Thank you so much for the generosity of your time and willingness to do this interview, as there were several challenges which came in the way of our being able to have this conversation.
Yes, and I have something for you. Are you ready? Because challenges happen particularly when you adopt children: "When things go wrong don't go with them".
Okay! Don't go with them! [Laughter]
Yes! Challenges are very symbolic of life, and when you begin to look at the whole issue of adoption or just raising children period it's a very, very challenging experience. I'm very humbled when I look at my life and think about the fact that my mother adopted 7 children and raised us by herself. I don't know how she did that because at one time just ONE was driving me crazy!
One of the things I've always admired is something you say at the end of your messages, which is now your signature sign-off :
"This has been Ms. Mamie Brown's Baby Boy" Absolutely!'
You know I saw a quote once which just really stayed in my mind and I never forgot it. It said simply that "God took me out of my biological mother's womb and placed me in the heart of my adoptive mother."
So when I did my television talk show there was a major dispute with the producers because television is a forum where they have their own standards and they just wanted me to say "You've been listening to The Les Brown Show. Thank you very much. See you tomorrow" I said "No that's not how I'm going to end this show". They said "How're you going to end it?"
I said "Well this is my show; and I'm here because of my Mama. Had she not chosen me with love, I would not be here. So, I'm going to say this has been Ms. Mamie Brown's Baby Boy"
They said "No one has ever done that before". I said 'Well, they're about to hear it"
That was the thing that just grabbed my heart when I first heard you speak.
I always say I feel like Abraham Lincoln who said "All that I am, and all that I ever hope to be, I owe to my mother. Mama was really something else.
At what age were you aware that you and your twin brother were adopted?
Mama told us when we were 18.
Are you serious?
Yes, that's when we found out. But it had happened one other time.
Mama told us when we were 17 about to be 18 because at that time we were her foster children and then she had to sign the documents to legally adopt us.
I'll never forget when I came home and my brother met me at the door. His eyes were red and he was crying. He said "Leslie, guess what? We are adopted." I said "Is that right?" I remembered when we were 9 years old a guy in the neighborhood said "Leslie! You and Wesley didn't come out Ms. Mamie's Stomach". You know how children are. So I ran in the house and said "Mama, he said we didn't come out of your stomach".. She said "Tell that fool to shut up!" [Laughter]
So that was her way of dealing with it?
That was her way of dealing with it, but I could remember different times when Mama would say "Leslie and Wesley, come here I want to tell y'all something" and I can remember the tension and the stress around those quiet moments. She would call us in the kitchen; Mama cooked a lot, and she never was able to tell us at that point of time. I knew that the other children were adopted but I didn't know about myself.
I have mixed issues about that because some people tell children early on, and then they tell them later on. With me it doesn't really matter. I have friends who have gone on searches; and I have helped people to do searches for their biological parents. My mother's love was so encompassing, I just never felt, even after I knew, and my personality is so much like her, I just never felt a void and I never felt a need to try and go back to find my birth mother or birth father.
I have been curious and wondered 'what kind of dude was he, my birth father?' But it's not something that drives me crazy as I've seen some people where it really effected them to that extent.
When I had my television talk show my staff tried to get me to do a search because there were people who would call and try to say they were my mother or father just to try to get money out of it. The trails would only go so far then turn cold.
The story has it that my biological mother had a relationship while her husband was away in WWII and she became pregnant and had us before he returned. So I just can't imagine somebody, under those circumstances, putting down accurate information so they could be followed up on. Therefore the information that's on the birth certificate is fictitious.
People don't know that I used to wear a blue shirt when I'd speak because when Mama picked us up we were wrapped in a blue blanket.
You know, one of the things you said I think really is the key because I do know of people who have done the search, and I know people who have not; but one of the things you said was her love was so encompassing --did I say that right? Her love was so full, so real, and so embracing for you, to paraphrase.
