Denene Millner introduces One Blood

“Over the years, I’ve used my imagination to fill in that story with color and light and grace”

Denene Millner

I discovered my adoption certificate at age twelve, while snooping in my parents’ private papers.

Asking questions about it wasn’t an option; I was too shocked and scared to say anything because, well, I had no business peeking into that metal box, for one, and two, saying it out loud would make it an alternate reality I wasn’t ready to dissect or accept. 

My parents had kept it a secret. They didn’t intend to tell me about it and leaving it that way just made sense for them, so I made it make sense for me, too. I pushed it deep into the recesses, past thick skin and blood and heart muscle—memory—and became the very fabric of the Millner clan. For the longest time, that was beyond enough. 

That changed, though, when I got pregnant with my first baby and the questions started: “What’s your health history?” “Do healthy pregnancies run in your family?” “What’s in your blood?” My doctors wanted details. I couldn’t give them. Suddenly, the information I thought wasn’t important actually was. What and who is in your blood? 

That’s an answer I’ll never truly have. The night we buried my mother—she died without knowing I knew about my adoption—my father gave me a small piece of my story, the only piece he knows: Someone had left me, a baby, on the stoop of an orphanage, and four days later, he and my mom went looking for a little girl and found me in a corner crib in the basement, arms outstretched, ready to go. That was the beginning and end of my “birth” story. 

Over the years, I’ve used my imagination to fill in that story with color and light and grace: Maybe my birth mother was young and scared and couldn’t fathom raising a baby on her own.

Maybe she was forced to leave me on that stoop by a family that refused to support her and her child. Maybe she was in an abusive relationship and feared her baby would get swooped into the violence. There are so many ways that it could have ended badly for me, a defenseless baby. But instead, this woman, this angel, gave me life, and then gave me life again by giving me away.

It was a decision—a beautiful, selfless decision steeped in pain, heartbreak, and, yes, love—that I can only understand because I am now a mother who carried her own babies in her womb and couldn’t fathom the strength and courage and resolve it would take to leave my children, my blood, the very beat of my heart, on a stoop for someone else to have. 

It is the ultimate sacrifice. A miracle. 

It was my mediation on miracles, adoption, motherhood, Blackness, Black womanhood, choices, and blood that led me to One Blood, an epic, fictional story, told in three parts, about the connection between three women: a birth mother who had her child taken away; the adoptive mother who raised that child; and the child who is the literal product of the two. In One Blood, I’m exploring how race, culture, history, gender inequality, respectability, marriage, mothering, DNA, hate, and, ultimately, love inform the lives of three women, intricately connected by the blessings and curses of motherhood—specifically Black motherhood. This sprawling story, set in the American South during the Great Migration, in New York during the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, and in Brooklyn during the ‘90s and early 2000s, with the struggle for work/life balance as its backdrop, is an opus to adoption, birthing, African spirituality, Black healers, Black babies, Black motherhood and Black femininity, and how each of these things can either destroy us or set us free.

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