A Modern-day Beloved
By now everyone has seen the video of the Baltimore mother, Toya Graham, whacking her son, Michael, around to make him leave the scene of the “riot.” Reactions have varied: some have praised her as Mom of the Year, the New York Daily News running a headline: “Forget the cops and the National Guard: Send in the Moms.” So far as I have been able to determine, none of those who expressed that point of view have shown any sympathy for the young black men of Baltimore and elsewhere whom everyone but the most intransigent right-wing troglodytes acknowledges have been treated unfairly (to put it as mildly as I can) by the police. I have searched my brain for terms to describe those people: “entitled,” “smug,” “reactionary,” are some that have come to mind; for now I have settled on “white.”
Opposing them are those who have denounced Toya Graham as a child abuser. Many of these are white, too, although not as belligerent about it as the first group. Unlike the first group, they mean well; they shop at Whole Foods and listen to NPR, and are for gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and other worthy causes; in most cases they sympathize with the young black men against the police. Yet they annoy me no less than the first crowd.
Stacey Patton, in a May 4 column in the on-line magazine Dame, joins in the criticism of Toya Graham, but her words gain force by her adopting the standpoint of a black woman, a process made easier by her being one. In the first place, she says she is not criticizing Toya Graham personally but treating her as a symbol of a tendency she regards as harmful. In the second place, she places her criticism of “child abuse” in the context of white supremacy. She writes:
Toya Graham is a symbol of Black America’s complicity in its own destruction. How else can we explain that she is a national hero for assaulting her child before the world? It is proof of the effectiveness of dominant institutions in teaching us the same lies, fictions, and stereotypes that fill us with self hate and drive us to beat our kids like we hate them all while thinking the switch, belts, fists, slaps and profanity laced whoopings are “love.” . . .
We see people praising this mom—who was caught in the ultimate Catch-22 maternal nightmare—for violently terrorizing her son who, at the vulnerable age of 16, was publicly humiliated before the world. Yet, amid these celebrations there is little recognition that Graham, like millions of others, is parenting under a racist system that makes her violence against her son seem not only right, but necessary. . . .
It’s not just White America. Many within the Black community are singing her praises. We have gone from the Children’s Silent Parade, the Children’s Crusade, sit-ins, and the Panther’s ten-point program, from voting to marches, to parental beatings. We have gone from, “yes we can,” to yes we can beat and slap our children into safety and achieve the peace that we’ve been longing for in our communities. . . .
Since whipping Black children does absolutely nothing to protect or save any Black child from racist police treatment or murder, not to mention a school system that sees suspension and expulsions as limited to Black youth, what is really being accomplished? Beating Black kids gives their parents the illusion that they have the power to resist White supremacy, or at least insulate their children from its dangers.
The column is worth reading in its entirety. It is at http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/05/04/why-are-black-parents-helping-racist-america-destroy-their-children
To complicate matters further, some cynic posted a note to the effect that the Baltimore Police Department should recruit Toya Graham, since she had demonstrated mastery of the methods they use on black youth (although he failed to mention that she didn't use a gun, a billy club or pepper spray). I couldn’t tell where he was coming from.
A black woman I know said that if she thought her son was doing the right thing, she would join him.
I suppose I should say what I think. My feelings were most succinctly captured by the person who wrote that parents, in their desire to protect their children’s lives, may sometimes destroy their spirits. I am on the side of the young people who “rioted.” I admire them for resisting the police even to the point of throwing rocks (and in Ferguson Molotov cocktails) at them. I like to think that if I had a black child in Baltimore who wanted to join his friends in the streets, I would support his doing so. But I do not, and so my aim here is not to advise but to understand.
Some things we can be sure of:
Toya Graham loves her son.
Her son loves her, and knows she loves him.
They agree that the cops are no good.
Of some things I am less sure: contrary to Stacey Patton, I do not believe Michael felt humiliated by his mother’s actions; indeed, I suspect he may have been secretly glad that his mother dragged him away from the danger, because he was scared and grateful for an excuse to leave without appearing cowardly.
My concern is to examine the internal stresses at work, what Patton calls the “ultimate maternal nightmare.” A historical example of such stresses was the escaped slave, Margaret Garner, who killed her daughter rather than allow her to be returned to slavery after she was apprehended by U.S. marshals. The incident served as the basis for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.
I can imagine no one better suited than Toni Morrison to address the situation of Toya Graham.
Internal contradiction is the universal human condition. On one occasion years ago I was sitting on my front step when my neighbor came out of the house next door carrying her small child, whom she placed in her auttomobile. She turned away from him for a moment, and as she started to close the car door I saw that the child had put his hand where it would be crushed when the door was closed. I shouted to the woman to stop. She halted in mid-motion, and when she realized what she had almost done an amazing thing happened: she laughed, then broke into tears and began hitting the child. It was the most intense and dramatic display of of conflicting emotions I have ever beheld. Probably the most well known examination of the phenomenon is the chapter “Lordship and Bondage” from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. There he describes the struggle that goes on within the mind of the slave trying to free himself: in order to do so he has to overthrow the master within his own mind. A splendid example from literature is in Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck discovers that Jim has been betrayed by two confidence men and is being held as a runaway. Huck’s slight exposure to school and church has taught him that the proper course would be to write to Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, informing her of Jim’s whereabouts. He starts to do so, but his mind turns to their trip down the river: “Somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.”
. . . and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
“The whole hog” was Huck’s translation of the Marxist notion of totality.
What Toya Graham and her son went through, what black people and others are going through in reflecting on her behavior, is what Huck went through and what every oppressed class seeking to emancipate itself will have to go through.
Pay close attention: we are seeing the formation of a class-for-itself.
Noel Ignatiev is editor of A New Notion: Two Works by C.L.R. James: "Every Cook Can Govern" and "The Invading Socialist Society".