempting to position herself as a mother like any other, especially in defense of the decision to create a family as a Black, queer woman, but the strength of this book is in the author’s clear-eyed acceptance of her differences. The result is a refreshing discussion about what it looks like for women to pursue motherhood in middle age: yes, the joys, but also the aches and pains. Royster can’t always run around with her toddler because her back hurts at times. Her wife, Ann, wears hearing aids; the family must adjust and not yell between rooms. As a Black woman who is hard of hearing, this disability-inclusive narrative about raising empathetic children resonated with me, mirroring scenes in my own family. Vulnerable details such as these provide a perspective of the risks—and rewards—that come when we bring our whole selves to parenthood.
As she writes about contemporary times, Royster confronts the reality of a Black lesbian raising a Black daughter in a post-Roe, post-George Floyd, anti-queer political landscape. The throughline of Black resistance echoes from her foremothers to the author herself. She does not march in protest, but the private sphere is, too, a frontline. Her immediate means of contending with racism is to create a home, a “queer world” of safety, where her daughter can thrive, not just survive.
Choosing Family offers itself as a valuable contribution to stories about both Black and queer mothers. It insightfully shows how the communities that make us inform the ways we mother our children. You might open this book expecting a happily-ever-after about adoption, and Royster certainly shares plenty of its joys. But you will come away from its gentle, reflective prose with a thoughtful contemplation of what it means to choose motherhood, to honor your whole self, and to embrace the complex fullness of the life you create.