Growing up in a West Indian household, I would often hear the saying, “if you don’t listen; you’re going to feel.” Translation: You will be spanked if you don’t adhere to my rules. Most times those words were enough to keep this little black girl in line. But for other children and author, Stacey Patton, being reprimanded took an ugly turn towards violence.
A graduate student of NYU and Rutgers University, Patton tells a shocking story of child abuse and torment at the hands of her adoptive mother in her memoir, That Mean Old Yesterday.
Her story will not only rivet you, but asserts a well supported theory that most black children are abused by their parents. Her memoir allows us to ask the questions: What is the difference between discipline and abuse? And as adults, what can we do to make sure the pattern of abuse does not continue?
Clutch: What made you write about this time in your life?
The fact is that I’ve been a child longer than I’ve been an adult. I’m not 30 yet. Many people who write memoirs usually wait until they are much older. There’s the assumption that with older age comes wisdom. But I decided not to wait much longer to write about my childhood. I wanted to write about those years while they were still very fresh in my mind. I didn’t want to gain too much distance from all that happened to me. I didn’t want all that wisdom and perspective that growing older is supposed to bring to somehow impose itself onto what the little girl really saw, heard, felt and thought.
I also wanted to write about my childhood years because many things went wrong. I was given up by my birthmother at age two. I wanted to know and understand why and to also show the impact of that abandonment on the little girl. I wanted to write about how I yearned for her. How I feigned for her to save me, to nurture me, to love me, to want me despite having given me up for whatever reason.
My adoptive parents were god-fearing devout Pentecostals who adhered to strict fundamental interpretations of the Bible, especially that spare-the-rod, spoil-the-child philosophy. My adoptive mother used racism as a false logic justify her harsh beatings and verbal abuse. I wanted to write about the impact all of this had on the little girl. I wanted to write about what it felt like to be an adopted child and how disconnected I felt from my adoptive family.
I wanted to assert my voice, redeem the little girl and move her past victimization to empowerment. Most of all, I wanted to connect my story, my scars, my sense of bondage to those who came before – African American slaves and the generations of black children that grew up before my birth. I wanted to show how violent childrearing practices have their roots in slavery and Jim Crow terrorism. This was something that was designed to control black bodies and to bring about a docile and obedient servile workforce. And out of that legacy many of continue to beat our children and the consequences are astounding today.
I wanted to tell people how important children are and that when we do hurtful things to them we devalue them and that devaluation gets passed on from one generation to the next. The result is that we undermine our own potential and possibilities.
Clutch: Your memoir is entitled “That Mean Old Yesterday”. Tell me about the meaning behind this title?
Langston Hughes is my favorite poet. When I read his biography I discovered that he and I had many similarities in our lives. I went out about purchased the entire collection of his poetry and began reading them. There was one poem, “Mean Old Yesterday,” that I liked. I especially like the title. It’s a short poem but speaks volumes. It basically suggests that something bad happened in the past. The poet recognizes this. He faces it. Deals with it. Accepts and embraces it. Finds meaning. And then, he moves forward. So I decided to title my book “That Mean Old Yesterday.” This isn’t just about recognizes some struggles in my own past, facing them, dealing with them, accepting and embracing them, but also within the African American historical experience. Though I did not live those experiences as they happened, the vestiges of all that history are part of my present cultural experience and my genetic and psychic makeup.
Clutch: It seems like your adoptive mother issued a lot of the abuse you received. What was your adoptive father’s response?
My adoptive father had no backbone. He was a nice guy from the Deep South and he was one of those ministers that got “called” by God to preach. He wasn’t educated at a seminary and he wasn’t very good at interpreting the scriptures. Still, he was a nice friendly guy and a peacemaker. I think that his experience of being a black boy in Mississippi during the 1940s and 1950s somehow taught how not to be a man. He knew that he wasn’t allowed to stand up for himself. To talk back. To fight back. To make trouble. To stand up for others like him. So this was his mentality in our home. He did not protect me from his own wife. When saw my scars he got upset. He told her that some day she might hit me the wrong way and I’d end up dead. But that’s all he did was talk. He never intervened or kept me out of harm’s way. I liken him to slave men who were often forced to stand by and watch the degradation of their mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and other men.
Clutch: Your adoptive parents are heavily religious. How do you think this played in your upbringing?
I blamed religion for my adoptive parent’s ignorance. They lived their lives according to somebody else’s strict interpretation of the Bible. We weren’t allowed to dance. Listen to any music that was not Christian. We couldn’t curse. Drink wine, etc., etc., etc. Our lives revolved around the church. We were there every Wednesday, Friday, and twice on Sundays. I felt as if religion did not advance our lives or the lives of the people around us. People still had their problems and found no solutions other than to come to church and shout, speak in tongues and cry while their problems remained.
I used to sit in church wishing that I were somewhere else because I felt like I was wasting time. I used to frown at all that madness people vomiting white foam out of their mouths, mumbling strange words, falling out, convulsing and running around the sanctuary. I thought they were crazy. I didn’t believe that to be a good person and to lead a successful life that this was the way to behave.
At the same time, I respected religion, not the kind that was practiced in my adoptive family, but the kind of religion that infused politics and black history into the sermons. As I got older I understood the role that the black church played in African American life and protest movements. It was a buffer for black folks living in a hostile racist society. It wasn’t just about blind faith and devotion but also action to bring about change and progress.
Clutch: There is a fine line between discipline and abuse, especially in the African- American community. How do we define that line?
