“My mother was the first person to teach me that love looks like violence…”
I was awakened to being pulled from my bed by my hair and dragged from my room to the kitchen. I was thrown to the grown and hit in my face repeatedly. I had no idea what was happening or why. I felt the back of my head hit the kitchen floor over and over, before being slammed against the side of the counter. I cried out for help, for it to stop, but no help came and it did not stop. A hand closed around my throat and I thought I would die, and still no explanation was given. She stood up and looked down at me in complete disgust and unfiltered anger. I felt small and afraid. I lay there, as still as possible, terrified to move. She told me to get up, and I started to scramble to my feet, relieved that it was over. Then she kicked me in my face before turning and walking away from me without a word.
I was eleven.
My crime, I would learn later, was that I had cut up a couple of t-shirts earlier that week while trying to be a fashion designer with my younger sister. The shirts didn’t turn out how we wanted, so we threw them in the back of our closet. I don’t even believe we thought we were doing anything wrong or were trying to hide anything by putting them there. But in hindsight, maybe we were. Maybe we knew the wrath we had the potential to face should they ever be discovered. And when they were, to save herself, my sister told our mom that I had cut the t-shirts up. I don’t blame her. She was nine and already fully cognizant of the consequences of our mom’s anger. She wanted to save herself and she did, and honestly I’m okay with that. To this day I’m content with the fact that I took that beating for the both of us because it meant that my little sister endured a little less harm in a world that destroys black girls with reckless abandon.
I know people will read my story and see my mom as a monster, as the sum of her faults and bad choices, as a villain that they can’t see themselves or anyone else they know in. But my mom is not a monster, and if she is, she certainly wasn’t born one. She is what becomes of too many black children forced to grow up in a world that hates us and does everything possible, from birth, to destroy us. She is the product of a decade and a half of her own endured parental abuse and atrocities in her childhood that she still doesn’t acknowledge as abuse or understand that she didn’t deserve.
By thirteen years old, she was a single mom to a child who would be diagnosed with Sickle Cell Anemia at the age of two, and by twenty-one she was raising 3 children on her own. My mom has six children – five girls, one boy. There are four fathers between us, and yet she raised us all alone. Something that was said to me in childhood that I always resented and now understand as an adult is that she did the best that she could do. Not the best that could be done, but the best that she was able to do with the experiences, trauma, education, and resources she had at her disposal – and with the only standards and practices for what “love” and parenting look like that she had ever been shown.
“We tell our daughters that a man who hits them doesn’t love them, after telling them their whole lives that we hit them out of love.”
I posted the above on Facebook last August and had several friends and relatives comment with excuses and defenses for why it’s okay to put your hands on children, and how that act is different from the same violence when committed against an adult by another adult. And I won’t go into what those excuses were, or the countless other justifications I’ve heard, because the reality is they don’t matter. It’s not different. Many people in the many conversations that I’ve had about spanking think what they’re doing to their children is better than what was done to me and my siblings because they don’t “cross the line”. But where is “the line”? And would we make these same distinctions when it came to harmful actions committed against another adult?
Would we say that it’s okay to subject someone else to “a little bit” of sexual assault, physical violence, harassment, or domestic violence as long as you don’t “cross the line”? Of course not. So why then do we play these word games to defend harm we cause our children? Especially when it has been established through scientific research and studies that violence and trauma can transform our brains and even our DNA? Why are we still defending toxic parenting practices that do nothing but harm our children, the people we love most in the world and would never want to harm?
Not only is physical violence against children abusive in all its form and a violation and deprivation of bodily autonomy and integrity, it does long-term harm to children’s brain development and impacts how children learn to connect with the world in adolescence and adulthood. Children who are spanked or otherwise physically disciplined, and even children who are yelled at frequently, often grow into adults who struggle with boundaries (both establishing them for themselves and respecting them in others), communication and managing frustrations in healthy ways. Girls who are spanked are more vulnerable to sexual assault and domestic violence. Because if the people we love most teach us that we deserve to be hit and harmed, why wouldn’t we believe it?
I often find myself crying for the spirits of little black girls everywhere, even those long gone, who will never know what we could’ve grown into had we been nurtured in the sun’s warm embrace rather than stifled in shrouds of darkness. For black girls who do not grow up knowing that we are beautiful, special, capable, valued and valuable and above all else loved. My mother was the first person to teach me that love looks like violence, because it’s what she had been taught too.
What will we teach our daughters?