- Off and Running: An American Coming of Age Story
Off and Running: An American Coming of Age Story follows Avery Brooks Klein-Cloud, a black teenager on the brink of womanhood. She is a star athlete, a runner with a promising future, and this documentary explores her relationship with herself, and with her family: Avery is the adopted daughter of white, Jewish, lesbian parents. While Avery calls her family the “United Nations” (for the variety of ethnicities represented by her two brothers, her mothers, and herself), the film centers on a [End Page 73] very close-knit family who are unencumbered by the non-traditional make up of their familial structure. That structure, however, is tested when Avery chooses to seek her birth mother in a quest for identity, history, and belonging in a black culture she has never known.
The American family has changed over the past sixty years. According to the 2010 United States Census, thirty percent of children under the age of eighteen lived in a household comprised of something other than two married, biological parents, whereas only eleven percent of families with children under the age of eighteen lived in such households in 1960. It is more common today to find families that resist traditional categorization to include stepfamilies, same sex partners, and adoption. In that way, Avery’s family has adapted to the 21st century by defying the categorizations that have historically governed American definitions of familial relations. As we peel back the layers of the Klein-Cloud household, however, we uncover a dislocation that is caused by that family construction when Avery finds that something is missing. This film is her journey to find out what it is.
“When you are adopted by a white family, you see things differently—the whole world is completely different,” Avery tells the camera. “For many years I felt so out of place among black people… they looked at me and saw a girl that was different.” Avery wants to know where she came from and who she is, and she seeks that identity outside of her family. She recognizes that people do not see her as Jewish, that she wears an external racial identity that the world sees, but that she does not feel inside. Her search for her birth mother is a search for understanding how race functions in the development of personal identity. She craves knowledge about her mother, her potential siblings, and she is drawn to her birth name, Mycole Antwoneesha. When she receives her first response from her birth mother after three months, her mind is filled with unanswered questions. Her birth mother writes that she has thought of Avery every day of her life, asks for forgiveness, and hopes to keep in touch. She signs her letter “Kay.” From this moment forward, Avery sees the world differently.
Avery begins her quest as a driven, focused young woman determined to go to college on a track scholarship. But after six months of not hearing from her birth mother, her world crumbles. She feels tension at home, and she feels guilty about what she may be doing, emotionally, to her parents. She feels rejected by her birth mother, who has left her follow-up letter unanswered. When she attempts to learn about black culture and identity from her friends, her mothers are visibly uncomfortable. “I am very new to black culture, and I don’t really understand it,” Avery notes. “I am learning about it from my friends.” With this sudden clash of cultures, Avery is left confused, and leaves home to give herself space to think and find herself.
The documentary is fascinating as a critique of the performance of race, and of racial identity. Many cultural theorists argue that race is socially constructed, and that the expectations associated with race are learned. Avery acknowledges this when she notes that she never felt different as a child in a white school (“I’m just like...