Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Were You Hit as a Child?

I'm reading a memoir by Stacey Patton called That Mean Old Yesterday. It's an intelligently written autobiography that intertwines certain aspects of chattel slavery with Patton's own journey as a child growing up in a foster home where she endured much mental and physical abuse.

In the book Patton talks alot about the physical and mental abuse she endured as a child, and how the vicious cycles of slavery play out within the four walls of our Black homes. During slavery, white folks used physical punishment to assert their own authoriy over enslaved Blacks. Whites used physical domination as a tool to keep the enslaved Africans fearful, submissive and downtrodden at all times. Whites whipped and maimed the enslaved to mask their own fears, rebellion being the primary one. Not only did we outnumber them, but we were stronger than them physically. This is why they also had to enslave us psychologically. But that's a whole other thesis.

In turn, the enslaved used the same forms of discipline on their children. They whipped their young the way they were whipped. They did it to assert control, to instill fear, to provide discipline. There was probably nothing more fearful for an enslaved parent than an enslaved child with a wild horse spirit, a spirit that could get her unforgivably whipped, maimed or sold away. So to protect their children from themselves, many enslaved used physical punishment to subjugate their own children's spirits so their masters wouldn't have to. Blacks often whipped their children in front of everybody, including their white masters.

This is not to say parents didn't put a whooping on their children before chattel slavery, or in other parts of the world but in the context of this country, physical punishment is much much more prevalent in the black community than in the white community. I'm open to being wrong on this, but this is what I've observed growing up among whites...middle classed whites anyway.

When I startred interacting with white families after I moved to this country, I soonly found that a good ass whooping to an unruly child is more of an immediate answer for us than it is for them. For us its a first resort, for them it may be a last resort, if at all. Man, I saw my white friends get away with murder. The way whites parented their children was so confusing. I heard my white friends tell their parents to "shut up" and "get out" and "leave me alone." Unheard of vocabulary in my house from my mouth to my parents' ears. I couldn't believe the disrespect. I heard my friends scream at their parents and slam doors. I saw these children psychologically run their households. It was a whole new world for me, a world where parents feared their children's wrath. I felt like I was watching one of those daredevil stunts on tv, the ones that are preceded by the announcement: DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME.

Then there are the white children that throw tantrums at the supermarket. Sometimes the parent would give in and give the child what they want (usually candy) to quell the tantrum. Other times, the parent would allow the child to cry and just try their best to shush them down, clearly embarassed by the spectacle their child was causing.

Now, I'm not saying that my mother gave me cut ass in public. She really didn't have to. She put in enough of that work at home so that in public i would act accordingly. Now, I threw my share of tantrums growing up but I knew exactly where and where not to release myself. Whenever mom gave me that look I would know to settle myself immediately, or else. She had that look down to a science. As much as I loved my mother, I feared her. I feared her eyes, her right hand, her blessed belt.

Patton's memoir makes me think on my own upbringing, growing up in Trinidad and in the States in a Trinidadian household that struggled to hold on to its Trinidadianness for as much and for as long as possible.

Patton was not physically disciplined. She was abused. She endured a physical and mental pain as a child I couldn't have imagined. I don't consider myself abused growing up by any stretch of the imagination, but my hands have known many rulers, my ass, many belts.

At school in Trinidad, we were hit with rulers for misbehaving in class. It was generally accepted and embraced by parents. I remember once acting the fool out in the street with my parents not around and a stranger came out of nowhere and whooped me back into my right mind. When I returned home, my mother already knew about my public foible and I was whooped more.

Sometimes it got out of hand. I remember in first grade when two boys were giggling in class in the back of the room and my teacher called both boys up to the front of the room, positioned them on both sides of her, held their heads gently in her hands then knocked their heads together. One boy passed out and came to a few minutes later. The other one was two shocked to cry.

I remember when I saw a boy's ass for the first time. An older boy came to school with his mother to complain to the principal (my grandfather) about a teacher beating him too harshly. I happened to be outside because I had to go to the bathroom. Otherwise the halls were empty. I saw the boy and his mother talking to my grandfather outside, across the way. The boy let down his pants to show my grandfather how bruised his behind was. From that far away I couldn't see bruises, but I did see his beautiful beige buttocks.

I have stories of running from an ass whooping to hid underneath my bed, only to be dragged out by one foot. I have a memory of my mother losing her earring while beating me, then rushing off to an appointment. I kept that earring out of spite and watched her look all over for it when she got home. I think I may have even feigned helping her. I remember the red imprint her hand left on my upper thigh, and watching it disappear after an hour. My siblings have similar stories, theirs even worse than mine because I am the youngest of four, which means I had already missed my mother's prime.

These stories my siblings and I share and laugh about. I *never* felt my mother didn't love me. I wasn't my mother's victim. I didn't survive her, she survived me. From my cesarian birth to now.

Up until just a few years ago, it never occured to me that physical punishment wasn't the best disciplinary action for rearing a child. I know now for sure that there are other ways. Both of my sisters never lay hands on their children, and they've turning out just fine. There are certainly other ways. I have no idea what kind of parent I will be in that regard. Will I be the belt type? The pick your switch type? The whiplash-quick smack to the back of the head type? The ear twisting type? The sit down and talk type? The time out type? I am certain this is one of those things I won't know until it happens.

Eventually, the school system in Trinidad was disallowed from inflicting physical punishment on its denizens. Many people, still nostalgic for the old days swear physical discipline is the best and only way. Now in Trinidad you hear stories of students beating up teachers, unheard of back in the day and many from the old world attribute it to disempowering teachers' authority by relinquishing them of using physical means. Parents in this country fear getting a visit from child protective services for their disciplinary decisions, a fear that is indicative of our changing times--children are speaking out and people are speaking out for them. Child abuse is nothing new; its just that we're talking about it now.

I come from the days of the dunce cap. Hand outstreched and held taut beneath the ruler, its metal edge down. I come from the village that raised the child. That Mean Old Yesterday is making me address some issues. Just because I am a poster child for all the child hitters in the world, just because I am the girl that can say it worked for me, does that make it right? Is physical punishment a part of one of the many sick cycles we inherited from this peculiar institution called slavery?

Patton states that each time a parent hits a child, that parents takes away another piece of that child's self-esteem. For Patton this was entirely true. For me, it wasn't. Fortunately for me, I had a mother that made it clear why she was doing what she was doing. I was never hit for no reason, never hit just to prove a point, never hit out of pure anger. It was always with discipline in mind, and when I was getting hit, I knew what I had done to "deserve" it. I may have left a beating with my mother's handprints that disappeared within the hour, but never with bruises. Many people, like Patton, can't say the same thing. There are lines within this violence that parents cross but it is such a delicate line. My mother walked that line like an acrobat, but never crossed it.

I am really feeling this book because I am forever interested in the ways in which slavery plays out in our homes, our lives, in our interactions with each other and yes, in our interactions with white folk--especially these days with all these nooses flying around to remind us to stay in our place...but that's a whole other thesis.

As a people, a nation, and as a world, I find it of upmost importance to never stop this investigation of our many unclosed and unaddressed wounds.