“Red Light-Stop!” is a self-reflexive interdisciplinary video essay that melds ethnographic interviews, digital storytelling, original music, and critical intersectional analyses of race, gender, class, sexuality, and family to explore genealogies of reproductive injustice for women and families defined outside the lines of “legitimate” family structures. This work is grounded in interdisciplinary ethnographic research with over 100 lesbian mothers of a broad range of races and ethnicities, living in a range of U.S. states with contrasting laws. Drawing on our own experiences as an interracial lesbian couple with children, alongside a contemporary interview narrative and an historical consideration of “single” Black mothers, we map complex intersections of lived experience, family law and policy, and public narratives about family and legitimate citizenship. In this mélange of ethnography, documentary, cultural critique, and hip-hop, welfare workers’ comments become fodder for social critique, and the voices of queer mamas of color read, resist, and redefine family, equality, and citizenship. This exploration of reproductive justice is part of a larger ethnographic project on lesbian family-making that will result in a documentary video, Red Light, Green Light: Family Values, Family Pride and a cross-over academic book, Sophie Has Five Mothers: Lesbian Family-Making and the Rights of Citizenship.
Watch the video:
(note: the last minute and a half of the film includes vintage home-movie footage that flickers with a strobe-like effect.)
Sandra Patton-Imani is an Associate Professor of American Studies at Drake University, where she teaches Women’s Studies, Anthropology, and Sociology. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. from University of Maryland at College Park in American Studies with a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies. She is a former postdoctoral fellow at the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School. She earned a B.A. in Radio/TV/ Film and American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of BirthMarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America, New York University Press 2000, as well as numerous scholarly articles on adoption, race, gender, class, sexuality, and family. She is currently completing a cross-over academic book, Sophie Has Five Mothers: Lesbian Family-Making and the Rights of Citizenship, and collaborating on a documentary video, Red Light, Green Light: Family Values, Family Pride.
Melanie Patton-Imani is an independent multimedia artist with a background in radio production, voice work, and documentary writing. She has worked as a producer for KSTP Talk Radio and Minnesota Public Radio in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She worked as a consultant and documentary writer for Saint Paul Public Schools Education Television. She also founded a non-profit organization, Shapeshifter Development, focused on the intersection of green/sustainable housing and affordable homes for people experiencing poverty. She is currently completing, in collaboration with Sandra Patton-Imani, Red Light, Green Light: Family Values, Family Pride, an interdisciplinary multimedia video project melding original hip-hop music, ethnographic interviews with lesbian mothers across a broad range of races and ethnicities, and critical cultural analysis. She is dedicated to using music, art, and video to challenge power relations and promote social justice.
Transcript and description of video (image descriptions were not written by the filmmakers and are necessarily subjective; apologies for any errors)
[Female-sounding voice speaks over a montage of family pictures, genealogical websites, family trees.]
The genealogy website I joined didn’t let me
list my wife, unless I listed myself as husband
Or put one of us in the father category for our children.
No space for adoptees here either.
I spent ages trying to figure out a way
To represent having more than one set of parents.
[A split screen shows two mid-twentieth-century photos of white heterosexual couples on their wedding days].
I try adding my half-biological siblings
And sneaking my birth parents
In through the back door.
We are not legible here.
[Montage of family images with hand-drawn map featuring Native American place names.]
This self-reflexive exploration of family-making
At the intersection of legitimacy and power
draws on ethnographic research with over 100 lesbian mothers
Across a broad range of racial-ethnic identities.
[Title with red stop light image in background]: Red Light-Stop! Genealogies of Reproductive In/justice by Sandra Patton-Imani and Melanie Patton-Imani
[A female-sounding voice raps over a montage of video footage showing queer interracial families: parents and children at the beach, at Pride, on their sofas, at events]
Strangers like to get
all up in our faces
Askin’ how we got our kids
or what their race is.
Hetero-sex does not define
the realness of our kin.
Biology has never been
the only key to origin.
Public stories call us illegit
Not natural they claim
The scaffolding of power
Hides itself and rigs the game–
[Still images of electrical fuses, a historical image of a white man standing by a stop light, a State of Iowa marriage certificate]
[Image of a US birth certificate fades to zoom in on a stop light at an intersection, with the sign TURNING TRAFFIC MUST YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS]
[Montage of a short-haired, androgynous, white-appearing woman touching her short-haired, androgynous, white-appearing partner’s pregnant belly; storks; black and white picture of man with microscope, children]
Kids come into families
in lots of different ways
Birth, adoption, step-parents,
surrogate fertility craze
One side of public stories
says queer parents are just wrong
boys need a father figure
and the girls a femmy mom.
