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Slavery left a legacy of corporal punishment on Black communities | COMMENTARY

A drawing of a slave ship hangs in Tiffany Classie Williams's history class at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Ala., in April. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington post by Julie Bennett
A drawing of a slave ship hangs in Tiffany Classie Williams's history class at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Ala., in April. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington post by Julie Bennett (Jullie Bennett / For The Washington Post)

Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., the grandson of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States, died this past September. Let that sink in for a minute. Lyon Tyler, a man who died only last year, was the grandson of a man who was alive when George Washington was president. If that doesn’t collapse your perception of time, I don’t know what will.

For Lyon Tyler, time was indeed truly relative. He could look into his father’s eyes and see centuries into our nation’s past. It is a gift that most Black Americans share with him. All we have to do is look into the nearest mirror.

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To most Americans, the institution of slavery is like a fairy tale whispering softly in the moss-covered branches of a distant Cypress tree. But for Black people, the pull of slavery across the centuries is like a net we cannot escape. Its persistently evident legacies are our constant reminder of this nation’s sins.

Violence is the legacy of slavery that I am most familiar with. Violence, and its consequences, hang over me and my family like a long, dark cloud reaching back through time. It haunts my dreams and colors my every interaction with the world.

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The dirty little secret about much of Black America is that violence, disguised as corporal punishment, is as much a part of our culture as Jazz or black-eyed peas or church.

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, Black parents are more than twice as likely than white or Latino parents to use violence as discipline in the home. Journalist and Morgan State University professor Stacey Patton believes she understands why. She has written extensively about how “masters” who enslaved people used violence to discipline them and how those enslaved, eventually, embraced the practice.

Violence, against children in particular, was not a habit enslaved Africans brought with them to these shores. According to Professor Patton, “West African societies held children in a much higher regard than white societies in the Atlantic world. West Africans believed that children came from the afterlife, that they were gods or reincarnated ancestors.”

Traditional West African cultural codes regarding violence were supplanted by the cultural models of the American slave-owning class. “Had the slaves who crossed the Atlantic been mostly adults from the same tribes and nationalities, spoken the same languages, shared the same blueprint for child-rearing that was practiced in the societies where they were enslaved, and been given freedom to rear their children without interference from whites, then maybe traditional African child-rearing practices could have been preserved,” she wrote.

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The historian Michael Dickman, also points a bloody finger at De Bow’s Review, a widely read “agricultural” magazine circulated from 1846 to 1884, which was filled with recommendations about the strategic and tactical use of violence as a method to subdue and motivate enslaved populations. “The master class of the Old South envisioned the whip as a device that corrected the errors and mistakes committed by their slaves. Masters frequently described whipping in such utilitarian terms, depicting it as a practice that was rational and had the best interests of their slaves in mind.”

If violence is the long crimson river that bathes the roots of my family tree, slavery is its source. Its waters weave a meandering path across time to reach me. I rise and make way for it at family gatherings. It is but one of many legacies of slavery that still haunt the Black community. Ridiculous myths about Black congenital intellectual inferiority lay at the root of Black political disenfranchisement for centuries and persist to this day. Insecurities about Blacks in the Antebellum South gave rise to the creation of the police in this country. And, lingering perceptions about the sexual potency of Black males is the reason that interracial relationships in the media between Black men and white women are only now becoming common.

Most Americans are privileged enough to be unaware of these persistent and harmful legacies of slavery. Black Americans aren’t so lucky.

K. Ward Cummings (kwardcummings@gmail.com) is a former senior congressional staffer and the author of “The Capitol Hill Playbook” (2nd Edition), written under the pen name Nicholas Balthazar.

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