Ahh, the fourth of July, Independence Day, a day to spend time with friends and family celebrating our freedom. While preparing for our Independence Day, we contemplate what makes us all American, and what’s more American than a hot, juicy hamburger fresh off the grill, a baseball game, rock and roll, a big summer blockbuster movie, warm apple pie, and adoption? Wait, what?? If you’re thinking that adoption doesn’t necessarily belong on the list of iconic Americana, you’re not alone. Most of us don’t realize just how big of a role adoption has played and continues to play in American history and culture. Let’s take a deeper dive, shall we?
Let’s start off with the humble hamburger. The smell of juices from a thick burger dripping onto the hot coals evokes memories of warm, sticky nights preparing for fireworks with friends and family. Like many of the foods we celebrate as our own, the hamburger was adopted from the food traditions of our immigrants. In this case, it’s widely accepted that the origins of the hamburger come from Hamburg, Germany. However, Americans took the hamburger and turned it into a fast-food icon. Now people from around the world can eat American hamburgers from several U.S.-based chains. One of those chains is Wendy’s, whose founder and original CEO was Dave Thomas. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember him from the Wendy’s TV commercials from the ’80s and ’90s. What you might not know is that Dave Thomas was adopted at six weeks old, and as an adult, he became an adoption advocate and founded The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Hopefully, that gives you some food for thought.
Baseball is considered the American pastime. While there are many celebrated baseball greats, the original slugger than won most Americans’ hearts is Babe Ruth. Babe was so famous in his heyday that he even had a candy bar named after him! What many don’t know is that Babe was born George Herman Ruth in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1895 and spent much of his childhood growing up in an orphanage. Ruth later adopted a daughter, Dorothy, in 1921. After his first wife, Helen, passed away in 1929, he later remarried Claire Hodgson, a widow, and adopted her daughter, Julia. She in-turn adopted his daughter Dorothy, and the couple was married until Babe’s death in 1948. While we’ll never know if Ruth’s time spent in a Baltimore orphanage in his early years inspired him to build his family through adoption, Babe Ruth will always be remembered as one of baseball’s greatest power-hitters and an American icon.
America has always been known for its cultural contributions to the world. Whether it be the iconic rock and roll music that began in the 1950s to the down-home, folksy country music from America’s southern region, there are several diverse styles of music that are commonly associated with the United States. What’s a better place to start than with the king of rock and roll himself, Elvis Presley. Elvis might be most famous for hits like “Jailhouse Rock,” big hair and sideburns, a unique dance style, and his outlandish jumpsuits from the 1970s. However, he is also known for his love of unusual foods like peanut butter and banana sandwiches, songs about hound dogs, and even had adoption touch his life in a direct way. Elvis’s wife, Priscilla Ann Presley, was adopted by her stepfather after her biological father passed away due to a plane crash when she was just six months old.
If you’re more country than rock and roll, perhaps you’re familiar with one of country music’s power couples, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Before she was making hit records or tapped to sing the Sunday Night Football theme song, Faith was adopted by her parents Edna and Ted Perry as an infant. Faith’s husband, Tim McGraw, also has close ties to adoption. Tim was raised by his mother and stepfather and believed his stepfather was his biological father until he later learned that, in fact, his biological father was a professional baseball player Tug McGraw (another link to an American pastime, you can’t make this stuff up!).
Hip-hop legends and rap pioneers from the 1980s, Run-DMC have also been affected by adoption. One of the group’s MCs and founding members, Darryl McDaniels, was raised in Hollis, Queens, and didn’t come to learn of his own adoption story until he was an adult in his mid-30s. After learning about his history, he searched for and connected with his birth mother and biological family. During this period of search and introspection in his life, McDaniels also made a deep connection with another famous musician, Sarah Mclachlan, who was also adopted at a young age.
Since we began our discussion on music with the king of rock, it’s only fitting that we end with the queen of pop, Madonna. Madonna adopted two sons, David and Mercy, from the African country of Malawi and adopted two twin girls from the country as well in 2017.
Another aspect of Americanism that is widely celebrated is our contributions to cinema and the film industry. Hollywood is widely renowned as one of the premier locales for filming and producing and is the cradle of the American film industry. One of the most celebrated actresses and pop culture icons is Marilyn Monroe. While she may be best known for her iconic looks, blond hair and her legendary rendition of “Happy Birthday” to then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy, she spent her formative years living in orphanages and with a series of foster families. She was born Norma Jean Baker in 1926 to an unmarried mother, whose mental health struggles didn’t allow her to care for young Norma Jean.
Another legendary Hollywood figure with an adoption story is filmmaker and director Michael Bay. Bay was born in Los Angeles in 1965 and was adopted as a child by his parents Harriet and Jim Bay. You may be familiar with some of his work, notably, The Rock, Armageddon, the Bad Boys franchise, the Transformers franchise, and his epic, 186-minute film Pearl Harbor (an American classic). Bay may be best known for big-budget thrillers, and nothing’s more All-American than a blockbuster summer action movie.
