Friday, September 19, 2014

Confronting corporal punishment in the black community

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It’s been hard for me to listen to the lunatics who justify the way Adrian Peterson disciplines his children.  It’s a point of contention that has always troubled me.  Spanking children is so engrained within the fabric of black culture that to do otherwise is considered evidence of bad parenting.

The late Bernie Mac joked about beating children to the white meat.  Most people in those rooms have stories about running from a switch, having to get their own switch, hiding from a switch or being beat so hard that it took time to recover.

The truth is most of that is abuse.  As painful as it may be to admit that, what’s behind how black people feel about corporal punishment?

The Bible encourages it

The Bible is used to promote corporal punishment.  My friend Eric Michael Dyson, professor at George Washington University, challenged the literalist interpretation of the Bible in his New York Times op-ed Punishment or Child Abuse?

“Like many biblical literalists, lots of black believers are fond of quoting Scriptures to justify corporal punishment, particularly the verse in Proverbs 13:24 that says, ‘He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him’,” Dyson writes. “But in Hebrew, the word translated as “rod” is the same word used in Psalms 23:4, “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod was used to guide the sheep, not to beat them.”

The reading of the Bible from its historical/cultural context, while taking into account the nuances of Hebrew versus other translations, makes it clear that the Bible isn’t justifying corporal punishment of children. Beyond the uncovering of the meaning of the text, one must ponder the ethics of corporal punishment.

This is the point where the WWJD movement becomes a vital instrument.  Can you image Jesus spanking a child, and if so, what would be the context behind him doing so?

It’s a part of black culture

Fifteen years ago, in a column written in the Durham Herald-Sun, I argued that corporal punishment replicates the punishment of slavery.  Michael Eric Dyson offered the same during a recent interview on MSNBC.

“Black people were beat and hit in slavery,” Dyson said. “Some slave parents, especially women, had to beat their kids in front of the slave master to prove that they could go along with the slave master’s intention and keep them from being rebellious spirits. …As a result of that, we began to absorb that practice, collectively speaking, and we’ve reproduced it.”

Embedded in black parenting is the notion of protecting children, especially boys, from the dangers of society.  Beatings are used to teach boundaries.  Boys are reared within a culture of fear, which is, according to Dyson, the reproduction of the pathology of slavery.

I endured it, and I turned out okay

Personal testimony is used to validate the practice.  Education and other measures of success are used to justify the benefits of corporal punishment.  There’s a significant problem with the argument.  The mental health conditions of those offering the testimony suggest a different conclusion.

Is there a correlation between the excessive use of corporal punishment and cases of domestic violence?  How about substance abuse and the massive dysfunction that plagues relationships among black people?  As much as we want to suggest that we turned out alright, the truth is we, black people, are more damaged than we are willing to admit.

I use the pronoun we to claim my own journey to counter a myriad of mental health related issues.  That’s not to suggest it’s all a consequence of corporal punishment, but is stated to accept not being alright after enduring my share of walks to pick out my own switch.

That’s how white people think

This is the part that is most difficult to address.  We carry loads of disdain related to the things lost due to integration.  As much as we celebrate the vast improvements following the Civil Rights movement, there is the suggestion that we lost more than we gained.

A big part of that regards the culture of the community.  It is true that many of us born in the 60’s and 70’s were nurtured by a large village.  We were loved and spanked by community grandparents, aunts and uncles who were granted permission by our parents to whip that ass. We take pride in being loved by our village families. 

Yes, we take great pride in being loved like that.  Those spankings reflect a culture of care.  It’s like that eagle that stirs the next – big mama has an eye on the babies.  This is what it meant to be black before we became rooted into the culture of white privilege. We lost something meaningful when the objective was in replicating the life and ways of white people.

It’s part of the nostalgia of black life before the suburbs and integrated schools.  It’s what makes us different.  Spankings are something we share, and it’s hard to let it go.

Black life in the context of postmodern inclusion

All of this suggests a need for a new model related to parenting.  It requires critical engagement with the Biblical text, deeper reflection involving the pathology of slave culture within our contemporary context, an evaluation of the mental health conditions of black people, and ways to embrace memories that create space for the release of all the pain.

There’s hard work to be done.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, as Michael Dyson has noted, severe corporal punishment does replicate the conditions of slavery. But before we go too far down that road, let's also consider that such punishment is not solely the province of blacks, but is also seen in the poor white communities. Thomas Sowell, in his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, notes that a propensity for violent response to perceived slights, whether by children or peers, is common to both groups. This is not a new idea, but has been noted by many black scholars previously. So, is severe corporal punishment a product of biblical admonition, black culture derived from historical slavery, or merely poverty/ignorance?