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Black parents and tough love in an age of viral police violence

In the group text message thread I share with some of my siblings, I recently mused: “Do youse lot think black wizard parents use the Cruciatus curse instead of whippings?”

(For that decided minority of non-Harry Potter stans out there, the Cruciatus curse is a torture spell devious wizards use to inflict unendurable pain on their enemies.) In Harry Potter’s world, the good guys regard the Cruciatus curse as anathema, a tactic too depraved to forgive. I suspect that Dean Thomas’s or Angelina Johnson’s mom would quibble with that interdiction. Might dark magic be an acceptable form of discipline for children saddled with the stigma of dark skin? I can all-too-vividly imagine the argument in favor of using corporal punishment on black wizard and witch children: magically induced agony at the hands of a parent is a preferable alternative to even graver repercussions at the hands of the state.

That old adage about black folks working twice as hard to get half as far retains its wisdom when chopped and screwed—straying half as far from the right track tends to come back to bite the black transgressor twice as hard. For many African American parents here in the muggle world, the recognition of that double standard often serves as a justification for a modus operandi of tough love, one that includes but isn’t limited to corporal punishment.

In a media-saturated culture that replays images of black death on an endless loop, black children are plunged into a bewildering sort of mental gymnastics.

I’ve often heard it posited that more stringent methods of correction are necessary when raising a child for whom the world is particularly unforgiving and missteps especially costly. There’s a ruthless practicality to that approach that has clearly been instrumental to African American resilience over centuries of enslavement, torture, rape, and second-class citizenship. The use of physical force to discipline black youth is traditionally meant to communicate an urgent and dire message: extreme deterrents are necessary to prevent the extreme consequences that are likely to follow if your behavior goes unchecked.

I’ve wondered if some crucial component of this message might be increasingly lost in translation in the current zeitgeist, however. After all, some of the most visible and enduring images of black people are brief, decontextualized tableaus of abuse or murder at the hands of police. That means, in part, that black parents are competing with the influence of a more sinister variant of the same edict—namely, that black people are a threat so incorrigible that any means used to contain them is justified. And it thus seems that the traditional rationale for black parental tough love—the notion that black youth might somehow fail to apprehend the precarity of their own security—represents a profound underestimation of their self-awareness.

As an educator and someone who intends one day to be a parent of black children, my experiences in the classroom have begun to lay the groundwork for how I might go about instilling a tenable balance of world wariness and self-possession in my own children. The tragic one-two punch of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling struck three summers ago while I was working for Children’s Aid Society in Harlem as Media Studies Internship Coordinator. The young people I worked with for the summer were largely African American and Latinx; they also qualified for the program on the basis of economic need. It was clear that the youth were conspicuously aware of the specter of police violence in their communities. As we set about training the students to think like journalists, my co-instructors and I often asked them to reflect on what kinds of topics and issues dominated the conversations in their neighborhoods and schools. As a result, we rarely had a class that didn’t involve extensive discussion of the killing of either Castile or Sterling—and usually both.

Among other things, these discussions brought home an acute split-screen effect in the psyches of many young black Americans. In a media-saturated culture that replays images of black death on an endless and unavoidable loop, black children are plunged into a bewildering sort of mental gymnastics when we expect them to believe in their own potential and the feasibility of their flourishing. By way of comparison, I attended middle school in the era immediately following the Columbine massacre. The unfathomable brutality of Columbine and the other major school shootings of the late nineties understandably traumatized the parents of teenagers. Violent video games, Eminem lyrics and action movies became attractive patsies for the mayhem. As a result, a host of political figures and culture critics raised the alarm over the alleged perils of sustained teen exposure to violent entertainment and video games as a key factor in the pandemic of school shootings. And many parents returned to the task of regulating the media consumption of their young charges as a matter of grave responsibility.

Does the current media landscape demand a similar tactical shift? It only stands to reason that the constantly accumulating trove of video footage capturing black folks getting worked over by vigilantes, gang members, and police is likely to wreak its own variety of cognitive havoc. James Baldwin famously wrote that he initially identified with and loved the characters Gary Cooper and John Wayne played in old westerns—until, that is, Baldwin realized that his own social position was more closely aligned with the Native people that those gunslingers regularly slaughtered. While the films presented the destruction of Native folks as the morally negligible consequence of the protagonist’s virility and heroism, the real world implications were more ambiguous than, say, the cell phone footage of the McKinney pool party incident.

“Representation matters!” is an oft-deployed and fervently touted catchphrase in debates over the racial casting in rom-coms and big-budget superhero movies. The net effect of representation in viral media that is not meant as entertainment but is nonetheless consumed with the same voraciousness is perhaps underappreciated. When a few keystrokes can conjure up hundreds of vignettes of life under a police state, the most consequential representation might be the kind that leads one to determine whether one is represented by the wearer of the boot or the owner of the neck beneath it. This is the context in which the affirmation of black children is competing for mental real estate. It’s also one that calls for the jettisoning of the tough love model in favor of something more like dynamic love.

