I am not a father but I assume raising children is tough. I may be proven wrong by my own experience one day but I also assume that raising boys is even tougher. That mission gets profoundly more difficult if your boys are black. A few months ago, a video went quasi-viral of an uncle “teaching his nephew a lesson” about breaking into houses. In the video, the uncle, visibly at wit’s end, berates his teenage relative while physically lambasting him throughout their front yard. When he assumably feels that his lesson has run its course, he takes some cash out of his pocket, hands it over to his nephew while reminding him to stay out of trouble. Because this was caught on camera and later posted to social media sites, it caused a small debate as to whether his actions were right or wrong. A teacher friend showed me the video and we carried on a conversation about raising black boys, respect, authority, and all other things discipline, or leadership, related. After watching the video a few times, I couldn’t help but think how hurt this uncle must have been that his young family member would continue to make dumb choices. He used his hurt to discipline this child through subsequent anger and physical force. I wondered if there could be other options.
In teaching, this action would never be tolerated. But the source of this topic isn’t necessarily stitched solely to teaching. It is more so attuned to how the culture of black masculinity has, justly so, espoused the idea that old-fashioned discipline tactics are the only viable option for keeping our future generation in line. We see it on shows like Scared Straight and in college sports, especially football, where coaches are revered for their “tough love” approach to the game. It seems to work as much as it doesn’t so we keep on perpetuating this style of leadership. But where in the lexicon of black masculinity is the framework for vulnerability?
When I was a child growing up in the 90s, my friends and I would come to school and joke about who got it worse the night before. We compared the “tools” of discipline our parents would use: Oh, you just got the belt? Son, I got the switch…and I had to fetch it myself! I heard stories of extension cords, brooms, and even flying slippers. And then I saw these same kids (and myself) carry on with exhibiting the same demeanor and making the same decisions that got us into trouble in the first place. Until about twenty, I never saw my father cry or express sincere disappointment in my actions. My dumb mistakes were met with violence. Half the time, I would actually “wise up”. I wonder what may have changed in my adolescent decision-making processes if he had sat me down, looked me in my eyes, and tried to reason with me. Perhaps that wouldn’t have worked, but I have no evidence to go on.
Perhaps vulnerability is too big a price to bear for the adult black male. We are supposed to take up the position of authoritative figure in a way that usually, or always, takes the form of intimidation tactics. I do this in class all the time: a long stare at a student who is out of line, raising my deep voice in order to holster in the group. In my conscience, after seeing a video like this, a video that demonstrates such obvious pain, mentally, from both child and adult, I think that opening up and becoming more vulnerable may do our future more good than “going off” on a child. Perhaps emotional pain should be met with emotional anguish and not physical. In 2017, we really don’t have another option.
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