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How Did We Turn the Baltimore Mom Into Another War?

The Baltimore mom Toya Graham is being touted as "mother-of-the-year" after she was caught on camera hitting her son for participating in a violent protest of the police. As I watch the video, a flood of feelings run through me: one part of me wants to condemn her for shaming her son in public in such a violent manner while another part of me understands her desire to protect a son from danger at any cost.

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There is no way to know exactly what was running through Graham's mind as she began to whip her son in the streets. Fear? Anger? Disapproval? There is a clear understanding in most black communities, especially poor ones, that the police are the enemy. As residents mature, they generally turn toward submission to the police rather than rebellion, and they teach their children to do the same (with the goal of preventing them from being killed.) I'm guessing that due to a culture of fear, this mother did what she instinctively felt called to do in order to save her son's life.

This is a multilayered issue, but in my view, the most interesting aspect of it is how our culture imposes theoretical ideas and political ideologies on the everyday experiences of an average mom. Our media has taken a personal and frightening moment between a mother and her child and made it a political/ social justice event. Our culture has usurped the everyday challenges and victories of raising children and turned them into "issues": stay-at-home moms vs. working moms, moms who vaccinate vs. moms who don't, moms who spank vs. moms who don't. Pick any choice that mothers make and there is usually an argument for and against it. And while I'm all about spirited debate, the arguments somehow talk around the daily challenges of raising children in a distracting, demanding and divisive culture.

Motherhood is not a sport to be judged by the masses of spectators ... Motherhood in and of itself is deeply varied and filled with nuances.

Personally I have watched myself get all twisted out of shape over any of these debates depending on where I am in the spectrum of parenting. I have taken to social media time and time again over vaccinations and working moms (so yes, I have engaged in the war that has become motherhood). But this video of Graham sparked something different within me.

Even as I do not practice corporal punishment on my son, I could sense the complexities of this very intimate experience gone viral for the world to judge and scrutinize. For days I heard various camps of African-American parents refer to Graham as everything from a hero to an Uncle Tom. I actually posted Gibran's "On Children" on my Facebook page, suggesting that our children's lives are not ours, and at some point we will need to let them engage in their own choices, mistakes and victories. All that said, I can't imagine the agony of losing a child at the hands of the police like so many African-American moms of late.

Underlying Graham's actions might be the historical and bloodied experiences of many young black men who have encountered a cop and not survived. Her actions might also be seen as tainted by old-fashioned corporal punishment, which has traditionally been practiced in African-American homes as a form of discipline. And yes, rioting has not infrequently been the successor to protests. The strands that weave together so tightly and end with Graham being seen on camera whipping her son are endless, and we all have opinions. But none of us knows what is really happening on a day–to-day basis in Graham's life that would cause this event.

Motherhood is not a sport to be judged by the masses of spectators that hold this opinion on one day and that one on another. Motherhood in and of itself is deeply varied and filled with nuances of love, fear, joy and doing one's best to provide for one's children.

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I make it my practice to not to know anything about other mothers and the choices they make for their children. I fail all the time. I failed with Graham; giving over to my judgment that she humiliated her son for the world to see. I thought, "Thank goodness our great revolutionaries didn't have their moms running interference in their causes." Then I reminded myself that I don't know Graham. I have no idea what it takes to raise six children as a single mom. I do know how difficult it is to raise one child alone, so I told myself to shut up and donated a little cash to a fund that has been set up for her.

Image via CBS Evening News

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