In November, Cleveland police officers killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun in a park near his home. Because the investigation is still pending, Tamir has not been buried and his mother has opted to move into a homeless shelter rather than continue to live in the neighborhood that is a constant reminder of the violent and unjust way that her son was murdered.
Frequently, there is a conversation about whether social media activism causes us to approach the latest injustice as a fleeting trend, which we commemorate with a hashtag, before being quickly swept up by the next injustice and cry of outrage that emerges. I think there is some legitimacy to the critique that suggests that social media can frequently work against the need to give sustained attention to a cause. But as I reflect on the way that social media has created the current movement against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence, I am reminded that it is also difficult to give sustained attention to these brutalities because of the sheer number of killings to which we are exposed. The level of suffering, and the volume of atrocities against Black communities; the rage, sadness and fear is too much to hold. It spills over and out, condensing into a heavy cloud that is always with us. My personal coping mechanism is detachment.
As we have moved on to deal with the killing of Tony Robinson in Wisconsin, Anthony Hill in Atlanta, Walter Scott in South Carolina, Eric Harris in Oklahoma, and most recently Freddie Gray in Baltimore, it is easy to forget that there are still families in these local communities who must deal with the aftermath, with the grief, with the endless investigations and stalling and refusal of accountability from the police.
The landscape of racial grief is both dense and stark. It is dense with abandoned, burned out buildings, too many churches, an overpopulation of liquor stores and check-cashers and the ashes and embers of protest, mixed and strewn about with litter on the ground. Such landscapes are surrounded by invisible but palpable oceans of Black mothers’ tears. Nothing about these places feels like home, but they are the only homes so many of us know.
Samaria Rice’s choice to leave “home,” to move to a homeless shelter, offers a profound narrative of the way our nation dispossesses it’s most vulnerable. Toni Morrison says that “home is an idea rather than a place. It’s where you feel safe. Where you’re among people who are kind to you – they’re not after you; they don’t have to like you – but they’ll not hurt you. And if you’re in trouble they’ll help you… It’s community – that’s another word for what I’ve described.” Samaria Rice has no place to call home, no place where she feels safe and cared for, no place where she trusts the community to hold her up and not tear her down.
What do we do with this landscape of Black grief? What can we say to a mother who has not been afforded the closure of burying her son, who remains instead in a state of suspended agony?
As I think about this Black mother and her child, I am reminded of another Black mother and her son who have dominated news coverage for the last week. There has been an endless procession of praise and condemnation for Toya Graham, a 42-year old mother of six in Baltimore, who was caught on camera hitting her 16-year old son Michael in an attempt to make him stop participating in the street protests. When I saw the video, I felt conflicted. The act felt familiar. I recognized her act as a loving one. I also recognized it as humiliating, violent, and an unhealthy way to parent. Having grown up among Black working class people in the Deep South, I know that the right of parents to “whup” their children is taken as a self-evident truth. The truth for me, however, is that we should all keep our hands to ourselves.
Black mothers and sons have a certain kind of relationship, that has been shaped by decades of Black mothers being vilified for daring, in a world that hates Black men, to raise their sons without the benefit of fathers. Fifty years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this kind of family configuration a tangle of pathology, and argued that mothers raising sons left them ill-equipped to confront the cold, hard world they would face. Black mothers got a bad rap, as women who were either too strong – too masculine – or conversely too inattentive, and prone to let their children run amok in the streets.
But as Stacey Patton writes:
Beatings are not transformative. They don’t empower. They simply punish the victims and accelerate the trauma, bringing the pain from the streets into the home. This form of “discipline” makes children only more vulnerable to violent behavior, and increases the risk of the very behaviors that will get them in trouble at school and in the streets — the behaviors that parents think beatings will prevent.
I agree with Patton, particularly since as she notes the behavior of black children is not the cause of state violence. But black mothering is also not the cause of state violence towards Black children. And more effective mothering, however loving it is or misguided it is, will not solve the problem at hand.
Toya Graham gave white Americans an intimate look at the lengths to which Black mothers go to protect their children. But far too many white Americans failed to realize that her acts constituted the most forceful of indictments of the continuing problem of white supremacy and white complacency in the face of state-sanctioned terror. Essentially, this Black mother chose to assault her son in order to protect him from the greater assault of the police and the state.
There is nothing glorious about that. For those who would point out that there were three black officers involved in Freddie Gray's murder, it bears noting that black people can hold anti-black and white supremacist views, too. This is why we must dismantle the whole system of white supremacy rather than focusing solely on the skin color of the perpetrators. The urgency with which Toya Graham handled Michael in those mean streets was borne of fear, fear that her baby standing up and proclaiming that he has the right to move through the world unharassed would get him killed. I see both Michael’s protest and Graham’s form of discipline as visionary acts: Toya Graham has a maternal mandate to keep her son safe, and Michael Graham has a mandate as a youth of a new generation to fight for a world in which he and others can live and thrive. Such are the different duties of parents and children.
But the popular discourse on this incident does not see either act as visionary. Toya Graham has a vision of a future for her son. In this political context, that belief is radical. Michael has a vision of a future for himself. Nothing about the violent context in which he has grown up is designed for him (or his mother) to come to the conclusion that he has a future or a right to a future. In this kind of context of fear and violence, the dogged belief in the value of one's own life and one's own future possibility emerges as a radical act.
Though it escapes the notice of white folks, this kind of thinking is visionary. Meanwhile, white Americans revel in the violence of a black mother toward her own son, when in any other context, such violence would be viewed as pathology. The mother can only attempt to overcome the very real threats to her son’s safety by confirming violent and emasculating stereotypes about who Black women are, while her son is viewed as thug, interrupted.
Samaria Rice is at the very least owed the right to bury her son in peace and find some safe place to call home. Toya Graham deserves the right to live in a safe place, to have better access to disciplinary options than hitting her son, to not have to parent him in a context of mortal fear of the police. But most of all, these young men and boys on the cusp of becoming deserved better. Freddie Gray deserves justice. Tamir Rice deserves justice. Michael Graham deserves to live.