There are a vast number of celebrities associated with the American film industry that have ties to adoption. So many in fact, that it deserves its own article to discuss that topic. However, to summarize a few folks you might have seen on the big screen that have children that were adopted include but are certainly not limited to: Tom Cruise, Katherine Heigl, Denise Richards, Ty Burrell, Viola Davis, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman, Sandra Bullock, Kristen Davis, Meg Ryan, Charlize Theron, Mary Louise Parker, and Sharon Stone to name a few.
While not addressed in the introduction, it is perhaps only fitting while discussing American freedom and independence to talk a little about the men and women who have helped lead this country over our long storied history. Let’s start out with our CEO’s, the POTUS’s of yesteryear. Most presidential historians agree that both Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton have histories tied to adoption. Our 38th president, Gerald Ford, was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1913. His mother soon separated from his biological father and remarried Gerald Rudoff Ford and subsequently changed his name to Gerald R. Ford Jr. Our 42nd president, Bill Clinton, was born in Hope, Arkansas, in 1946 as William Jefferson Blythe III. Sadly, Clinton’s biological father passed away only three months prior to Clinton’s birth. He was raised by his grandparents as a child until his mother could obtain schooling to pursue a career in nursing. Following which, she remarried Roger Clinton, of whom Bill Clinton gained his surname. President Clinton continues to support adoption and helped expand the National Adoption Awareness Week from a week to an entire month (observed in November).
While not as widely recognized, one of our most famous presidents was also touched by adoption. Abraham Lincoln is most famous for guiding our country through a civil war and helping to end the institution of slavery in America. However, after losing his mother at a young age, Lincoln’s father remarried to Sarah Bush Johnston who raised Lincoln as her own. She helped nurture his intellectual talent which helped him serve our country during the trying period of the Civil War, and Lincoln referred to her as his mother. While the practice of adoption wasn’t as formal at that time, it certainly seems as though Lincoln was deeply impacted by the relationship he had with his mother.
Ronald Reagan, too, was touched by adoption. Reagan adopted his son, Michael, shortly after his birth in 1945. Eleanor Roosevelt was raised by her maternal grandmother after she lost both of her parents at a young age. Roosevelt went on to become the First Lady of the United States (she is widely considered to be one of the most active and impactful first ladies by historians), a civil rights activist, and delegate to the United Nations from 1945 to 1953. Alexander Hamilton is one of our founding fathers who helped found our nation’s financial system as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Mint. Long before his infamous duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton experienced a difficult childhood after his father abandoned the family. Hamilton lived with and was raised by family and friends until he relocated to the American colonies in 1772. His contributions to America are still felt today, however, he might not have guessed that, in 21st-century America, his life would be celebrated in a musical featuring hip-hop performances! The institution of adoption has always influenced and continues to influence our leaders deeply. Even today, current presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is directly touched by adoption. Bernie’s eldest son, Levi, adopted three daughters from China, bringing adoption very close to this presidential hopeful.
Finally, we move onto perhaps our most iconic American symbol, apple pie. What seems like a humble dessert has elevated its way into the conversation of something so ingrained in our culture that the phrase, “As American as Apple Pie,” has found its way into our vernacular. Most believe that immigrants to the Americas from the Netherlands, Sweden, and England brought apples to the colonies as a nutrition source. While it is known for its simplicity, a good slice of warm apple pie is hard to beat! There is something about the rich, buttery crust enveloping those tart, sweet apples. Couple that with the warm spicy notes of cinnamon and clove and enough warmth to melt a nice-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream and you’ve got a dessert that America can be proud of!
However, I don’t want to talk about the apple on your plate, I want to discuss the apple in your pocket. Wait, what?? In a society with a rapidly expanding appetite for technology, most of us have some form of Apple product in our pocket, on our desk, or at home. The man that made all that possible is Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was born in 1955 in San Francisco, California, and was adopted at birth by Paul and Clara Jobs. Jobs’ vision and determination helped build both Apple and Pixar and shaped the way we communicate, listen to music, and watch content. While he passed away in 2011, Jobs will continue to be remembered as a technology pioneer and business leader that helped define the beginning of the 21st century in America.
We’ve explored a range of topics and examined some of the institutions and symbols that help define us as Americans. While we’ve looked at a range of iconic foods, music, and even people famously associated with America, none of that alone identifies us as American. What does make us American? We all have different backgrounds, likes, tastes, beliefs, and religions, but what unites us is the fact that we all identify as Americans. We share a common belief in inherent freedoms and values established by our founding fathers.
Maybe adoption is more of an American icon or symbol than we realize. We’ve seen how much adoption is a part of our culture and how its impact is felt on many of those that entertain, educate, lead, and inspire us. After all, what makes a family? Is it shared DNA, or is it defined as the people we surround ourselves with that love and care for us? Americans might not share a unified ethnic, cultural or religious background, but what unites us is the shared belief in the principles and freedom that our country is founded upon. After all, we might be a rag-tag group of immigrants, but we’ve got a lot to celebrate this fourth of July. So with that, I’m going to go grab a burger, a nice slice of apple pie, and settle in for the fireworks show! Happy Independence Day to you and your family!