Mom of the Year?: The Real Reasons Why People Are Sharing the Baltimore Mom Video

by Altheria Gaston

Over the last couple of days, #BaltimoreMom and similar hashtags have been trending heavily on Twitter because of a viral forty-eight second video of a Black woman in a yellow top striking a young Black male. The woman in the video is Toya Graham and the male is her sixteen-year-old son. The video shows Ms. Graham striking and verbally chastising her son for his involvement in the Baltimore riots that erupted after the suspicious death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who sustained a grave spinal cord injury while in police custody.

Let me say at the onset that I am not condemning Ms. Graham’s likely visceral reaction to seeing her son throwing rocks at police; neither am I judging the controversial actions of her son. This article is about the bigger issues surrounding the viral transmission of the video of a Black mother beating and humiliating a Black boy. I would like to explore what I perceive to be four of these issues.

The first one surrounds the veneration of Ms. Graham and why so many have conferred upon her a hero(ine) status. Most major media outlets have covered the story and cast Ms. Graham in a positive light—a New York Times article even crowning her mother of the year! Similarly, a CNN story featured many individuals, from Whoopi Goldberg to Al Sharpton, applauding Ms. Graham. Why do so many people find this video and the actions of Ms. Graham so appealing? Some might argue that the appeal of the video is that it shows the extent to which a loving mother will go to discipline her son. This may be partially true, but I think that many are drawn to the video because it shows “acceptable” Black-on-Black physical aggression. The video could be said to depict what bell hooks refers to as patriarchal violence (also known as domestic violence). In Feminism is for Everybody, hooks contends:
A huge majority of parents use some form of physical or verbal aggression against children. Since women remain the primary caretakers of children, the facts confirm the reality that given a hierarchal system in a culture of domination which empowers females (like the parent-child relationship) all too often they use coercive force to maintain dominance. In a culture of domination everyone is socialized to see violence as an acceptable means of social control.
The acceptance of this mother’s attempts to control and perhaps protect her son seems to suggest an appreciation of mothers who will go to any length to “save” her child/ren. But there are equally viable alternatives to publicly and physically shaming one’s child. And I use the word “child” purposely, as I refuse to portray Ms. Graham’s son as an adult, which is often done with Black children. Many times, Black children are assigned mature or grown-up statuses before their time, which then justifies treating/judging/punishing them as adults. This incident provides us an opportunity to discuss why severe punishment is more tolerable for Black children than other children. And it also begs a conversation about how and why Black parents discipline their children. In the instance of this video, I think it provides voyeurs the pleasure of seeing a Black boy beaten into complicity.

The second issue involves the debate over acceptable versus unacceptable reactions of perceived injustice. This video appeases supporters of peaceful protest in favor of rebellious riots. The video sends the message that riots are the inappropriate reaction to systemic violence and protests are the appropriate way to respond to institutional wrongdoing. It seems that those in power want the right to determine when riots are appropriate, and the powerful usually deem violent acts, like riots and looting, necessary when they are advantaged. Otherwise, these reactions are barbaric, unnecessarily destructive, and terroristic even—performed by “thugs” who don’t know or follow the protocol for expressing their grievance. By condemning her son’s participation in the riots, Ms. Graham appeases those who believe that rioting is not the appropriate way to deal with injustice. As a result, she is being lauded for her anti-riot stance.

The third issue is about stereotypes of Black women and negative characterization of Black motherhood. In Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry describes the pervasive stereotype of Black women as being “shrill, loud, argumentative, irrationally angry, and verbally abusive.” She goes on to explain the power of stereotypes to shape public perceptions about Black women. Unfortunately, this video of Ms. Graham’s strengthens this perception that Black women are always angry and ready to behave violently. In some ways, Ms. Graham’s actions confirm what many White people already believe about Black women—that we are aggressive, profane, and abusive. Even though she’s being praised by some very vocal supporters, the video supports the characterization of the improper Black mother who does not employ effective discipline practices with her “out-of-control” children. In a 1960’s government report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Daniel Patrick Moynihan described Black motherhood as pathological and blamed the ills of the Black family on the Black mother. Since that time, black mothers—particularly single mothers—have been scrutinized for their parenting practices. I am concerned that this video sends a message that Black women primarily use physical abuse to discipline their “bad” children and that Black single mothers often have contentious relationships with Black males, even their sons. If we really want to praise Black mothers, we should circulate videos of Black women helping their children with school projects or attending their extracurricular activities instead of a Black mother beating her son.

The fourth issue relates to how fear of police brutality and institutional racism have influenced the ways in which Black mothers raise Black boys. For a Black single mother, raising boys—in fact, children in general—is a difficult job made even more challenging by the constant threat of violence and incarceration. When asked about the videoed incident by a CBS reporter, Ms. Graham, a single mother of six, responded, “That's my only son and at the end of the day I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray.” This response reflects her love for her son, but I also hear her fear for his life. This fear is becoming more common as we constantly learn of Black men, women, and children being killed or victimized by those in authority. The women of color organization SisterSong argues that this is a reproductive justice issue: Black women deserve “the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.” Ms. Graham’s actions represent how far fearful mothers will go to protect their children from police-inflicted violence. While it may be necessary to adapt our parenting to fit the existing environment, it is important that we don’t neglect the hard work of making our communities safe and healthy places in which to raise children.

The attention to this video distracts us from these major issues and maybe even others. We still have no answers as to what caused Mr. Gray’s death. We still have too few convictions of police officers who abuse their power. We still have too many laws that unfairly punish people of color. It’s easy to “share,” “retweet,” and “like” a video, but before we do, let’s dig a little deeper to see what issues may be beneath the surface.

Photo: CBS News

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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