The origins of whupping Black children are sinister: beating the barbarity out of black children is a trusted tool in the well-stocked arsenal of white supremacy.
(Content warning: discussion of child abuse)
Interrogating the most controversial and taboo aspects of black culture in the name of radical love is kind of my thing. It’s also assistant professor of multimedia journalism and journalist Stacey Patton’s thing. Which is why I readily accepted the offer to read and, as best I can, review her new book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America — a 247-page distillation of her painful sojourn to find the intellectual and emotional foundation of corporal punishment in black America.
But — that’s not the only reason I wanted to read it. Let me set the context.
I am a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence. I do not remember much about what happened — maybe it’s best that way. Some memories are too painful, too dangerous, too psychologically jarring to hold on to and relive.
Removed from my biological mother’s custody at age 4 or 5, I nearly ended up shuffled in the Indiana foster care system. As fate would have it, I was entrusted to the guardianship of my great-grandmother, the main elder on my mother’s side of the family, whom we affectionately called “Mama.”
Years after raising her own daughter, Mama had taken in and cared for multiple generations of black children, guiding them as best she could, to adulthood. That included administering physical discipline, even on me, the last in line to be signed to her care, after (as the family story goes) I was found bloody and beaten on the floor of my biological mother’s bedroom and rushed to the hospital.
Like most black kids, particularly those who grow up in predominantly African American, low-income communities — major cities and metropolitan areas that, because of their huge black demographic, are quarantined from state aid — my formative experiences consisted of receiving frequent whuppings and, from the adults who administered them, vague reassurances that whuppings were an expression of love.
No weapon was off limits. Belts, fists, switches, extension cords, threats with pots and pans, verbal lashings — all of these methods was fair game.
In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to hear Mama threatening to knock “my skinny black ass” upside the head with her four-legged walking cane if I didn’t “get my shit together” and “act like I got some damn sense.”
Privately, in my own head space, I harbored doubts. And I suspect that many of the other kids I knew did too. Occasionally, mine would filter out in the form of two questions, always asked back to back, through unwiped snot and hot tears: “What did I do? Why am I being whupped?”
I never got an answer. And as the years went on, I never expected to get one. Because in most black households, it’s taboo to question a parent, guardian or adult’s decision or authority. Doing so can potentially put you at more risk, invite more scorn and rage and possibly intensify the parent’s violent reaction. “Don’t ask me no damn questions,” my child-self remembers before the belt strap came crashing down.
Even long after childhood, as an undergraduate student, I encountered more people who justified whuppings and praised them as an inalterable staple of black culture, like soul food.
Still, I knew something was wrong, off-kilter, even if I didn’t possess the language or concepts to articulate my frustrations at the time. I knew it was wrong to normalize corporal punishment as one of the surest signs of a healthy black family. I knew that the adults around me didn’t defend beating your kids. In their eyes, that was unethical. Whuppings, on the other hand, was, and still is, viewed as an entirely different, more tamed species of physical discipline altogether.
It is with this psychological backlog in mind that I dived into Spare the Kids, searching not only for answers but emotional substantiation. I walked away with all the above. As a matter of fact, if I’m being really honest, I never left the book.
Patton’s prognosis of the problems derived from the intersection of racism, black parenting, and corporal punishment, and her connection of whuppings to all the other forms of violence black people must wind their bodies through, is truly one of the best pieces of interdisciplinary scholarship I’ve engaged with in some time.
As a student of African American history, it didn’t surprise me that whupping had its origins in slavery. I know that nothing within black history, including the genesis of black parenting, exists in a void and rarely without precedent. Aware of this, I relished the historical chapter’s linking of past to present, because I’m all about the scholar-activist deferring to the past to illuminate the current period we’re living through.
For, indeed, if whuppings are, for the most part, an unchallenged and, for this reason, unmoved convention in black families; if black parents still view with every ounce and fiber of their being the act of inflicting violence on the bodies of their children as a preventative measure; if black adults still view whuppings as a necessary evil to save the existence of the entire race, then consulting the past in order to find the roots of this practice is imperative. And, like every other issue, microaggressions and the systemic failures black individuals and families must navigate on a daily basis, the propensity for practicing corporal punishment on the bodies of black youth is inseparably connected to racism, to white supremacy and, Patton points out, “racial trauma.”
What I did not take for granted is how central whupping black youth is to maintaining the myth of racial inferiority or its influence on modern school disciplinary culture. Nor did I allow for how beatings affected black gender relations or the physiological development of young, prepubescent black girls.
