In college, I once found myself on the D.C. metro with one of my favorite professors. As we were riding, a young white child began to climb on the seats and hang from the bars of the train. His mother never moved to restrain him. But I began to see the very familiar, strained looks of disdain and dismay on the countenances of the mostly black passengers. They exchanged eye contact with one another, dispositions tight with annoyance at the audacity of this white child, but mostly at the refusal of his mother to act as a disciplinarian. I, too, was appalled. I thought, if that were my child, I would snatch him down and tell him to sit his little behind in a seat immediately. My professor took the opportunity to teach: “Do you see how this child feels the prerogative to roam freely in this train, unhindered by rules or regulations or propriety?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “What kinds of messages do you think are being communicated to him right now about how he should move through the world?”
And I began to understand, quite starkly, in that moment, the freedom that white children have to see the world as a place that they can explore, a place in which they can sit, or stand, or climb at will. The world, they are learning, is theirs for the taking.
Then I thought about what it means to parent a black child, any black child, in similar circumstances. I think of the swiftness with which a black mother would have ushered her child into a seat, with firm looks and not a little a scolding, the implied if unspoken threat of either a grounding or a whupping, if her request were not immediately met with compliance. So much is wrapped up in that moment: a desire to demonstrate that one’s black child is well-behaved, non-threatening, well-trained. Disciplined. I think of the centuries of imminent fear that have shaped and contoured African-American working-class cultures of discipline, the sternness of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ looks, the firmness of the belts and switches applied to our hind parts, the rhythmic, loving, painful scoldings accompanying spankings as if the messages could be imprinted on our bodies with a sure and swift and repetitive show of force.
I think with fond memories of the big tree that grew in my grandmother’s yard, with branches that were the perfect size for switches. I hear her booming and shrill voice now, commanding, “Go and pick a switch.” I laugh when I remember that she cut that tree down once we were all past the age of switches.
And then I turn to Adrian Peterson. Not even a year ago, Peterson’s 2-year-old son, whom he did not know, was murdered by his son’s mother’s boyfriend. More recently, Adrian Peterson has been charged with negligent injury to a child, for hitting his 4-year-old son with a switch, in a disciplinary episode that left the child with bruises and open cuts on his hands, legs, buttocks and scrotum.
In the text messages that Peterson sent to the boy’s mother, he acknowledged having gone too far, letting her know that he accidentally “got him in the nuts,” and that because the child didn’t cry, he didn’t realize the switch was hurting him. It would be easy to demonize Peterson as an abuser, but the forthrightness with which he talked about using belts and switches but not extension cords, because he “remembers how it feels to get whooped with an extension cord,” as part of his modes of discipline suggests he is merely riffing on scripts handed down to him as an African-American man.
These cultures of violent punishment are ingrained within African-American communities. In fact, they are often considered marks of good parenting. In my childhood, parents who “thought their children were too good to be spanked” were looked upon with derision. I have heard everyone from preachers to comedians lament the passing of days when a child would do something wrong at a neighbor’s house, get spanked by that neighbor, and then come home and get spanked again for daring to misbehave at someone else’s house. For many that is a vision of a strong black community, in which children are so loved and cared for that everyone has a stake in making sure that those children turn out well, and “know how to act.” In other words, it is clear to me that Peterson views his willingness to engage in strong discipline as a mark of being a good father.
Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the loving intent and sincerity behind these violent modes of discipline makes them no less violent, no more acceptable. Some of our ideas about discipline are unproductive, dangerous and wrong. It’s time we had courage to say that.
I am not interested in haggling any more with black people about the difference between spankings and abuse, because when emotions and stakes are both as high as they are, lines are far too easily crossed.
Stakes are high because parenting black children in a culture of white supremacy forces us to place too high a price on making sure our children are disciplined and well-behaved. I know that I personally place an extremely high value on children being respectful, well-behaved and submissive to authority figures. I’m fairly sure this isn’t a good thing.
If black folks are honest, many of us will admit to both internally and vocally balking at the very “free” ways that we have heard white children address their parents in public. Many a black person has seen a white child yelling at his or her parents, while the parents calmly respond, gently scold, ignore, attempt to soothe, or failing all else, look embarrassed.
I can never recount one time, ever seeing a black child yell at his or her mother in public. Never. It is almost unfathomable.
