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Copyright 2020 Cynthia Alease Smith, Ed.D.

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A Mother's Love

Back in 2015, during the protests over the death in Baltimore of 25 year old Freddie Gray, everyone with a keyboard, an index finger and a thumb, and a platform and a voice, discussed and debated the story of Toya Graham, the young mother who was caught on camera beating her son after she saw him on TV wearing a hoodie and a mask in the midst of the demonstrations. There was so much chatter at the proverbial water coolers in offices as well as the social media-verse touting her bravery, her spunk and indeed her greatness. The video of her attacking her son traveled around the world and back again and she even garnered interviews on the national morning shows, topping it off with Whoopi Goldberg adding her spin on her show, “The View.”


I was compelled in 2015 to write about my ambivalence about Ms. Graham because my feelings shifted toward the part of the brain which said her behavior was not appropriate for the situation she found herself and her son in on that day. I am NEVER impressed with a parent who beats, smacks, whips or otherwise humiliates a child. Much like using cuss words, I believe beating and hitting children is done because there is nothing the adult has left in their sensible arsenal to do. I fault education for that. I wrote this essay back in 2015 and set it down, only picking it back up today, three years and six months later, late in October, 2018.

I suppose it was because of a post I read recently where one of my colleagues in the struggle for justice and equality was suggesting a discussion forum for parents of Black children, or perhaps it was just because I noticed the title of the essay in my blog folder and remembered I wrote it those years ago. Sufficed to say,

She should never have put her hands on her son in that abusive way because there WAS another, sensible way to approach the situation.

What she did seemed too easy. It actually appeared that she was very used to doing that sort of thing. As part of my immediate judgement of her, I thought there was nothing courageous in it, and it only served to create more of the false justification that white America believes it has with respect to black children and the proper “handling of thugs.”

Here is why I was not impressed with Ms. Graham’s behavior. It is quite simple, yet as complex as the system that brought her to that moment in her life.


He should have been given the TALK. To me, it appeared obvious that she had not. It also appeared obvious that he was expressing his outrage and righteous indignation over the needless death of Freddie Gray, and she hadn't warned him of the dangers of being outraged, righteously indignant and Black while being so.

What is the TALK? It is the conversation that every black parent, whether wealthy, well off, poor or destitute, should give to their children as early as when he or she first realizes that black isn’t just a color in a crayon box, and that his or her capital "B" Blackness, no matter how black, brown, beige, yellow or white the skin color, would be an ongoing conviction without due process in a society where white supremacy as a system and institutions exist.

That would probably make the age of three years an appropriate gauge to determine when to have the first TALK, since it is by three years old that a young Black child feels less than without cause and are perplexed because they don’t understand why yet. Children are very eager at that age to learn. The key is education, but not the variety taught in the schools, because the curriculum is part and parcel of the same structural institutions which serve to promote the existing system of racism. Tell them the truth.

Inasmuch as my ambivalence also tilted to the side of my brain leaning toward understanding Ms. Graham, I don't condone the behavior but I don't blame her for her actions on that day, for she may be among thousands of parents who may be too young themselves to fully understand the history of how we got to where we are today in human history. She is part of the generation lulled into a false sense of security about systemic racism and colorblind racialization of the purely individual variety.

I have to assume that she was never given the TALK in order to pass it down to her son. Moreover, I believe that not many of us ever actually educate our children about our collective life in America under our existing system of racism and white supremacy. What we generally do is allow experiences such as what is happening in our cities and the accompanying reactions to be the teacher for us.

Many don’t talk about racism enough in our own families unless faced with circumstances such as the ones we are faced with today. Even then, we only talk about our reactions and the good or bad of such behavior. I’m doing that right now, but with a purpose.

Every adult black person, and I mean anyone born in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s must begin to educate the youth, by giving them the TALK. It doesn’t have to include the burning, lynching and pogroms, and it doesn’t have to be a lesson in the Pan African Diaspora. It must, however, include the truth of The Enslavement in this country, what it was for, why we were used, how it was ended, and what was put in its place.

Even though none of us would dare admit it, we unconsciously conjure up the old spirits of The Enslavement through the beatings of our children. We don’t even realize that we are reverting to the slavery behavior of our ancestors who would beat their children senseless in order to "protect" them from a far worse fate from the slave master's whips and torture; those kinds of harsh beatings which were done in front of the slave masters to prove that we could control our own children or to keep them from becoming "spoiled."


In doing what Toya Graham did, she made herself the poster child for white supremacists and racism standard bearer beliefs that black children are all thugs who deserve to be beaten. She may have protected him that day, but a lifetime of beatings won't protect him as an adult. A better approach would have been to let him know that she wasn't going to harm him and walk him home. Then, she should have educated him about the struggles his young soul is only now experiencing in a very real sense. If she had given her son that TALK there would have been no need for her to beat him for the world, rather, she would have been able to walk out there and stand with him because he would have been validated for his convictions. He wouldn’t have thrown rocks at the police. He would know better already.


But I get it. It was her love for her son, much like the love of the ancestors for their sons and their desire to keep the harm of the massa from them. So she beat him, so they wouldn't.


View video here.