Critiques of wealthy moms and queer moms sound the same
The scaffolding of power
Hides itself and rigs the game–
[a ONE WAY sign fades to the image of a government building, on which a black and white image of a young white boy in a sailor suit is superimposed]
[A woman police officer under an umbrella; children playing; a sign reading “adopted with love”]
[Rapping continues over images of lesbian families marrying in Iowa: marriage licences, formally dressed white-appearing women with their baby]
Love Makes a Family!
is one response to it
but power writes the stories
and the state says who’s legit.
Bio versus love
makes a tidy story frame
But the scaffolding of power
Hides itself and rigs the game–
[Transition: ROAD CLOSED sign; close up on vintage image of white man and stop light]
[The first voice speaks again over images of a young, white-appearing child with short, very curly red hair and glasses, fading to a white-appearing woman with curly red hair. The camera zooms out to reveal the rest of the family: a Black woman with short hair and two white-appearing red-haired toddlers in matching outfits.]
In predominantly white settings in the Midwest
people say things like:
“Look at that red hair!” “We can see who your mother is!”
Do they see my wife as some random Black woman standing near us?
Or do they not see her at all?
[Photos of the family together, the Black mother holding her white-appearing baby, and a RAINBOW FAMILIES sign]
In other spaces, people look at us and see a family.
We learn to see families through Fibonacci-like patterns–
[A family tree labeled COUNTY OF FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA]
Templates for legitimate citizenship
balanced with pairings of straight, same-race, gender-specific opposites.
[Layered diagrams of family trees, the branches marked pink and blue or with male and female symbols; fading to a black and white vintage image of people pruning trees from ladders]
Unless you prune them to conform, trees don’t actually have that structure.
[Montage of images of trees]
Roots are tangled, branches unpredictable–
sprouts pop, leaves fall.
We can’t call trees or families “natural” in any pure sense;
Both are pruned and regulated by their interactions
With the parts of the world in which their roots take hold.
[Footage of trees being chopped down fades to the now-familiar vintage stop light image]
At the time of our interview, in 2007, Rae was a single mother of two, living in Des Moines, Iowa. She tells a story about interacting with the social welfare system when she was pregnant and unable to legally marry her girlfriend.
[Rae, a Black woman wearing a cap and a Scorpions sweater, speaks to the camera as she sits on a sofa.]
Rae: You had to wait 60 or 90 days, and so in the short term I had to get title 19, Medicaid, whatever it was, just to supplement, whatever, until my insurance kicked in.
So here I am about to give birth and I have to go sign up for state aid medical. And the guy, bless his heart, was as cool as he could possibly be, but again, I wasn’t going to lie. “I know who the biological sperm donor is, but this baby doesn’t have a father.” Like you have to fill out all the paperwork. I’m like “He’s got another Mom, and I don’t really know how to do your paperwork. And I’m not being difficult. I’m just being honest. I’m not gonna lie. I’m also not gonna name someone who says ‘I don’t want to be a dad. You know, I’m just giving you this stuff ‘cause I know it will work.’ You know. ” So the guys says to me, he’s like, “You know what? That’s cool.” He’s like, “Okay, but if your benefits or whatever—if you’re ever audited…” Or whatever it is they do to see if you really should be getting benefits—“You’re gonna have to come up with something.” He says, “And the best thing I can tell ya is to say that you were really wasted one night and you had sex with multiple men and you don’t even remember who they are. And you got pregnant.”
[Zooming in on a close up image of Rae’s face, smiling with remembered incredulity]
And so when he said that I did…I was just kind of like…really?
[music plays behind voiceover as we zoom further in on Rae’s face, then transition to footage of Rae with family and friends (including the red-haired kids featured earlier) eating breakfast together]
These are the stories that keep getting told.
We’d rather hear stories about Black women having one-night-stands than acknowledge the existence of Black lesbian mothers.
Rae: “Culturally insensitive”
than acknowledge the legitimacy of multiple family forms.
Rae: “Insulting isn’t even the right word.”
We barter in stories.
The social workers need a life story
To go along with their adoption inspection;
The Medicaid man needs a story to fit into the state’s box.
A story of Black women’s lives
Written through hackneyed stereotypes of wantonness
And economically irresponsible motherhood.
