My husband and I are foster parents. We are also white and parenting children from other races and cultures.
Our second placement was a black child, our daughter, whom we quickly fell in love with. We met her days after her 10th birthday and, although she had not moved in yet, she asked us repeatedly if we were going to have a party for her. We hadn’t been planning on it, but we wanted to show her how special and important she was to us.
I was lying in bed one night, thinking about her birthday party, when I thought of the song Happy Birthday. It occurred to me that the song I had sung at every birthday celebration I’d ever attended was pretty flat and, well, lacked soul. I’d attended birthday parties with black friends and heard their families sing this traditional version, but I still wondered if there was another version of the song I didn’t know about. It was too late to call one of my girlfriends, so I consulted my always available sidekick whom I call, “The Google.”
And, wouldn’t you know it, I found a video that confirmed my suspicions! I had heard Stevie Wonder’s version of Happy Birthday many times before so maybe subconsciously that’s why I questioned the traditional version in the first place.
Later, I asked my two closest black friends how they sang Happy Birthday growing up. They both said that they sang the Stevie Wonder version with their immediate families, but sang the traditional version at larger gatherings. Unlike the woman in the video, my friends never considered either song the “black version” or the “white version” and have always been comfortable with both styles. It wasn’t until they were older that they realized that most people outside of the black community aren’t aware of the Stevie Wonder version.
The importance of this song isn’t about race. It’s about being mindful of our children’s cultures and the places they come from. As parents who love them dearly we want to make them feel comfortable, validated, and loved in any situation, especially one as significant as a birthday celebration.
I’m so glad I learned about this familial tradition, which happened to be my daughter’s as well, because by singing the version of Happy Birthday that our daughter has always sung with family, we are sending the message that we are also her family and that we value everything she values.