Growing up, my parents were huge proponents of corporal punishment. I’d have a tough time convincing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren that that were ever the case but back in their parenting prime, they were the quintessential authoritarian parents which meant zero explanations, unlimited rules, and all you can eat ass whoopings. There’s no question my parents were about that action, but even they drew the line somewhere, and that was right at the border of harsh and heartless. Granted, that didn’t stop them from threatening to send me back to Nigeria a few times, but when it came to forcing me out on the street to fend for myself that just wasn’t an option.
So the first time a friend told me she was newly homeless after being put out by her mother’s boyfriend, I couldn’t fully understand what she meant. “You mean you can’t go back home?”, I asked her. “Where does he want you to go?” As my friend explained just how on her own she really was, my heart broke for her. Ultimately, she would be the first of many of our peers to face the same fate. Out on the street without the ability to work or provide for herself, my friend dropped out of school so she could focus less on science and more on survival. Eventually I lost track of my friend. Maybe she became another homeless teen statistic or turned to a life of crime to keep herself afloat, I’ll never know for certain. What I do know is that my community had a teen abandonment issue back then, and most certainly has one now. And it’s time we stopped pretending that abandoning our children is an acceptable form of discipline.
The Black jury is still out on whether or not corporal punishment is a good thing or a bad thing. The irony is that as adults we preach violence as a last resort, but we show our children that violence is an immediate means to an end. And we’ve become so attached to the notion that sparing the rod spoils the child that even the mention of discipline that doesn’t involve physical pain is met with immediate skepticism. Oddly enough we attribute non-violent forms of discipline to white households when the truth is that we learned to whip our children from the same people who wouldn’t dare whip their own. And we didn’t just inherit an eagerness to respond to disobedience with physical violence, we borrowed a distorted correlation between piety and provision, the idea that care and love are earned not given. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, biological parents were under the governance of plantation owners, making them more like caregivers than rights-bearing parents. Food, shelter and clothing were privileges not rights and they were gained through deference and docility. There were no unearned spots on the plantation, not even for the children. If you could talk, you could toil and anyone who struggled with that was quickly shown the road, man, woman or child.
Plantation culture mandated that children be held to rigid behavioral standards under which an authentic childhood could not exist. This meant discipline had to be immediate, even if short-term, as opposed to gradual with long-term effectiveness. There was no room for meaningful correction over time, or healthy dialogue surrounding disagreements, or the outward expression of feelings and emotions. If a child being childlike meant they could be whipped or sold or killed, then it was obvious they needed to be stripped of the mental boundlessness that made them childlike. By the time we were freed from our chains, we hadn’t just perfected these oppressive parenting methods, but we had convinced ourselves that they were necessary, appropriate even. We were no longer under “massa’s” watchful eye but we raised our children as if doing so for his approval.
Before we accepted that you could opt out of parenting when the job presented some challenges, we believed that parenting was an ongoing and evolutionary learning process for both parent and child. Before we accepted that children were to be seen and not heard, we valued their innocent contributions to our jaded adult lives. Before we saw them as expensive nuisances, we saw our children as wise souls who possessed the purest passage to our ancestors. But that changed when parenting became less about keeping our children powerful and more about keeping them pliable.
Physical slavery ended for us, but we never addressed the societal scarring it caused. We’d continue to pass oppressive pathologies for generations, attributing our collective success and survival to our ability to endure pain. We’d learn to defend the pain, identifying it as the change agent, the moral catalyst in our lives, as if to say without that pain our change wouldn’t have been possible. And when the source of your pain and the source of your success are the same source, you develop an unwillingness to call the pathology out for its destructive nature, believing that doing so would discredit your success. We convinced ourselves that anything short of death was a fortifier, a strengthener, not a hindrance. We glorified our trauma by trying to convinced others that we “turned out alright” despite struggling to survive on our own since the age of 15, and if we didn’t die our kids wouldn’t either.
With our behavior, we denied the problem existed, meanwhile the problem continued to grow.
According to the Congressional Research Center, 42 percent of the 4 million homeless youth in America are Black, more than double the proportion of Black youth in the total population. That number has increased 10% in the last 10 years. Of these homeless youth, ages 11-18, the most commonly reported reasons for their abandonment were an LGBT lifestyle, physical abuse, verbal disagreements with parent/stepparent, and their 18th birthday. These Black homeless youth also reported struggling with prostitution, substance abuse, poor health, and suicide as a result of being on their own. It would appear the world has decided that our children don’t get an adolescence nor room for the immaturity that comes with it, and it appears that we agree. But suffrage is not the cure for juvenility, only love and guidance can do that. We see this evidenced in the many of us who think our abandonment forced us to “grow up quick”, when in reality our bodies were the only parts doing the growing.
Some of us will remain steadfast that our homes are our personal plantations and anyone who cannot fall in line doesn’t get to benefit from our hard earned provisions. Some of us will gripe about this not being a Black issue, naming two homeless white kids from our childhood neighborhoods as proof. And of course, there are those of us so traumatized by our own abandonment that we can’t even call it what it is. But regardless of the deflection we choose to run with, the problem remains and Black children continue to suffer from our denial. No one loses with the acknowledgement that Black children deserve better and we should be the first ones in line to give it to them. If protecting black children means healing ourselves first, then nothing should stop us from doing that. Because it is no measure of our health to be well adjusted to a society that we know is sick.