By Stacey Patton, nytimes.com
“This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you.”
My black, middle-class adoptive mother often grumbled these words as she prepared to whup me for getting dirty, mouthing off, rolling my eyes, telling lies or any number of other childhood misbehaviors.
I still see myself standing naked in the living room of our suburban New Jersey house, my heart thundering as I watched her through the screen door, rustling through the thicket of shrubbery that girdled the front porch.
The switches she pulled smelled sweet and damp like the earth. Sometimes they whistled when she swung them. Other times they cut through the air like knives. They left long, red welts against the skin of my butt, back, arms and legs. If I tried to shield my head and face, she grabbed one of my arms, raised it over my head and whupped me as I bucked in a circle.
When the beating was over, we stood within reach of each other, out of breath, our hair a mess. Her first words were always the same: “Stop that crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I wouldn’t look at her as I slid my clothes over my stinging skin and bent to pick up the broken branches.
By the time I was 12, I was in the state foster care system: case #KC114343. I still carry the scars — fleshy Braille that narrates the story of my childhood. It is a common one, unfortunately. My adoptive mother, and generations of black parents like her, honestly believed that whupping children was a pillar of responsible black parenting.
Today, black parents are still about twice as likely as white and Latino families to use corporal punishment on their children. I’ve heard many black people attribute their successes, or the fact that they weren’t in jail, on drugs or dead, to the beatings they received as children.
But if whupping children kept black people out of prison or safe from abusive cops, there would be no mass incarceration or police brutality. If beatings were a prerequisite for success, black people would be ruling the world.
After spending years in therapy, studying the history of corporal punishment and writing a doctoral dissertation on the well-orchestrated matrix of Jim Crow oppression that trapped black children at every developmental milestone, I now have a better understanding of why my adoptive mother punished me the way she did.