Hannah Arendt Center Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason writes about the poet Shane McCrae, who at the age of three was kidnapped by his white grandparents and raised separately from his black father. Mason writes:
“The weird thing about growing up kidnapped,” Shane McCrae, the 47-year-old American poet, told me in his melodious, reedy voice one rainy afternoon in May, “is if it happens early enough, there’s a way in which you kind of don’t know.”
There was no reason for McCrae to have known. What unfolded in McCrae’s childhood — between a June day in 1979 when his white grandmother took him from his Black father and disappeared, and another day, 13 years later, when McCrae opened a phone book in Salem, Ore., found a name he hoped was his father’s and placed a call — is both an unambiguous story of abduction and a convoluted story of complicity. It loops through the American landscape, from Oregon to Texas to California to Oregon again, and, even now, wends through the vaster emotional country of a child and his parents. And because so much of what happened to McCrae happened in homes where he was beaten and lied to and threatened, where he was made to understand that Black people were inferior to whites, where he was taught to hail Hitler, where he was told that his dark skin meant he tanned easily but, no, not that he was Black, it’s a story that’s been hard for McCrae to piece together.
“My grandparents,” McCrae explained in a somewhat gloomy, book-laden office at Columbia University, where he teaches poetry in its M.F.A. program, “were so actively keeping my father away from me — they didn’t want me to investigate him at all — it was just normal.” Normal, McCrae explained, because the story he had been told by his grandparents was that McCrae’s father, whose name he didn’t even know, abandoned him before he was born. “They had been doing it my whole life,” McCrae said matter-of-factly. “I didn’t think of it as, Oh, this is pretty strange.”
McCrae paused. “The aftereffects of all that,” he continued, “it took me until — to really understand that I had been a kidnapped child — probably my early 40s when it finally started to make sense and I really got it, and I was like, Oh, this is a big deal. I had used the phrase before — ‘growing up kidnapped’ — but somehow used it without it really sinking in. It was a thing that I was aware of as, This is technically true, but without really understanding what that means.”