Black kids in Mennonite families bridge 2 worlds

By Carolyn Davis

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

One evening, the twins and Ruth were preparing dinner. "Janelle, du wenig mei nei." Put in a little more, Ruth said, and Janelle added baked beans to the spaghetti soup.

Before dinner, the girls went to a market owned by the family of some friends. The friends, two white sisters, and the twins instantly smiled when they saw each other, and all four began chattering and giggling.

Janelle and Jasmine were the only black children at school, which didn't bother them.

"We had each other," Janelle said.

"Everyone was used to seeing us," said Jasmine, so no one treated them differently.

"I seem like everyone else. I don't think about it," she said, "I just think about having friends."

The Newswangers tried to be race-sensitive as they raised the two — they gave them black dolls and books with African Americans pictured in them. A black woman who lived in the area befriended the girls, Ruth said. They see other African American children who live with Mennonite families at church and social gatherings, and they keep in touch with their birth family.

The sisters described one visit about seven years ago, when hair styles entangled their two worlds during a visit with their grandmother, aunt and two half-sisters.

Jasmine and Janelle normally wear their hair pulled back in a bun, common among Mennonite women. Their Philadelphia aunt braided their hair into tight cornrows.

"They thought it would be fun," Janelle said.

It wasn't fun. It hurt.

What's most important to the twins' biological grandmother, Margaret Garris of West Philadelphia, is not their hair style.

"They are happy and healthy," Garris said. "That's the main thing."

Garris talks regularly over the phone with her granddaughters and sees them once or twice a year. The girls know about their African American culture because they know their birth family, she said, adding that one of their half-sisters talks to them about black history.

Still, Janelle and Jasmine know little about slavery or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His name is familiar, they said, though they know nothing about him.

The twins do not see black history as relevant.

"To our own life?" Jasmine asked. "No, I don't think so."

They said they had not felt prejudice themselves, and they chuckled about how their young nephew asked whether their arms were brown because they were left in the oven too long — a connection he made based on what happens when cookie dough is overbaked.

The girls' limited grasp of African American history does not overly worry Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice: "There's a general lack of knowledge about the civil rights movement whether you're black, white or green."

But their happiness is a good sign. Research shows it is developmentally healthier for children to be in permanent homes as soon as possible, he said, no matter the race of the family.

"It is important for a child to be able to know he or she has someone who will be there for him or her in an unqualified relationship."

The girls feel that way about their Mennonite family.

Asked whether they loved their birth mother, they hesitantly said they did, explaining, "We're supposed to like everyone."

Do they love Ruth? Immediately, the twins enthusiastically nodded yes.

A white Mennonite family can raise a healthy black child, said Toni Oliver, vice president of the National Association of Black Social Workers. But race does matter in America.

"We make decisions about people's value and capabilities based on race."