Yes, it really was, and I was a problem child. That's why I say "When things go wrong, don't go with them". Because when I was in the 5th grade I was identified as EMR-labeled Educable Mentally Retarded, and they put me back to the 4th grade; then I failed again in the 8th grade. So it was very, very challenging, and very embarrassing and demoralizing as a kid coming up because my brother was very bright, very smart--he's smarter than I am now--, and quiet. I was very loud and ignorant! [Laughing]
As a motivational speaker it's very interesting for me because I help people and work with kids and train with kids, taking them through an experiential process to change their subconscious mind; and while I'm talking about it I think about my mother because my mother always thought my subconscious mind was in my behind. When they told her I was a little touched in the head, she said "I'm gonna whip his behind...ain't nothing wrong with you boy". So she obviously had something right back then.
I had the whole experience of being great and grateful. My mother made me feel like a great person. She cultivated a sense of goodness in me and she said to me constantly 'You're going to be somebody. You're going to be something. You're gonna be great one day'
Mama only had a 3rd grade education so when they told her I was EMR she did not understand and process that to the extent that most people who are more educated would, so she didn't really buy into it. She said "You are going to be something great!"
She wanted me to become a lawyer for some reason or another, but I didn't become a lawyer, I became a law maker. I was a State Legislator in Columbus, OH, so I wrote laws that lawyers interpreted. I had the capacity to do that despite having been in Special Ed. After graduating from high school my brother went off to Vietnam, but I failed the military test. I was told you have to a special kind of dumb to fail that test. So I stayed to take care of Mama, and did not go off to school.
It was really a defining point in my life in terms of knowing who you are. I always felt that I was special to my mother. She made me feel special, even when she whipped me; even when I got in trouble; even when people said "You ought to take him back to the Welfare Department because something's wrong with him--he's touched in the head"; even when they called her to the school time and time again.
In my book "Live Your Dreams" I have stories about that. I never will forget the first time she came to my Spanish Class, I didn't know they had called Mama and told her to come to the school. So they asked me "Mr. Brown, what does Como esta Usted mean? I said "You have a Spanish Dictionary, why don't you read it yourself?" The kids in the class cracked up! I love to make people laugh even to this day. Now I get $25K an hour to make them laugh, and I laugh at myself!
The teacher looked toward the door and I did not know my mother was standing outside the door. Then the teacher said "What does 'Buenos Dias' mean Mr. Brown?"
I told her "Why don't you tell ME? That's why they pay you." At that moment Mama came in the classroom and she had a belt. I said "Oh my God! Ask me again!" I was bilingual by the time I got out that class! I was jumping over chairs and everything! So I was good after that!
My brother never got in trouble! I use to say to him "What's wrong with you? Why don't you do something? They think I'm crazy!" He said "You ARE crazy!"
I just wanted to comment on your saying you were too dumb to pass the test. I believe that there was a bigger plan and purpose for your life. I believe God knew the plan He had for your life and it wasn't intended for you to go into the military. When our children have situations in their lives, I think a lot of times a parents' goal is to mold and shape this child's life and make them what THEY want them to be; but we need to realize... You know this probably better than I do, but the quote by Khalil Gibran?
Yes, "Our children come through us not from us."
That is a real, real struggle. I never refer to myself as such, but I have two of my children who are adopted. I have to say I've found parenting to be such a humbling experience. I believe that if there's no other purpose for being a parent, it is to bring you in closer relationship with God. It's such a powerless and helpless experience to have influence and impact on other youth, and not with your own children. I've constantly said to myself "Mama I know what I took you through and I'm so sorry", and I cry thinking about the nights she laid awake thinking and worrying about me."
Fortunately I never gave up because of coaching from people such as yourself, and learned to detach myself in love and realize I could not run their lives, and realize they were building their lives, and that all I could do was love and pray for and believe that at some point what's inside of them will rise and they will come to themselves just as I did. Finally something Mama said clicked in and it created a hunger and a drive to do something that would make her proud of me.
I got out of high school by the skin of my teeth, and whenever I would feel discouraged and feel like giving up on myself I would have a picture in my head of my mother being on her knees scrubbing people's floors and toilets to bring food home from the families' leftovers. Although I was appreciative, my dream was to be able to bring groceries home for our family. We wore the hand-me down clothing of the children Mama babysat for. Just thinking about how she sacrificed--she was a gorgeous woman who at 46 decided to adopt SEVEN children. I decided I've GOT to make something of myself.
