It was a regular Sunday afternoon. I think I must have been seventeen or eighteen years old at the time. As was the custom on days when we had 3pm service, the women of my church had prepared lunch. Now most of these ladies were either from the South or raised by Southern women, so when it came to soul food they would throw down! My deep appreciation of their culinary skills led to me sitting in the back pews of the church, afflicted with a serious case of “the itis”. One of my uncles walked through the doors of the sanctuary and saw me there, half-sitting and half-sprawled out, and headed in my direction, chuckling all the way. “Let me guess: you ate too much?”
“Yes I did”, I replied,”I know I should have paced myself but MAN those collard greens and neckbones were so GOOD! I couldn’t help myself”, I said, placing my hands on my overfull, slightly distended stomach.
“Well we have a good hour left till 3’o clock service starts so I’m sure you’ll feel better by then”, he said as he sat down next to me. “But talk to me-what’s up? What’s new with you?” And so began our weekly check-in. Now before I continue with the conversation, I must share a few details about my favorite uncle. An ordained Baptist minister and the Minister of Music in my home church at the time, my uncle was one of the luminaries of my adolescence. He was the rare adult who didn’t speak to, or at you, but rather with you. He actually solicited my thoughts and opinions, listened to them and treated them with respect. Though he was my elder, he never expected me to listen or do exactly what he said based on that fact alone. He would lay out his case based on reason, never guilt tripping or using shame to make me or any of us fall in line. Unlike my female elders, he was calm. No matter how heated the subject, he has never raised his voice at me in any discussion. My Uncles’ very different way of interacting with teenagers made me respect him more than almost any other adult in my life when I was a teen.
But back to this particular Sunday. I started talking to my uncle about issues at school and sharing my usual teenage angst. As I ranted, I noticed that he had a slight smile on his face. When I stopped, he spoke carefully and slowly.
“Oh girl, you think you’re the only one who goes through this? Trust me, you’re not alone in feeling this way!”
I raised an eyebrow at him quizzically. What could he be talking about? He was an adult, a grown man, free to come and go as he pleased. He didn’t have to answer to anyone. He couldn’t possibly know what it was like to struggle with conformity.
‘What do you mean?”, I asked him.
“Your aunt and I have decided not to spank the kids anymore. And people in the family are not taking it well…”, he said, his voice trailing off.
“OH!” I replied. Now I understood where he was coming from. For in our community-Black Americans with roots in the South-beating children was viewed in a light that was almost as sacred and necessary as religion itself. People didn’t think it was possible to raise decent, successful children without spanking them from time to time. If you didn’t spank/hit/beat your children, you were not a good parent and were neglecting your duties. Raising your children without using physical discipline was considered a “white” and “hippie” way of doing things. The old folks would confidently state that was the reason white children were so bad and spoiled in public up North-their parents refused to hit them. But WE, being good Southern Christian Black folk, knew better. “Spare the rod, spoil the child!” So hitting children-even with huge belts, leather straps and electrical cords-was something that wasn’t questioned or even discussed. It was simply the right thing to do. In their decision to cease spanking their children, my aunt and uncle had run afoul of the cultural norms in our community. As he spoke, I could see the pain in his eyes and hear the disappointment in his voice.
“I just don’t want my kids to think that violence is the answer”, he said to me when he explained his reasoning. “I don’t want them to think like slaves.”
“REALLY?”, I asked. “Elaborate please!”
“Well have you ever asked yourself why we do some of the things we do? Do you ever wonder why we are so quick to hit out kids for any reason? D, it’s a slave mentality. Think about it. If a slave did anything wrong, how were they dealt with?”
“They were whipped”.
“EXACTLY! And I don’t want to keep passing that mentality down. There are other ways to raise children.”
I thought about what my uncle was saying. He made a valid point and I could see where he and my aunt were coming from.All they wanted to do was live their lives and raise their children. But that would be easier said than done. I sat there with him,listening as he sadly recounted some of the things that people had said to him and my aunt regarding their decision. Oh, so you’re putting on airs now? You think you’re better than the rest of us? You don’t agree with the way you were raised? I got plenty of beatings as a child and I came out FINE; who are you to say spanking is wrong? Even the BIBLE says you must spank children, who are YOU to question it?
For daring to step outside of the norms, for stopping to question the conventional wisdom, my aunt and uncle were heavily criticized by those closet to them. When I reflect on their experience and mine, I see an overlap. Though my decision to abandon the faith that my family has followed since they came here as slaves is more dramatic than my aunt and uncles decision to stop spanking their children, there is a common thread in our stories. We both chose to repudiate aspects of our inheritance. Born in an era that was very different from that of our forefathers and granted access to information that previous generations could only dream of, we made our own way and forged a new path. And for doing that, those around us chose to take personal offense. Our refusal to mimic the ways of those who came before us in every way is seen as a personal affront. This should not be the case. Though I may strongly disagree with their mentality and though I may not share their religious beliefs, I do not hate my family and/or friends. I do not think they are horrible people. I do not think they are less human than I am. My decision to not think and live the same way as my family and friends has absolutely no bearing on my allegiance to and love for them . Like my aunt and uncle before me, I’ve simply chosen not to hold on to all of my inheritance.