Rae tried to tell her story,
Rae: “It was this great, great organization I worked for but there was like 60 or 90 days before the insurance kicked in. You know, any time you get a new employer that happens. And so in the short term I had to get title 19, Medicaid, whatever it was, just to supplement, whatever, until I got–my insurance kicked in. ”
[Images of kids playing, photos of Rae, fading to a “no right turn” sign superimposed on a black and white image of Rae standing at a podium]
We barter in stories.
Rae: “To say something like that to a single Black woman applying for Title 19…”
[The image of Rae at the podium superimposed on footage of town streets]
Rae tried to tell her story,
But it didn’t fit the narrative structure
The State has available for women of color
Who are not legally attached to men.
“Ho, harlot, Jezebel, tramp, slut.”
[Rae’s image filling the frame]
It’s welfare queen or nothing.
[Text scrolls up the screen over image of an enslaved Black mother and child]
These are very old stories.
[Superimposed on the mother and child are handwritten records of slave ownership and sale]
I call her Great Aunt Julia in resistance
To the horrors of enslavement I find in my family history.
We thought we were Northerners,
then I learned my great great grandfather and his brother
[Nineteenth-century photographs of a white man’s face, two men in a wood]
were the only members of their prominent
slave-holding family to join the Union cause.
[Images of digitized slave-owner records from 1812-1814 in Maryland and Virginia, overlaid on an image of an enslaved family as we zoom in on the text being read aloud]
Wilson Miles Cary “conveyed by deed of trust” three slaves:
“Sally and Charlotte two negro girls…and Julia a mulatto girl”
to his son-in-law, for “the use and benefit of his daughter”
on December 24, 1813. (http://www.freedmenscemetery.org/resources/documents/importation.shtml).
[As the camera pans over the document’s white spaces, the slave family becomes more visible: men, women, and children sitting on the steps of a wooden house.]
Christmas gifts to his daughter?
Was Julia his daughter too?
[Nineteenth-century image of a mixed-race woman with long, straight hair]
Did he send her away to remove the reminder, for his wife,
That he increased their wealth
[Nineteenth-century image of a Black woman with her hair covered, zooming out to reveal that she is standing between a young Black boy and young white girl of about the same age]
by raping and impregnating enslaved women?
Virginia law dictated that the race of the child
followed the race of the mother.
The children massa fathered with his slaves,
were legally Black and enslaved like their mothers–
[Camera pans over a black and white photograph of a group of Black women of different ages, settling on each of their faces in turn]
Who was Julia’s mother?
How did he justify his barbaric behavior?
Did he tell himself she wanted it?
Did he know her name?
Or did he just think of her as “Jezebel?”
[Brief fade to black, then images from European oil paintings: white aristocratic-looking men and women, Black women, layered on a photograph of the branches of a tree]
It seems my family has been passing as “white” for generations–
In the interstitial spaces between stories of white pedigrees,
I find my multiracial ancestors.
[Flickering home-movie footage of a white grandmother holding a white baby]
Years ago, when I asked her about our family history,
My grandmother told me “Aunt Bird and Aunt Bell always said
we were related to Lord Fairfax. But he didn’t have any children.”
And she dismissed the idea.
[Montage of Presidents, royal family trees, Pocahontas]
It turns out we are related to a handful of U.S. Presidents,
The British Monarchy, and Pocohontas—
My children are thrilled by this news.
Then I throw the wrench in their excitement—
[More home-movie footage of the grandmother and baby]
“We aren’t biologically related though, because I was adopted.”
[Silhouette of tree branches fades to Fairfax County family tree; a red brick house]
I didn’t find Great Aunt Julia in the legitimate family tree,
but in the Fairfax County Virginia property transfer records.
I reclaim her and the unnamed ancestors
Left out of the “legitimate” lineage,
To which I also do not fully belong.
[Brief fade to back; flickering home-movie footage of a young girl with chin-length red hair and glasses blowing out birthday candles.]
We are grafted trees.
Once an apple branch is made part of a peach tree,
It is nurtured by those roots as it grows.
My grandmother told me, once,
That of all her children and grandchildren,
I was the one most like her.
My 12-year-old self was confused
“How can that be? I was adopted.”
She didn’t miss a beat—
[camera turns to an older white woman in a red dress cheering]
“Oh, I always forget that.”
written and edited by Sandra Patton-Imani
original music written and performed by Melanie Patton-Imani
special thanks to Rae, her family, and all our interviewees
special thanks for funding: Humanities Iowa, The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, and Center for the Humanities, Provost’s Office, College of Arts and Sciences at Drake University