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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: Redefining Normal

Marcus Allen

Two Western Michigan University graduates have written a new book about their journey surviving abuse and the foster care system.

Justin Black grew up in a deeply dysfunctional family in Detroit. His world was filled with drug addiction, physical and emotional abuse, and crime. Alexis Black’s world was equally dark. While still a small girl, her mother committed suicide and her father abused her for years, until she testified against him later in life, leading to his imprisonment. Both ended up in a long line of foster families.

A conversation with Alexis and Justin Black

All odds were against them growing up to know anything about healthy relationships, let alone graduate from college and start businesses of their own. Now married, the Blacks have co-authored Redefining Normal: How two foster kids beat the odds and discovered healing, happiness, and love (2020).

“When I was 6 years old, my mother committed suicide,” Alexis says. “I didn’t find out until much later that my grandmother also committed suicide, so that’s something that runs in our family. After losing my mother, I went to live with my biological father, and around that time is when the abuse started.”

Credit Patty Leonor Photography
Patty Leonor Photography

It didn't end there. As do many girls and women who've been abused as children, Alexis went on to choose toxic relationships in her teen years. Suffering the lack of self-esteem that victims often do, she subjected herself to emotional and psychological abuse by a boyfriend for more than eights years before finding the strength and self-worth to leave him.

Justin Black entered the foster care system at age of nine.

“I entered the foster care system largely due to my parents’ substance abuse and issues that they were having,” he says. “It was normal for us to grow up in an environment of poverty. Growing up, as an adult, I realized there had been three generations of domestic violence on my dad’s side and two generations of drug abuse on my mother’s. This was something that was generational, something that had been normalized for us to internalize our feelings and react with violence and anger, and that has played out through so much of my life.”

With side-by-side narratives throughout their book, the Blacks tell their own stories, including one they built together: changing old patterns, learning about healthy relationships, embracing educational opportunities at Western Michigan University through the Seita Scholars Program, and through numerous study abroad programs. They have since started their own public relations business, worked to support various foster care programs, and continue to work with WMU programs that encourage foster care alumni throughout their education.

The Kalamazoo Public Library will host an online author event with Alexis and Justin Black on Tuesday, April 6, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Registration is required to receive a Zoom link to participate.

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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