How could this woman who did not have us, did not bear pain for 9 months to bring my brother and me, do this for us? With all the hell I caused her, how could she still love me unconditionally?
What do you believe was your mom's motivation to adopt?
You know when I had the talk show she was interviewed by a reporter and I was in the kitchen pretending not to listen, because I'd always been curious about that. I found her to be a very intriguing woman; and she said "I've always wanted to share my life with someone." My mother had a brother. They weren't raised together and she only saw him once or twice. She was raised by her father and left home when she was only 12.
Most people may have never noticed, but I used to wear a blue shirt when I would speak. Mama said we were wrapped in a blue blanket when she met our biological mother and brought us home.
Children usually have some perception of the family dynamics changing when other children come in. How did you feel about her adopting the other children?
There was no opportunity to have a feeling. [Laughing]
Mama's dominance of love ran the house. She never did "favorites". She treated us all the same. She would not give one of us something and not give the rest of us something. Because she treated us all as if we were special and she taught us to look out for each other and love one another unconditionally.
One of the things which is very important in the marriage of adoption is you've got to have a short memory if you want to really make it because Mama said things to me when she was angry that I know she did not mean and I forgot them. I also did things that would be mean and Mama forgot them. I learned that from Mama.
When I saw my brothers or sisters didn't show appreciation I'd try to show her by saving my bottles and copper and collect junk for money to go to the store or downtown to buy her stuff, like a lamp or some bloomers! That little touched one in the head went and bought some big pink bloomers for his Mama! "I wanna buy these for my Mama" [Laughter]
See, she couldn't help but love you! That was her baby!
Is that right?
Something I wanted to ask you about which I spoke of in my book as a single adopt parent who became engaged and whose sons had a very difficult time accepting a male figure coming into our lives.
What was your response to your mom having a man in her life?
When I was about 9, Mama had a friend we called Daddy John L. They never married, but he was a very nice guy. I knew Mama had boyfriends at different times but I knew this one was a man that was serious because she brought him home. She didn't have men coming in and out.
He'd come by--he never spent the night at the house--to look at television together and I would sit between them. I'd say "Mama what we gon' watch tonight?!" I was blocking! You understand?! Can you feel a brother up in here?! Oh my God forgive me Mama! I know she wanted to knock me out!
He was so kind and so considerate and so much fun; and he liked us. He took time out to do things with us. I worked with him, he use to cut grass and I became very good at it and was a gardener for many years. So it was a very good relationship for all of us. It was not a negative factor.
I've heard such tragic stories over the years of people who were adopted and mistreated by their adoptive parents and their friends. Fortunately, thanks to God, that was not my case.
I'm curious to know if your and your brother's perceptions and reactions to being adopted were the same or even similar.
Interestingly, my brother and I only talked about it briefly. Once, when we were 18 and Mama had to sign the papers to have her name placed on our birth certificates, make her our legal mother, and our original birth certificates were sealed. We never had the conversation again until Mama died. And let me tell you, our conversation is never about our adoption and our invisible parents, the conversation, interestingly enough how was our Mama, until the day she died , was able to keep those papers hidden from us, then somehow the day she passed she'd left our birth certificates out.
I found out my original name which was Calvin, and my brother's original name was Alvin. We'd talk about that but never about being adopted.
Her love was so powerful. She was a funny person and she was wonderful.
The issue of adoption is more than "and they lived happily ever" story. There are lots of issues and emotions which come up for all of the family members involved: the biological and adoptive families, the adopted and biological children, and even the extended family.
As Mr. Brown shared, the love he experienced from Ms. Mamie touched his heart and left an indelible mark which has transcended throughout everything he's been through in life.
When we speak of doing something special "for a child's heart" we're not just speaking about childhood, but about the inner child of adulthood as well. It may not be easy but the ultimate goal is that children's hearts are made to feel warm, and they know they were loved despite all of the challenges of growing up.
It is my hope that as "villagers" we touch children's hearts, so that when we're long gone and they become "the village" they can always have some remembrance or sense of feeling loved.