I’m disturbed by the depictions of Toya Graham circulating in news and social media. Going upside her son’s head for throwing rocks into a crowd of Baltimore cops on Monday, she’s been depicted in at least three ways: as Mom of the Year, as fulfilling stereotypes of the Black mammy, and as a welfare queen for having six children.
Actually, she is none of the above. As it relates to protecting their children, these representations miss the mark on how harsh disciplinary strategies function as acts of resistance against white supremacy, the institutions it supports, and the psychological distress it causes women of color – especially those who have suffered the loss of children at the hand of police brutality.
Let me reference my days as Little Miss Sticky Fingers to illustrate where I’m coming from.
My older sister and I got “whoopins” as children. Not whippings. Not beatings.
I remember my mom publicly pinching me as we walked out the grocery store when I tried to slip Rolaids into my pocket thinking it was a roll of candy.
When I hopped in the driver’s side of her Oldsmobile to fulfill a dare from my sister to put the gear in reverse my mother beat my ass before I got home, while on the way home, and again when I got home. She got my older sister too. Just as Goodie Mob raps in their song “Guess Who (My Momma)”, my sister and I had to “pick the switches” when her kindness and patience reached a tipping point.
Like Graham, my mother knew if she didn’t quickly discipline me for stealing and partaking in other stupid stuff, there was a far greater chance of me becoming a full-on booster. The probability of me getting arrested, having limited opportunities, and possibly death increased if I didn’t learn at an early age to keep my hands off things that didn’t belong to me.
I’m one of many in my generation whose mother refused to spare the rod to protect her children from “the system”. “My grandmother said ‘I beat you so the police won’t have to,’” recalls Mike Render, rapper and social activist known as “Killer Mike” and son of a former police officer. “I have never been to prison and I’ve always dealt with the police respectfully.”
Graham’s son was not protesting peacefully. He was seconds away from putting himself in a vulnerable position that would have lead him down the wrong path, and possibly left a mother mourning. She said in a CBS News interview how she did not want her son – her only son – to be another Freddie Gray.
I’ll add to that: the community can’t take the stress from the optics of another Black mother on television crying about the untimely death of her son. The past three years grieving the loss of Black men and women – youths and adults – have been a heavy emotional burden for Black mothers like Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McSpadden, Lucia McBath, Angela Helton, and Samaria Rice. Black mothers matter.
There is no guarantee hitting one’s child or public disciplining them will protect him or her from a bullet or unnecessary roughness. But for Graham, she lived to see her son another day and he got the chance to witness justice for Freddie Gray on Friday when prosecutor Marilyn Mosby ruled his death a homicide and brought charges against six officers – 3 black and 3 white.
“This mother did the correct thing,” continues Render. “She saved her child’s life. Now he can go learn how to properly organize and influence the racial and socioeconomic oppressions in his local community.”
I support Graham, and other mothers regardless of race or status who have no problem putting hands on their children to help teach them how to navigate the foils of institutional oppression while also instilling in them the ability to make better decisions. Graham is not a pawn, welfare queen, or mammy. She’s a mother whose warrior instincts kicked in during an intense and violent situation. To misalign her actions is a slap in the face to all the mothers who have lost their sons and daughters at the hands of a kill-at-will system.
Joycelyn A. Wilson is a social and cultural foundations of education scholar at Virginia Tech. She’s an Emmy-nominated docu-film producer and has contributed commentary to The Root, AJC.com, BET, and VH1 Rock Docs’sATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @drjoycedotnet.