What’s one man’s discipline is always another man’s abuse. Discipline should not be defined as something physical. Discipline is not about the abuse of power but instead the use of power to bring about positive development. I don’t see how the use of any degree of violence can ever encourage positive development, especially when it is meted out against a child that cannot defend him/her self against a bigger, stronger adult. That fine line between discipline and abuse gets crossed as soon as it becomes physical whether it’s done with a switch, belt, extension cord, shoe, hand or any other object designed to bring on physical pain. Hitting a child is always a form of violence and it’s always about the adult’s anger and loss of power and control.
Clutch: Is there a notable difference in the way that White and Black children are raised?
I don’t think we can make blanket generalizations about how black and white children are raised. There are the jokes about “time-out” and democracy in the home. There are blacks who make fun of whites for talking so much to their kids. There are blacks who contend that white children run over their parents. And there are blacks who deride other blacks who choose not to hit their children.
There are white social workers and other academics who use terms like “black pathology,” “black family violence,” or “cultural breakdown” to describe the homes and family lives of black children. Those aren’t adequate descriptions nor do they get at some of the complexities and challenges of raising black children. I do think that black and white children are raised differently because racism is still a very real factor in American life. Black children are not valued in this society the same as white children. Society does not discipline troubled black children the same as white. They are not educated the same as white children. I could go on and on listing the contrasts. With all this in mind, black parents face the Herculean task of raising the next generation of citizens with their bodies and souls intact while battling America’s stubborn racism that has been serially bent on undermining the progress of the race since our arrival in 1619.
Clutch: Through your studies, you have established a connection between children today being whipped and the plantation community during slavery? Tell us about that.
Slavery could not work with coercion and violence. The function of whipping was to break the will of the slave. To make slaves obedient. To keep them in line and in their place. To assert power and control over their lives. To dehumanize them but also in a weird way to recognize their humanity and their potential to be rebellious and to own their own bodies. To make good slaves plantation owners often had to whip their chattel. Slave mothers whipped their children to prepare them for the harsh realities of slave life. Some of the same techniques that masters used to whip their slaves (stripping them naked and locking their heads between their legs) I’ve discovered are still alive and well today. When I was a child this was a technique that I heard my adoptive grandfather talk about when he beat his own children. In turn, his daughter did it to me and I’ve heard many of my peers talk about having it done to them. There are many other physical and verbal techniques rooted in the plantation experience that are still alive today.
Slave children played a popular game called “Hide the Switch.” One child would hide a switch and the others had to find it. Whichever child found the switch got to whip the other children with it. When I was a child growing up in the Eighties and Nineties we played the same game with a belt or switch and it was called “Hot Peas and Butter, Come and Get Your Supper.”
Slave parents often justified whipping their children by arguing that it was less harsh for them to do it than for the master or overseer to do so. Many black parents today argue that if they don’t whip their children then the police or somebody else, usually a white person, will kill them. This violence against black children, on the plantation, during Jim Crow, and now, has always been largely viewed as a form of love and protection instead of as another form of terrorism against black youngsters.
Clutch: In your opinion, what kind of value does American society place on children?
American society is full of a lot of rhetoric when it comes to talking about children. Here we are, a society that is constantly trying to outsource democracy to other nations that don’t want our form of government or to adhere to our value system, and yet democracy isn’t working at home. We have children who are not getting adequate healthcare. Children who are preyed on by the sexually deviant. Children dying in the streets as victims of all kinds of violence. We don’t adequately invest in their education or their future. I don’t think we fully understand that they are our future, the future of this nation. In my opinion, American children are getting fatter and dumber. They are taught to engage in rampant consumerism, to be violent, to be disconnected from history, to not respect the culture of others, and to not fully develop their minds, bodies and ethical fibers. The story gets even more bleak depending on the child’s gender, race and sexuality.
Clutch: What advice do you have for children who have experienced this form of abuse? How do they regain ownership over their body?
I put physical abuse on the same level with sexual abuse. When someone hits you it’s always a bad touch. Nobody has the right to harm your body with objects or with their hands. I would encourage a youngster to talk to their teachers, guidance counselor, or to call the police if they are being harmed. I know that many people, especially some black folks, will have a problem with me saying this. But your children are not your “property.” They come through you, not from you. They have the same rights to personal safety that you do as an adult.
Clutch: As an adult, how did you find ways to cope in terms of dealing with your abuse and anger?
Lots of therapy, years in fact. I had to learn that it was okay for me to be angry about what happened to me. It was okay for me to break the silence and talk about it all even when it made others uncomfortable. Writing this book was therapeutic for me, especially since I know that it has helped others. I also had healthy outlets like sports. I could take out my aggression and energy onto the basketball court. Sports helped me learn how to be assertive, creative, and to make my energies mean something. I also continue to educate myself to challenge many of the things that I was taught. I had to un-break cycles of ignorance, secrets, and lies that were taught to me so I don’t repeat dysfunctional behaviors.
Clutch: As a society, as a whole, how do we go about changing learned behavior- especially in terms of physical abuse?
Through education and dialogue. This is why history is so important. It’s a useful tool. If we can discover the roots to certain problems and behaviors then perhaps we can trace their evolution and function over time. Then we can find solutions. As far as whipping is concerned, we need to understand how this ritual altered black family life beginning in West African societies on through to contemporary life. What did the Africans do? What negative impact did European contact have on our traditions. How did they worsen over time? What healthy non-violent childrearing practices did African Americans develop historically to contend with racism? This dialogue needs to happen with historians, social workers, psychologists, clergy, black adults and children. We all need to teach and help each other because the souls of our children are at stake. The future of the race is at stake.
Clutch: What can we expect next from Stacey Patton? Will there be more books to follow?
You can expect me to continue trying to get this message to others, to spark some healthy and useful dialogue at all levels of our community and from the outside as well. Yes, I do plan to write more books.
For more information about Stacey Patton please visit www.staceypatton.com