Guest Post: Every Child is Legitimate

Today’s Guest Post is from Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow, Leaving Atlanta, and The Untelling:


Tabloid-style headlines have made much of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thirteen year old son, born to a woman not his wife. But while the pundits and blogosphere are caught up with the adults in this story, the person who will suffer most from this scandal is the person who has suffered the most already: the thirteen year old boy caught in the middle.

I know, it’s a sensational story: you can’t make this stuff up. Except you can – I just spent the past five years working on a novel about these very themes and, unlike most of the people offering commentary, I’ve been thinking about this for years, not just a few days. Even before my novel was published, I received dozens of letters from people who called themselves “silver sparrows”– the title of my book. I believe they like the name because it is, at last, a loving description of their circumstances. (“Sparrow” is a nod to the hymn that says God’s eye is on us all, even the humble sparrow.) One woman explained that she read the obituaries each week in fear that her father had died and the newspaper is the only way that she would receive the news. Another expressed her grief at hearing her sister described as an “only child.” They approach me at book signings, at lectures, and on-line. We cannot underestimate the damage done to the psyche of a child who is told that he must never admit his father’s name.

So instead of advice to Maria, or a condemnation of the former governor, I’d like to address a few words to the boy at the heart of this controversy:

Young man,

Now we know you’re here. And you know what? While many in the media will look at you merely of proof of your biological father’s hypocrisy, I am writing you to tell you that it’s a good thing that you were born. Every child is blessing. Every child is a human being. Your birth may have been unplanned and the circumstances of your birth may be embarrassing to your parents, but know this– you are not a mistake. You are a thirteen-year-old boy, a legitimate human being.

To protect your privacy, your name has been withheld and you face blurred in the grainy photos splashed on the covers of magazines, but I wish I could see your eyes or that I could call you by your given name. Removing your features, the physical characteristics that make you who you are, allows the world to lose track of the face that you are not only a “love child.” You are twelve year old boy, a legitimate human being.

You are too young to know this, but this country has come a long way in accepting children whose parents are not married. In the 1950s “unwed mother” was so pejorative that it was almost a curse, and girls were sent away to institutions where they were mistreated and abused. Babies were torn from their young, unmarried mothers and given away for adoption by married couples. The scars from that shameful period in our history have yet to heal.

But still, we have yet to figure out a way to deal with children like you– the child of a man who is married to someone who is not your mother. The discussions I have overheard in real life and on line have made me shudder. Although some are more polite than others, it’s clear that many people’s judgment of your parents is placed squarely on your young shoulders. Even though this is 2011 and the president of our country was born to an unmarried mother, people still use the word “illegitimate.”

Please do not ever think of yourself this way. For reasons of their own, your parents have chosen to rear you in the shadows. The media may cast you as your father’s dirty secret. But no, you are not a secret.  And of course, not dirty. You are a thirteen-year-old boy, a legitimate human being.

Your father issued a statement saying that he had apologized to his “children.” It must hurt to see that you are not included in that embrace. Please know that the shame is on him, not on you. And know that I pity him for missing out on the chance to be a real father to you.

In the south, where I grew up, people whispered about “outside” children and in many sad ways the term is accurate. Children born outside a man’s marriage are often locked outside his household and locked outside of polite society. You don’t deserve to wear any label of shame. It is my hope that in my lifetime we retire words like “illegitimate” and even prettier expressions like “love child.” I hope that the world will see you for what you are— a thirteen-year old boy, a legitimate human being.

Follow Tayari Jones on twitter: @tayari

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