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There is at least one black cultural code in which I cannot participate: I can't, in good conscience, laugh with my friends about "that one time" that we got the hell beat out of us for what we thought were minor infractions. I cannot celebrate the breaking of skin and spirit; I do not praise the sound of leather splicing air; the thrown shoe, brush or small appliance does not make me smile; I do not worship welts; In short, I don't find the shit funny and I do not blindly trust tradition for the generations that proceed.
My position is a dangerous one. If I'm not careful, I could become one of "them"- the Moynihan-inspired blamers of black women, those who praise/mock dysfunction, those armed with blanket prescriptions for "us as a people," or even (pause) those who comically scrutinize communities without an obvious commitment to their healing (no shade, no shade). What's missing in the aforementioned list is social context- the difference between infuriating essentialism and intentional assessment.
So I approach this critique as a child facing a mother's curled finger. I anticipate danger on the other side: offended friends, defenders of mothers who did the best they could, revocation of my black card, my family's estimation that I have been in school just too damned long to be any use to the community I was sent away to help… Still, I have to walk it out. Because Sister Lorde said, "When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak." Because a much younger, wounded me desperately asked God for an adult advocate who did not wear a belt. Because my five year-old godsister and week-long houseguest told me, "You just don't understand what it's like to be a kid like me." It was the morning after I witnessed the spirit-breaking that is considered discipline.
GS had survived a day of play in Georgia heat. She was winding down in my air-conditioned, third story apartment. Although her mother and I had reminded her many times about the people who live under my thin floor, she's five and forgetful. Her mother was on the phone with a lover full of broken promises and it was the absolute worst time for GS to jump from the couch again.
I could not look away when the phone was slammed on the table and GS was summoned to her mother's lap. When close enough, she was yanked back and swatted hard for as long as it took to deliver the syncopated sentences, "I… get… so… tired…of…telling… you… the… same… damn… thing… over… and… over… and… over… again! When…will…you…listen?" I couldn't tell if mother was talking to GS or the liar/lover waiting on the phone.
Worse than the spanking was the silence that followed—GS's and my own. At five, she's been trained not to cry out when "disciplined." At twenty-eight, I've been trained not to reason with an angry mother. I did not don the cape that I'd wanted my father to wear when my own mother's anger spilled over on the four of us. I have become the weak witness I grew up deploring, the one who watched the spanking last night, the one who listens, but does not object, to the stories of times when my friends have had to "tap that ass," punch a child in the chest, beat a child with a plastic hanger, throw a child in his or her room, order a child to find her own switch… the list goes on. On one hand, I am afraid to speak. On the other, I'm just not a fan of horizontal critique. It risks the aforementioned lack of social context.
I believe in looking up. Minorities are not the only parents who beat their children. Dr. Spock wasn't just on "some white stuff." Parents' performances of power are based on their relationship to the state. It is hard to critique those who parent with punitive paradigms rather than responsibility paradigms when the poor are always preparing their children to fear/respect the state—which is like some fairytale monster with a gaping mouth, waiting to suck the naughty into the bowels of free labor. It makes sense that respect would be a priority in households where parental figures must answer to authority outside of the home. It also makes sense that self-esteem would be a priority in households where privilege is an unquestioned human right.
No amount of vertical assessment could change my guilt over my missed advocacy. I don't have answers about how to move forward or make life easier for the children that I love but do not raise. Black and poor motherhood is always being policed, so I do understand our resistance to prescriptions that seemingly come from "them" (see the standing ovation at the 2007 Black Think Tank).
Thinking through this experience has changed my ideas about child advocacy. While I can't still the hand of my GS's mother, I can create a safer space for her in my care. I can demonstrate a better model of discipline and I can let her know that her voice matters to at least one adult. Finally, I can give her voice the platform that I always wished I'd had:
"Asha, you don't know how it is to be a kid like me… My momma whoops me with her hand. My Nanny [her grandmother] whoops me. Granny ________ [her great-grandmother] whoops me. My PaPaw whoops me with a belt. Can you believe that? My uncle whoops me with a belt too… I don't know why [Momma] is so mean to me. Nanny [mis]treated her, so that's why she [mis]treats me! And now she hits me on the back! She don't care how it feel. She don't think about how my back hurts and burns at night… They just put me in my room and tell me to think about it, but they still whoop me anyway, so why do I even gotta think about it?… And when I cry, they all laugh at me. They think I'm just a whiny baby, but I'm not. I'm just a girl. You just don't know what it's like to be a kid."
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