The Real Travesty of the “Hero Mom” Story

The Real Travesty of the “Hero Mom” Story April 29, 2015

I don’t have a lot of time at the moment, but I did want to drop a quick note to say how disgusting I find white America’s reaction to video footage of a black mother, Toya Graham, beating her teenage son as she drags him away from the violence between protesters and police in Baltimore. This mom has been dubbed “Hero Mom” “Mom of the Year” on media networks and twitter, trending from coast to coast.

I want to be clear that I’m not angry so much with Toya Graham as I am with white America’s reaction to her actions. Toya Graham did what she felt she had to in a difficult situation. That doesn’t make it right (it wasn’t), but it does make it understandable. White America, on the other hand, has created a situation where black parents feel they have to beat their children to protect them from white violence, to the extent that violence like Toya’s is in some sense an extension of white violence—and then white America praises this violence.

To quote Joan Walsh on Salon:

Not a word of this is intended to criticize Toya Graham. I cannot say to her, “Ma’am, I have a better way to keep your son safe.” But when I watch that video, I don’t merely see a loving mother disciplining her son. I see a desperate mother being forced to wield the club of white violence, “in loco” white cops. 

To quote Michael Eric Dyson from the New York Times last year:

The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them. 

And once again quoting Walsh:

The debate over the moment Graham says she “lost it” is complex. There’s a parallel black debate going on that, as always when it comes to racial issues, is richer and more nuanced. But anyone white who’s applauding Graham’s moment of desperation, along with the white media figures who are hyping her “heroism,” is essentially justifying police brutality, and saying the only way to control black kids is to beat the shit out of them.

What Toya Graham did in assaulting her son was wrong, but the real travesty here is in white America’s praise of violence against black youth, and their blindness to the reality that black parents too often feel that exercising violence against their children is the only way to protect those children from white violence. For many black parents, corporal punishment is less about punishing wrongdoing than it is about making sure their children make it to adulthood alive. That is the travesty.


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