By Michael Eric Dyson
Sept. 17, 2014
WASHINGTON — THE indictment last week of the N.F.L. player Adrian Peterson by a Texas grand jury for reckless or negligent injury to a child has set into relief the harmful disciplinary practices of some black families. Mr. Peterson used a “switch,” a slim, leafless tree branch, to beat his 4-year-old son, raising welts on the youngster’s legs, buttocks and scrotum. This is child abuse dressed up as acceptable punishment.
While 70 percent of Americans approve of corporal punishment, black Americans have a distinct history with the subject. Beating children has been a depressingly familiar habit in black families since our arrival in the New World. As the black psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs wrote in “Black Rage,” their 1968 examination of psychological black life: “Beating in child-rearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children be so treated.”
The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.
If beating children began, paradoxically, as a violent preventive of even greater violence, it was enthusiastically embraced in black culture, especially when God was recruited. As an ordained Baptist minister with a doctorate in religion, I have heard all sorts of religious excuses for whippings.
And I have borne the physical and psychic scars of beatings myself. I can’t forget the feeling, as a 16-year-old, of my body being lifted from the floor in my father’s muscular grip as he cocked back his fist to hammer me until my mother’s cry called him off. I loved my father, but his aggressive brand of reproof left in me a trail of un-cried tears.
Like many biblical literalists, lots of black believers are fond of quoting Scriptures to justify corporal punishment, particularly the verse in Proverbs 13:24 that says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” But in Hebrew, the word translated as “rod” is the same word used in Psalms 23:4, “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod was used to guide the sheep, not to beat them.
Many believers — including Mr. Peterson, a vocal Christian — have confused the correction of children’s behavior with corporal punishment. The word “discipline” comes from the Latin “discipuli,” which means student or disciple, suggesting a teacher-pupil relationship. Punishment comes from the Greek word “poine” and its Latin derivative “poena,” which mean revenge, and form the root words of pain, penalty and penitentiary.
The point of discipline is to transmit values to children. The purpose of punishment is to coerce compliance and secure control, and failing that, to inflict pain as a form of revenge, a realm the Bible says belongs to God alone.
Yet secular black culture thrives on colorful stories of punishment that are passed along as myths of ancient wisdom — a type of moral glue that holds together varying communities in black life across time and circumstance. Black comedians cut their teeth on dramatically recalling “whoopings” with belts, switches, extension cords, hairbrushes or whatever implement was at hand. Even as genial a comic as Bill Cosby offered a riff in his legendary 1983 routine that left no doubt about the deadly threat of black punishment. “My father established our relationship when I was 7 years old,” Mr. Cosby joked. “He looked at me and says, ‘You know, I brought you in this world, I’ll take you out. And it don’t make no difference to me, cause I’ll make another one look just like you.’ ”
The humor is blunted when we recall that Marvin Gaye’s life ended violently in 1984 at the hands of his father, a minister who brutalized him mercilessly as a child before shooting him to death in a chilling echo of Mr. Cosby’s words.
Perhaps comedians make us laugh to keep us from crying, but no humor can mask the suffering that studies say our children endure when they are beaten: feelings of sadness and worthlessness, difficulties sleeping, suicidal thoughts, bouts of anxiety, outbursts of aggression, diminished concentration, intense dislike of authority, frayed relations with peers, and negative high-risk behavior.
Equally tragic is that those who are beaten become beaters too. And many black folks are reluctant to seek therapy for their troubles because they may be seen as spiritually or mentally weak. The pathology of beatings festers in the psychic wounds of black people that often go untreated in silence.
Adrian Peterson’s brutal behavior toward his 4-year-old son is, in truth, the violent amplification of the belief of many blacks that beatings made them better people, a sad and bleak justification for the continuation of the practice in younger generations. After Mr. Peterson’s indictment, the comedian D. L. Hughley tweeted: “A fathers belt hurts a lot less then a cops bullet!”
He is right, of course, but only in a forensic, not a moral or psychological sense. What hurts far less than either is the loving correction of our children’s misbehavior so they become healthy adults who speak against violence wherever they find it — in the barrel of a policeman’s gun, the fist of a lover or the switch of a misguided parent.