I remember the day she beat him with a broomstick.
My oldest brother Donnie had been caught hanging out on the corner with the “wrong crowd,” puffing on the filtered butt of a Kool cigarette. He was 14, some nine years older than me, and already stood much taller than our mother. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, weighing all but 90 pounds.
The year was 1973.
My father was murdered a few months later and, I suppose, Mama was afraid that her first-born son was traveling the same road. She would’ve done anything to save his life. That I know for sure.
I remember how he ran down the gravel alleyway, darted into the housing project and blew through the back door of our house. He knew what was coming. “Mama, I’m sorry!” he said throwing his hands over his head.
The painted red stick splintered and broke into shards that fell onto the linoleum floor. She started hitting him with her tiny, balled-up fists. I ran upstairs, hid in a linen closet and cried. I was 5 years old.
We lived in East St. Louis, Illinois then, a township known even to this day for its debilitating poverty and pervasive, violent crime. The distance between the schoolhouse and the jailhouse was not long, even then. Too many of my friends left in the back of a hearse, in a casket surrounded by flowers.
My mother, a young divorcee raising children on her own, never received formal child support and was too ashamed to go to down to the welfare office. She worked double-shifts as a cocktail waitress at a hotel near the St. Louis airport — some 20 miles away, which made it harder to see after her children. After taxes on her meager tips, her paycheck sometimes read “zero dollars.” She retired from that same company after 37 years, having worked her way into management, without a pension. Her 401 (k) was drained over the years. Much of it was spent bailing my brothers out of jail.
Her sons did not survive.
I discovered how little she earned while looking for her insurance papers, a few days after Donnie died 10 years ago. Mama always saved everything, even decades-old check stubs. I remember how she cried the day she took him off life support. I sensed her regret; how she mourned for the son she could not save. He contracted HIV during a yearlong stint in the county jail. In the early 90s, my brother Christopher was murdered in a drug war.
Tonight, as I scan the news coverage coming out of Baltimore, another mother — not unlike my own — is being heralded as a hero. She is, for many, a rose blooming from the concrete. The video captured shows her striking her son repeatedly about the head and shoulders. We can sense her desperation, her disappointment. We can feel her fears.
Mothering sons and daughters, I know something about that. I know something about bad, immature choices that can sometimes open unfortunate pathways to the criminal justice system or worse. I remember hanging with the “wrong crowd” myself as I came of age and being snatched off a corner by the nape of my neck. I know firsthand about the diminishing options when the only thing standing between your child and the streets is you.
My mother shot a man for abusing me. Her then-fiancé put me in a bath of scalding hot water, leaving scars I can still see and feel some 40 years later. Like I said, she would do anything for us.
But I wonder now, with jail cells and graveyards packed with people who faced similar discipline, if it had the societal payoff we intended. The hard data tells another story. Children who are subjected to corporal punishment are no more likely to refrain from bad behavior than those who are not. In fact, studies show it has the opposite impact, and that they seek out more crafty ways to cloak unwanted conduct.
That is no indictment on the mother from Baltimore or my own. It does, however, speak to our collective hypocrisy.
As a society, we have supported public policies that create deep pockets of poverty and need. We built interstate highways that cut off entire communities, producing dead-end streets and drug traps. We permitted institutions to crumble without investment, and then wonder why families fall by the wayside. We redlined whole cities, allowing predatory payday loan, title pawn and check cashing stores to flourish. Today, they are more prevalent than liquor stores and churches.
We burn bridges to meaningful opportunity then blame the people we isolate when they fail to embrace the “American Dream.” When families struggling on the margins cry out for help, we turn a blind eye. We stand safely beyond the walls of containment we erected and cast moral aspersions to assuage our own complicity. That is the enduring legacy of Jim Crow, segregationist policies that kept people locked up and locked out.
From the comfort of our living rooms, or from behind a computer keyboard, we watch the unrest unfolding in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. Why can’t they be like us, we ask, with no small irony. Why can’t they be like Dr. King?
We are the arbiters of their rage. We decide what, if anything, they have to be angry about. We decide when they can march and whether it will be on the street or the sidewalk. We castigate the lawlessness, the broken windows and vandalized squad cars. We call them “savages” and “thugs,” believing we would be better — more moral — given similar circumstances. Why would they burn their own community, we beg to know.
On the one hand, we lift up and celebrate the non-violent legacy of Dr. King. On the other, we want to know why aren’t there more mothers, like the one in the video, willing to beat their children into submission. Forgive me cable pundits, if I am not able to hear you talking out of both sides of your neck.
My children are grown now — educated, law abiding and out meeting the world on their own terms. I was swift with discipline and sometimes, I admit, too much. I count myself lucky. The wind blew in just the right way, in just the right moments.
My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else within earshot, raised me with strong hands. But there is, I should tell you, no man alive today in my immediate family who was born before 1986. For every one of them lost, to the grave or to a prison, there is a weeping mother who mourns for him.
I do wonder what the response might have been if that mother had been kicking a dog rather than whooping her son. I wonder if it would have turned, snarling, and bitten her or tucked that anger inside until it bit someone else.
I wonder if we understand the few choices we left her with.