When I think of black homeostasis in our treacherous homeland, and a cultural posture that might capture the ideal proportion between defiance and defensiveness, I land on a taunt LeBron James used to punctuate the many baskets he sank during his tenure with the Miami Heat. The celebration is an inversion of raising the roof. Instead of looking to the crowd and exhorting them to turn up—as he would at a home game—he would pantomime lowering the ceiling and pummeling its surface from above. James is known for taking a long view of the sport, and he added the move to his in-game celebration oeuvre with an awareness of the hoopers before him that popularized it.

“Yeah I’m on my Nick Van Exel thing right now, anybody who knows the history of the game,” James said of his razing-the-roof gesture in 2013—name-checking the flashy, now-retired combo guard who originated it. “The fans are always on me on the road, they stay on me, they continue to say I can’t shoot the ball.”

To my eyes, though, there’s an additional layer of historical resonance to the taunt. It’s a gesture that embodies the dissidence that has been necessary to black survival in the New World since we arrived on its shores against our will in 1619. When James buries a jumper that a heckling crowd insists he can’t make, he’s performing a microcosm of African American flourishing writ large.

Symbolically pressing the floor down and slapping his palm against his heart is a summation of an ethos that has sustained us from the Middle Passage through the midterm elections. On national TV, before tens of thousands of in-person detractors, and immortalized in reaction GIFs, James wordlessly chides doubters: my thriving is not the outcome you hoped for or that the circumstances portend, and victory is all the sweeter for it.

Bundini Brown might represent the tack that allows a parent or authority figure to black children to negotiate the often porous border between what’s justifiably hard-nosed and needlessly hard-hearted.

When one is permanently alienated in the land of one’s own birth, the seasons consist entirely of road games. Every triumph is an affront to a jeering, hostile away crowd. Every contested twenty-five-footer requires not just the conviction that the prevailing sentiment in the room is misguided, but also the ability to countenance the reality that even one’s transcendence of the odds is likely to be panned as often as it’s praised. This is an equation that black parents know well, and it supplies the underlying logic by which they take (and administer) great pains to prepare their progeny for a long life on the road in their homeland, typecast as an unwelcome interloper. But when the crucible of foreign arenas is a given, when the persistence of noisy, virulent opposition is guaranteed, love that puts a premium on toughness is a misevaluation of need. Your champions don’t have to inculcate what your antagonists will render by force. How affirming, ultimately, is love that purports to cultivate fortitude by rehearsing the slings and arrows that make that fortitude necessary?

Shortly after the 2014 NBA Finals, I was listening to the Jalen and Jacoby podcast when one of the show’s titular personalities offered the framework of an alternative. Sports analyst Jalen Rose suggested that this Finals—which James’s team lost handily—highlighted a glaring hole in James’s support system.

“LeBron needs a Bundini Brown to his Muhammad Ali,” Rose declared. “I was this type of player, so that’s why I recognize that he doesn’t have it. He needs the kind of guy that when he’s scoring seventeen on them in the first quarter, ‘that’s right! They can’t stop you! It’s Game 5—let’s do this!’ That’s what he needs.”

In a matchup against a team like the 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs, a squad formidable enough to collectively outshine James’s individual brilliance, Rose envisioned the pep talk from James’s hypothetical Drew Bundini Brown stand-in like this:

“Let me talk to you. Forget what’s about to go down out here. Forty-eight minutes out of you, you can’t come out of the game, I don’t want you to get frustrated. Just don’t even look at the score. We know they’re the better team, but let me see if you can get forty-five [points] today.

“I want to see him play with a guy like that.”

At that point in James’s career he was a four-time MVP, two-time Finals MVP, and ten-time All-Star. He was not a person who lacked for validation, or confirmation of his status as the premier player of his generation. Yet Rose’s armchair diagnosis of the King’s state of mind during that Finals sounds plausible to me. Even when you’re a tenacious, accomplished person with a track record of success to fall back on, it’s a game-changing resource to have someone in the fray with you who sees the scale of your challenges and buttresses your belief in your mastery of the situation.

Bundini Brown might represent the tack that allows a parent or authority figure to black children to negotiate the often porous border between what’s justifiably hard-nosed and needlessly hard-hearted. Embracing the former and rejecting the latter is particularly urgent in the rearing of a generation facing the imminence of climate catastrophe, a global rise in fascism, and the rapid encroachment of mass surveillance.

It’s at least Game 5. Let’s do this.