As a kid in the 1980s and 1990s I loved family sitcoms. “Full House,” “Who’s the Boss?,” “Growing Pains.” You name it. But even before my own racial consciousness was fully formed, I remember knowing that I was watching white families very different from my own, in part, because of how children interacted with their families. Invariably on an episode, a child would get mad, yell at a parent, and then run up the stairs (white people’s sitcom houses always had stairs) and slam the door.
What I know for sure is that yelling, running away or slamming anything in the house that my single mama worked hard to pay for would be grounds for some serious disciplinary reprisal. Even now, when I think about what kind of behavior I would permit as a parent, I am clear that slamming doors in my home is unacceptable.
Still, I also know that my anger was not an emotion that found a free and healthy range of expression in my household. My mother is my own personal hero, but just as she did many things differently than her own mother did when it came to raising daughters, I know I will think very intentionally about making space for my children to experience a full range of emotions – anger included — in the safety of home. They can’t slam the door, but they can close it.
As for Adrian Peterson, he will have to deal with the legal consequences of his actions. It has long been time for us to forgo violence as a disciplinary strategy. But as Charles Barkley notes, if we lock up Adrian Peterson, we could lock up every other black parent in the South for the same behavior. Instead, I hope Peterson is a cautionary tale, not about the state intruding on our “right” to discipline our children but rather a wakeup call about how much (fear of) state violence informs the way we discipline our children.
If the murder of Michael Brown has taught us nothing else, we should know by now that the U.S. nation-state often uses deadly violence both here and abroad as a primary mode of disciplining people with black and brown bodies. Darren Wilson used deadly force against Michael Brown as a mode of discipline (and a terroristic act) for Brown’s failure to comply with the request to walk on the sidewalk.
The loving intent and sincerity of our disciplinary strategies does not preclude them from being imbricated in these larger state-based ideas about how to compel black bodies to act in ways that are seen as non-menacing, unobtrusive and basically invisible. Many hope that by enacting these micro-level violences on black bodies, we can protect our children from macro and deadly forms of violence later.
Perhaps it is audacious of me to encourage black parents to focus less on producing well-behaved children in a world that clearly hates them. Black boys and girls are suspended or expelled from school more than all other demographics of boys and girls, often for similar behaviors, simply because their engagement in those behaviors is perceived as more aggressive.
White children in general are raised to be Columbus, to “discover” the world anew and then to manipulate and order the universe to their own liking. If we take away the colonizing impulse in living this way, I think it would be amazing to have the luxury of raising black children who also view the world as a space of their own making, a space to be explored, a space to build anew. A space where occasionally, simply because you live there, you can opt to walk in the middle of the street instead of being confined to the sidewalk, much as you might sling your leg across the arm of a chair in your own home, because it is home.
But for so many black children, these kinds of frivolous choices will get you killed or locked up. For black children, finding disciplinary methods that instill a healthy sense of fear in a world that is exceptionally violent toward them is a hard balance to find.
The thing is, though: Beating, whupping or spanking your children will not protect them from state violence. It won’t keep them out of prison. Ruling homes and children with an iron fist will not restore the dignity and respect that the outside world fails to confer on adult black people.
What these actions might do is curtail creativity, inculcate a narrative about “acceptable” forms of violence enacted against black bodies, and breed fear and resentment between parents and children that far outlasts childhood.
Violence in any form is not love. Let us make sure first to learn that lesson. And then if we do nothing else, let us teach it to our children.
*Article originally published on Salon.
“Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
(Ephesians 3:20–21, NKJV)
TODAY’S WORD from Joel and Victoria
God never created you to be ordinary. He created you to leave your mark on this generation. God wants you to do something big. He wants you to go further than anyone in your family. You have seeds of greatness on the inside. That yoke of average that’s been around your neck is coming off. God is about to thrust you to a new level of destiny. It’s going to be exceedingly, abundantly above and beyond what you could ever imagine! This is a new day, and you’re going to see the yoke-destroying, burden-removing power of our God like never before!
If you will receive this into your spirit and not talk yourself out of it, it will ignite your faith and become a reality. Let it go beyond being an encouragement and grab hold of it in your spirit. Believe, “This is for me. This is my destiny. Something new is being birthed. Yokes are coming off of me. Chains are being broken. I am stepping in to the fullness of my destiny!”
A PRAYER FOR TODAY
Father, thank You for doing exceedingly, abundantly above all I could ask, think or imagine. Break the yoke of average off of my life and show me the amazing plan You have for my future in Jesus’ name. Amen.
