Poignant pictures are spilling out of Baltimore. Photos of what we may soon regard as the latest protest in our “Spring” movement show brave bodies in various states of resistance. Some with faces covered, others brazenly identifiable — but all filled with the justifiable rage of living in what feels like a police state where black lives definitely do not matter.
As a scholar of black parenting, one picture stood out from the rest, one that surprisingly united folks from across the ideological divide on “acceptable” forms of protest. First reported on CNN, which has recently come under fire for their selective and sensationalized reporting, the photo shows Toya Graham and her 16-year-old son who, with face covered and rock in hand, had been a part of the resistance events of Monday afternoon. With the cameras rolling, Graham repeatedly smacked and hit the teen upside his head, obviously incensed by what she was seeing and his presence. (I choose not to link to it here.)
Graham had become #MomOfTheYear. For those who saw “thugs” and “looters,” here was a black mother determined that her son not be a criminal. For those who saw “people tearing up their own community,” here was a black mother who seemingly advocated for non-violent protest, in the style of the MLK of revisionist history. On both sides, here was — finally — a black parent who cared. (Even Oprah said so!)
I understand why she did what she did. Fear is a powerful motivator. So is love. As a black mother of black boys, I understand that if my 16 year old child was in the streets throwing rocks at the police, justifiably or not, I would want nothing more than to snatch him up and take him home. I likely would not have beat him over the head, but I would have done everything else in my power to get him off the street and Take. Him. Home. That’s the love of a parent who wants to protect her child. I hope, in her children’s eyes, that she is their mom of the year.
But she’s not THE mom of the year.
She’s the poster child of the moment for how we see black responsibility for the conditions in which we find ourselves.
Had Graham’s 16-year old son been Freddie Gray, killed by the callous indifference and pathological actions of six persons sworn to serve and protect, those praising her “tough love” would have been decrying the fact that she allowed her son to be arrested in the first place. “Why was he even in the back of a police van? He must of done something. Where are his parents?” Her mom of the year status would be used as satire, with the implication being that only bad parenting could have led her son to that van, a son already known to post Facebook pictures smoking a joint and holding a gun.
Her son wasn’t Freddie Gray, thank God. Toya Graham went out there to save the child, her only son, who she already knew had gone wrong. She didn’t come out there to stop her son from protesting per se; she came to get him because he’d been in trouble and she was trying to get him back from the streets. And while she is being lauded now for for stopping him from participating in protest, had her time in the national consciousness been on the flip side, as a mother grieving the lost of her teenaged son in the back of a police van, the national consciousness would be singing a new, cruel, tune.
Whether the message is that good black moms knock their kids upside the head to stop them from “looting” or that bad black moms allow their 16-year-old sons to smoke weed and handle guns, it boils down to this: “If black people would just control their kids, we wouldn’t be having this problem.” The obsession with Toya Graham encapsulates the idea that we — black people, and especially black parents — aren’t doing enough to keep ourselves in check. Good (black) parents beat their kids so they don’t go to jail. That’s obviously the only way.
The story of Toya Graham and the admirable love she has for her son is not one of finally celebrating the “good” black parents out there, but the same old story of how black people’s problems would just be fixed if we simply focused on “bettering” ourselves, our children and our communities, and “preferably by brutal measures so we know you’re serious.” The ages-old lessons black people are to get from the Toya Graham message are: “We will respect you when you start respecting yourself.” “If you all would just control your neighborhood . . . if you all would stop committing crimes . . . if you all aren’t doing something wrong . . . the police would have no reason to mess with you.” Do what you gotta do at home. Fix it.
The message is, in focusing on the parenting decision in the moment where a child was poised to throw rocks back at police officers who also threw rocks is “Please, black people, control yourselves — except it’s okay to be violent to other black people (especially your wild ass kids) as long as you keep that violence among yourselves and, most importantly — ONLY for the aim of keeping US safe.”
The reality is there is no amount of respect or control we can bestow and foster within ourselves or on our children that will limit the state sponsored violence inflicted on black skin in America. Toya Graham may have thought she was protecting her son from becoming another Freddie Gray, but she’s wrong, and so is everyone else who thinks she’s right. She stopped one brick from being thrown. Her son is going to face a thousand bricks over the rest of his life.
Ultimately, the issue of racism, systemically, does not belong to black people, because we can never stop being black. We will never be good enough. The issue of racism belongs to white supremacy, and it is a war that is being waged on our backs. We can congratulate Graham for a job well done of beating her son into submission and becoming the “Why can’t all black parents be like that?” mascot of the moment.
Again, I am not condemning her – she did what she thought needed to be done.
But while she can try to knock some sense into her kid and into submission, the fact that she is so-called #momoftheyear for violently removing her son from a protest against police violence won’t stop her son from being target practice for state-sponsored violence. The next time the police see him, they won’t see his #momoftheyear with him. They will see him, and his skin. And that will be enough.