What About Love?

March 24, 1995|By LEONARD PITTS Jr.

Miami -- Sitting in the darkness of the multiplex, I watched the white social worker and the black recovering addict battle over the black child they both call their son. I watched ''Losing Isaiah'' and, in the subtext of its nearly flawless script, heard the questions I would have asked:

''You say you want to raise this black child, white lady?

''What about those things he needs to know that you can't teach? Things you won't find in a book. He needs to know that the nappy hair at the nape of the neck is called the kitchen. Needs to know about the shiver that travels the spine when the sisters in the Amen corner get to moaning and shouting. Needs (( to know a few good lines for playing the dozens and the way black women move their necks when they're about to tell you off.

''He needs to know who he is.''

''But what about love?''

That's actress Jessica Lange's helpless rejoinder. It's the pivot upon which the whole thing turns, finally uniting two dissimilar women. What about love?

What about the black junkie mother who bore, suckled and loved her little black boy, even as she abandoned him in the search for one more good high? What about how she cleaned herself up, tortured herself with the knowledge of the awful thing she had done and set out with ferocious intensity to reclaim her child?

And, yes, what about the white adoptive mother who raised and taught and loved her little black boy? What about the pain she felt when some stranger stepped between them, trying to rip her baby away?

As a woman on CNN put it last week: What do you do when no one is wrong?

When ''Losing Isaiah'' reached my desk as a novel months ago, I refused to open it. I told myself I had no time for weepy melodrama. I told myself it was probably just another slur on black motherhood. I told myself everything but the truth: I didn't read ''Losing Isaiah'' because it voiced troubling questions, and I had no ready answers.

I think of the black people I've known who were raised in isolation from their community. Talking with them always makes me sad. They seem like ghost ships, untethered by heritage, undirected by legacy, adrift in black America with no way to read the seas, no understanding of the signs.

I also distrusted ''Isaiah'' because the media have never done a good job of illuminating this issue. Recall two odious '70s sitcoms, ''Diff'rent Strokes'' and ''Webster.'' As the adoptive black sons of affluent white families, diminutive actors Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis seemed more like pets than people. Their shows gave me the creeps.

''Black babies belong with black mothers!'' thunders Samuel L. Jackson as the lawyer representing Halle Berry, the black

mother in ''Losing Isaiah.'' It is a moment of stunning clarity and searing righteousness, a moment when you want to jump up and shout approbation at the screen.

But for all that, just a moment. And it doesn't answer the question: What about love?

Both his mothers love Isaiah. So perhaps you're tempted to solve the conundrum by asking whose claim is the most just, whose love is the most righteous.

That's a blind alley. Love serves a truth even higher than righteousness.

I won't tell you which woman loses Isaiah. I will tell you that the movie made me rethink what I thought I knew about white families and black babies. Reminded me that sometimes letting go is the act of greatest caring. Redirected me to those higher-than-righteousness truths.

Yes, black babies belong with black mothers. And there are things those babies need to know that a white woman can't teach. But above those very real concerns hovers the troubling question that softens the abstract, humanizes the polemic and ultimately makes us greater than the sum of race and condition.

What about love?

B6 Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.