Patton, a survivor of child abuse with an appreciation for nuance, clarifies all this for readers. She avoids the pitfalls of the one-dimensional blame game by fusing together the insight of multiple academic disciplines — sociology, psychology, neuroscience — to flesh out her claims about the vast and penetrating consequences of beating black kids. Yet, the progressive flow, the increasing clarification of the story and argument, from beginning to end, is seamless.
That story is of a people who were stripped of their West African native cultures that valued kids as little gods and were forced to adopt a European culture that conceptualized childhood as an invention of the devil and, consequently, beat, tormented and tortured their youth.
From here, black slaves and their descendants would internalize European parenting methods until, over time, through uninterrupted replication, black adults, parents and caregivers intricately threaded corporal punishment into the fabric of black identity. Today, influential and famous black people — iconic athletes and comedians like Charles Barkley and the late Bernie Mac — and ordinary, black mothers and anonymous black neighbors defend the cultural mythology of whuppings as innate to black existence.
Patton issues the scholarly comeuppance they deserve, emphasizing the impact of physical discipline on child’s developing brain and what that suggests about the life prospects of black youth, both dragging these individuals over the coals, at times, and gently escorting them at others; always from a place of genuine understanding, always in the spirit of transformative love.
However, Patton makes it clear that black parents and advocates of whupping do not hit or beat their kids out of malice or some primordial genetic deformity. Thus, she is not out to bash black parents who, like my great-grandmother, did the best they could with the tools they had.
No, the origins of whupping are something more sinister: beating the barbarity out of black children is a trusted tool in the well-stocked arsenal of white supremacy.
Patton’s focus on history, which appears early in the book is, by far, one of my favorite parts of Spare the Kids, for it bears on important questions pertaining to my interest in excavating the complicated origins of culture. My other favorite? It’s a toss-up between Chapter 9 (“The Parent to Prison-Pipeline”) — a thesis which is almost certain to rub some readers the wrong way because it appears to flirt with victim-blaming (it isn’t) — and the final chapter, which wraps up her investigation on a hopeful note.
Chapter 10, “Spare the Rod,” a compilation of the personal testimonies of black parents who stopped hitting and beating their kids, is meant to prove that it is possible for blacks to eject corporal punishment from black culture. At a time when some writers tend to disabuse themselves of the notion of hope, Patton embraces the kind of hardscrabble optimism and patience needed to persevere as a child activist. The voices highlighted in this chapter, of mothers and fathers who weaned themselves off whuppings, underscore why. Reading their words made me realize how much I wish someone had produced this book 25 or so years ago.
The most important aspect of the work, I feel, is the stated function of why, from Patton’s perspective, it needs to exist. Patton is not just out to merely enlighten readers or impart a deeper comprehension of the role of whupping in the devaluation of black lives. Whuppings jeopardize black progress and feed white supremacy. That much is clear. Her mission, however, is to help stop it. What can we do, as she puts it, to “save lives?” “I wanted to write a book that could eventually save other children from the abuse I experienced,” Patton writes.
Indeed, it can. I believe that. But — only if enough adults who are directly and indirectly involved in, and responsible for, raising and supporting and loving on the lives of black children take the freedom of black youth advocated in Spare the Kids seriously and see it as instrumental to black liberation.
That will be hard. Because asking black parents and the black community to reevaluate whupping as a cultural practice may come off as a referendum on black culture and a defense of the thesis of black pathology when it’s anything but.
Consider this example: A few days after receiving Patton’s book in the mail for review, one of my own family members, glancing at the title from a distance, rolled her eyes, scrunched her face, looked up at me and blurted “Who wrote that? Is they black? Whoever it is don’t know what the hell they talkin’ ‘bout.” Mind you, she hadn’t read a single page of the text.
That’s just a small taste of what will likely be the collective backlash from the black community.
Black dissenters (myself included) who are already on board with replacing whuppings with alternative, non-hitting methods of discipline must keep this in mind as they brace themselves to discuss and help spread the ideas of this work and plead with black adults to withdraw from the practice of hitting their kids.
I, for one, cannot stress enough how grateful and appreciative I am to Patton for this work and for equipping black people, and everyone else who oppose corporal punishment, with the tools to make a meaningful difference and end this madness. Spare the Kids is essential reading for anyone interested in a framework for ending the cycle of abuse and trauma black children are forced to endure by the people who are supposed to care for them the most. It’s almost certain to become the Bible of this new and growing movement toward adopting non-hitting child disciplinary options and reclaiming our precolonial roots.