— Joel & Victoria Osteen
My Dearest Second Child,
As your arrival into this world approached closer and closer, I began making my rounds. I visited with aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and anyone else I could think of to reminisce about all the fun times we’d had. I convinced myself that once you came, being the mother of two children would drive me to boarding up the windows and becoming a recluse. We would be a very happy family, just pale and sensitive to the light. As it turns out, adding another child was more difficult, but it became the norm very quickly, and we did eventually leave the house — mostly for nipple cream and Motrin, but we made it out nonetheless. But it hasn’t been without a few hiccups. You are only 11 months old, and I have already raised you very differently from how I raised your brother at that age. Which is why I decided to write this apology letter now, so that perhaps later on in life you will know that, if nothing else, at least I’m aware. So please read the following and remember that mommy loves you.
I’m sorry I dropped you.
I did. Honest to God, I dropped you, and this one was a toughie to get over. You were sleeping on my chest in my bed and just rolled off. Splat. I think I was more damaged than you, though. You cried for a few minutes and then started smiling. I was convinced at that point serious damage had been done. In my defense, it was a crowded bed. There was your dad, and then your brother crawled in and pushed me to the edge. And remember, I was exhausted from staying up all night nursing and holding you. Don’t forget that part. I thought about having a specialty cliff-diving suit made for you. You know, the one that makes you look like a flying squirrel. But instead we just decided to invest in a bigger bed.
I’m sorry I don’t know any facts about you.
Your brother’s baby book contains so much information about his first year, he could look back to discover every time he spit up. I was on him like a crazy woman. “Oh, did you see that. His lip went up like Elvis. Oh my God, so cute. What’s today’s date? What time is it?” “Oh my God! All his toes wiggled at the same time. What’s today’s date?” And just today, I turned the corner after your brother called me to “help wipe the poop off his butt,” and there you are. You’re standing up, holding the Swiffer, which is somehow helping you to balance. Wow. You are already a tightrope walker and I had no idea. When you open your baby book to reminisce when you’re older, it will read, “Place photo here,” and you will know that mommy didn’t have time to write down silly stats. I was too busy loving on you. And wiping your brother’s butt.
I’m sorry I let your brother pee near you.
I’m lying. He actually peed ON you in the bathtub. Specifically on your arm. Perhaps some remnants of spray may have landed on your face, but mostly your arm. In fact, I’m sorry your brother does bad things to you daily. It’s not so much he’s mean, but he literally acts like you don’t exist. If you’re crawling in his path, he will run right into you until you topple over. If you have something in your hands, he walks by without hesitation and takes it from you. But you laugh at everything he does and you follow him everywhere he goes despite his abuse. I correct him every time, and I make him give you hugs and kisses but right now it’s just not in the cards. One day, you will be great friends. But right now, I just have to help you get back at him because you haven’t grown into your deviant side yet. When we get your brother an icy pop, you lick all over it first before I hand it to him. It would make him crazy if he knew that. Also, when he’s at school, I let you play in his room. And when he asks why his train tracks are messed up, I blame it on an earthquake. It’s our little secret, buddy.
I’m sorry you look like a candidate for “What Not To Wear,” baby edition.
Your brother had all brand-new, super-cute clothes, and you wear mostly his hand-me-downs, so that’s why it’s hard for me to figure out why you are always so disheveled. Getting two children ready to go somewhere is like participating in a 5K scavenger hunt. But we reach our destination, oftentimes late, and then your brother runs off to cause chaos, and I look down at you as I take a breath only to discover in shock that you are wearing a very interesting get-up, and you have what appears to be a 5 o’clock shadow on your face from the food I forgot to wipe off at lunch. If “hobo baby” becomes a trend, you will definitely qualify as a trendsetter. But I think this is a good lesson: It’s not the clothes that make the boy. It’s all about the attitude, and you seem very happy.
I’m sorry I don’t love you less.
I know as you get older, mean people will try to tell you that the second child is loved less. That there is no way you can love another one as much as the first. Well, I’m sorry to say that’s a lie. And as you continue to grow, you will hear more and more of them. They say, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” From the second the doctor placed you on my chest, I have never been more sure of anything in my life. It is possible to love so much it hurts, over and over and over again. I would give my life for you and your brother without hesitation. I will love you just as much as I love him for eternity. Don’t you ever believe anything other than that. I may have accidentally dropped you a few times, forgotten to document your first fart, let a little pee fly and dressed you like an idiot, but I have also loved you with every piece of me, and you will never hear an apology for that.
With all the love in my heart,
*Article originally posted on Huffington Post.