The Plantation Politics Behind Punitive Parenting

Because the world wants pliable Black children, not powerful ones.

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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 for cutting class a couple times, but when it came to forcing me out on the street to fend for myself, well 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 was saying. “You mean you can’t go back home?”, I asked her in awe. “Well, where does he want you to go?” As my friend explained just how on her own she really was, my heart broke into bits. In my naïveté, I thought they too were bluffing, just bumping their gums like my parents did. Surely, she wouldn’t be made homeless by the woman who gave her life, what parent would do a thing like that?

Ultimately, she would be the first of many of our peers to face that same fate. Put out on the street one weekend with as much as she could carry, no consideration for her inability to work or provide for herself, rent her own place or secure a single utility. My friend dropped out of school shortly thereafter and moved in with a mutual friend of ours, switching gears to focus less on math and science and more on survival. Eventually we lost track, a common occurrence before the invention of social media. Whether she became another teen statistic or turned to a life of crime to keep herself afloat, I’ll never know for certain.

The Black delegation continues to debate whether or not corporal punishment is a good thing or a bad thing, whether or not disrespectful teens are due housing accommodations. The irony is that as adults we preach violence as a very last resort, and that conflict warrants reason and resolution. But we show our children that violence is an immediate means to an end, that “my way or the highway” is a mantra for maturity. 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 associate non-violent discipline and passive parenting with white households, when the truth of the matter is that we learned to whip our children from the same people we joke 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. Anyone who struggled with that was quickly shown the road or the rope, whether that person be man, woman or child.

Plantation politics 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 it’s impact was felt but for a moment, as opposed to gradual with long-lasting effect. 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 “massas” 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. Where we now see needy nuisances, we once saw 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 continued to pass on oppressive pathologies, attributing our collective success and survival to our ability to endure pain. We learned to defend that pain, identifying it as a change agent, the moral catalyst in our lives. 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 in doing so, you discredit your own success. We glorified our trauma, convinced people that its’ presence made us much more than what we could’ve ever become in its’ absence. We convinced ourselves that anything short of death doubled as a fortifier, a strengthener, not a hindrance to our humanity, feeling almost obligated to expose our children to the same unsightly circumstances.

And what has it cost us, this all-out authoritarian approach to parenting? It would appear, our children, that’s what. 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. And 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 teens also reported struggling with prostitution, substance abuse, poor health, and suicide as a result of being on their own. It would appear that the world decided our children didn’t deserve an adolescence, nor room for the immaturity that comes with it. It would also appear as if we agreed. We see this evidenced in the many adults who mistake their tumultuous teens as an unintended jump start on adulthood, countless individuals who believe that because the body is developing, the brain is too. But suffrage is not the cure or cap for juvenility, nor is juvenility something to be cured from. If a transition from adolescence to adulthood is the aim for us as parents, then only love and guidance can do that.

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 provision. Some of us will gripe about this not being a Black issue, naming two or three 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 was, abuse. But regardless of the deflection we choose to run with, the problem remains and Black children continue to suffer from our dressed up denial. No one loses with the acknowledgement that Black children deserve better, because they do, and we should be the first ones in line to give it to them.

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