"If Madonna had to depend on masses of black women to maintain her status as cultural icon she would have been dethroned some time ago."
--bell hooks, "Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister" in Black Looks: Race and Representation
Madonna has been called both a feminist icon and a post-feminist icon, but count me among the "masses of black women" bell hooks wrote about; I don't consider her an icon of anything but genius-level reinvention and self-promotion.
Don't get me wrong: there's more than one Madonna hit on the soundtrack of my life as a teenager in the '80s. But I never drank the "Madonna = empowerment" Kool-Aid. Back then, my friends and I didn't go around talking about "cultural appropriation" or "the fetishization of race." So if I had to guess at why we failed to adopt Madonna as our icon, it was because, frankly, ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby. Whitney had superior vocal chops; Janet ruled the dance floor. When Grace Jones reigned as the queen of gender-bending and subversion of sexual convention, she set trends in popular culture and subcultures--she didn't appropriate them.
As an adult, my response to talk of Madonna as a symbol of female empowerment is, "Empowering to whom?" Certainly not to the black and brown people populating her Sex book, her videos, or her film Truth or Dare. It is through this lens of Madonna's messy racial and sexual politics that I viewed her adoption of a child from Malawi three years ago, and her recent, thus-far-unsuccessful effort to adopt a second child there.
As an adoptive mom myself, I've watched with interest as the Will-Madonna-Be-Allowed-to-Adopt-Little-Mercy? drama unfolded. I don't think her application to adopt should have been denied on the grounds of her being single (as at least one source has reported), but I do share the Judge Esme Chombo's concerns about child trafficking as expressed in her ruling:
...Judge Chombo addressed concerns among rights groups that Malawi's
courts could inadvertently expose the nation's children to the threat
of human traffickers.
"The issue of residence, I find, is the key upon which the question
of adoption rests, and it is the very bedrock of protection that our
children need; it must, therefore, not be tampered with," Judge Chombo
In other words, not every "orphan" is really an orphan and having a residency requirement (at least 18 months, in Malawi) helps impede would-be child traffickers. The Malawian judge granting Madonna's 2006 adoption of her son, David Banda, waived the residency requirement. Judge Chombo wasn't so inclined:
"Residence denotes some degree of permanence. It does not
necessarily mean the applicant has a settled headquarters in this
country," she said. "It seems dangerous to try to define what is meant
by residence. In the present case, I can only answer that question in
the case of (Madonna) by holding that she is not resident in this
"She is merely a sojourner here during a period of leave.
"Ms Madonna may not be the only international person interested in
adopting the so-called poor children of Malawi. By removing the very
safeguard that is supposed to protect our children, the courts by their
pronouncements could actually facilitate trafficking of children by
some unscrupulous individuals who would take advantage of the weakness
of the law.
"Anyone could come to Malawi and quickly arrange for an adoption
that might have grave consequences on the very children the law seeks
"As I make the order, I am acutely aware of the high expectations
that the family of CJ (Chifundo "Mercy" James), and possibly other
independent wellwishers, had about the unlimited opportunities that the
proposed adoption would avail CJ.
"I have no doubt that all hope is not lost with the petitioner's
noble and immediate ideas of investing in the improvement of more
children's lives in Malawi.
"It is my prayer that CJ would be among the first children to
benefit from that project...
In 2006, in conjunction with the Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles, Madonna co-founded a
nonprofit group, Raising Malawi, to bring "an end to the extreme poverty and hardship endured by Malawi's 2 million orphans and vulnerable children." She made a documentary, "I Am Because We Are," to raise awareness of poverty, AIDS and other diseases affecting Malawian children.
We can speculate on Madonna's motives--Is she sincere, or are the adoption efforts merely Kabbalah-inspired charity? Is she competing with Angelina? Is she using her money and celebrity to buy black children, the ultimate act of appropriation of blackness?--but who really knows? I am, at best, skeptical, given her history.
On various blog and news sites, I've read several comments suggesting that whatever Madonna's motives and regardless of the rules, she should be allowed to adopt because she can give Mercy a good life. It's a sad day when a child's only choices are life in an orphanage or life with a mother who admits to exploiting nonwhite and gay people in her employ, considering them "emotional cripples" to whom she is a mother-figure.
As Carmen VanKerckhove points out over at AntiRacistParent, an American conversation about race and adoption is long overdue; Madonna's racial politics are but the tip of the iceberg, and not even a very important one, in the grand scheme of things. But maybe, just maybe, Madonna's headlines can serve as a springboard to change that would make a real difference in the lives of children. Peep Roland Martin's call to action on behalf of kids caught up in America's foster care system.
One thing for certain, somebody (or somebodies) really screwed up on little Mercy's behalf. As evidenced by photos like the one above, Mercy had spent time with Madonna and her children, and she reportedly had been taken away from the orphanage to a luxury hotel near Lilongwe, where Madonna stayed while in the country. Apparently, Madonna had been told that the adoption would be a go. I shudder to think that Mercy had been told this as well--only to be returned to the orphanage.
Madonna will appeal Judge Chombo's ruling. I hope that, going forward, whether the adoption is granted or not, everyone involved will do a better job of protecting little Mercy, putting her best interests above all else.