By now you’ve seen it…the Black Baltimore mother who chased her son down the street yelling at him (cursing him out actually) and slapping him as she admonished him to get home and away from his planned participation in the street uprisings that took place the afternoon of Freddie Gray’s funeral service. Her name is Toya Graham and the mainstream media is calling her “Mom of the Year.” To be clear I am not judging her. As a mother of 4, three of whom are young men, I know EXACTLY what that mother was feeling. It is a fear so deep that it drives you to a place of rage and madness. The very thought that your child is doing something that might cost him his life is enough to make you go crazy. So you scream, you yell, you punch, and you slap. You threaten him within an inch of his life because you are so afraid that the authorities that do not love him will not hesitate to kill him just for how he looks.
But we know that had that mother engaged in that very same behavior in a different context she would not be celebrated…she would be arrested. And, she still might be. The celebration of her public behind-whipping is ONLY because she was keeping him from destroying White property—White interests.
In the Black community we celebrate her because her actions resemble our romanticized view of a time when our parents, our grandparents, our teachers, and our neighbors all had permission to discipline us. We physically punished our children because that was the tool we had in our arsenal. We didn’t take away privileges because they didn’t have any privileges. We didn’t send them to their rooms because they had no rooms to themselves. We didn’t ground them because they didn’t go anywhere in the first place and grounding them meant grounding ourselves. Also, the ritual of spanking and whipping we experienced was different from what is being celebrated in Toya Graham’s behavior.
Many of us remember hearing, “Go get a switch and it better be a good one!” That long walk to the yard was punishment in itself. We cried our way to the yard wondering how we got ourselves in the predicament we were in and we cried all the way back to the house. Meanwhile our parent had an opportunity to calm down as we were selecting our instrument of punishment so that the discipline was not emanating from a place of anger but of perceived parental duty.
One of my better parenting moments came when my youngest son was cited for shooting a b-b gun that hit (but did not hurt) someone taking a walk. He did not tell me what happened but later than evening a police officer showed up at our house, explained what happened and issued him a citation. I wanted to knock his head off but I restrained myself. I looked at the day we were scheduled to show up for court and explained to my son that I would have to take off from work to take him to his hearing. When we got there I pointed out that he and I were the two Black people in the hearing. His White accomplices (and their parents) were nowhere to be found. Instead, their lawyers represented them and they received a fine and suspended sentences. My son got a “conviction” and 50 hours of community service. I turned to him and said, “Now do you understand what I have been trying to tell you about what it means to be a Black child in this community?” He turned to me with tears in his eyes and looked so sad and vulnerable. “Yes, mom, now I see.” That moment seemed to change the course of his life. For about a month he had to spend 2-3 hours cleaning out animal cages at the local humane society. His friends got off without even a slap on the wrist. I did not need to beat my son, castigate him, or humiliate him. He got to see how the system was more than prepared to do that to him. I had to show him that I still loved him in the midst of my disappointment.
But what is it about Toya Graham that so fascinates White mainstream media and simultaneously sickens me? Do you remember the scene in “12 Years a Slave” when the White slave owner has another enslaved African beat Patsy? It is that sense of “keeping a N-word in line” that has a striking similarity to Toya Graham’s actions. I am not saying her son should not have faced a consequence for disobeying his mother. My own mother’s last words to me as I left for college in the 1960s was “Don’t be in no protests!” She was afraid that me, with my brash mouth and sense of righteous indignation could not cross the Mason-Dixon Line without running afoul of the White authorities. Less than 2 weeks after landing in Maryland I was indeed in a street protest. I directly disobeyed my mother. If she had known I too may have experienced a beat down.
I am frustrated with the glorification of Toya Graham’s behavior toward her son. I’m angry that it seems to say that it is okay for Black women to beat their children as long as they are keeping their children from destroying or harming White interests. I am afraid of how many other young Black parents will see what she did and think that White America is saying it is just fine for us to discipline our children in that way. And, I am afraid that far too many of those parents will end up having their children taken from them while they face jail time, fines, and a set of useless “parenting classes.” I fear this for other Black parents and I fear that when they are through with Toya Graham this will be her fate also!
Stay Black & Smart!