The revolutionary parent

When negative incidents happen with youth someone always asks, “Where are the parents?” Last week, in Baltimore, Toya Graham went looking for her 16-year-old son, whom she had told to go to school and stay away from the demonstrations. But the schools dismissed early. And transit systems were suspended, kept from going into the neighborhoods, dumping school kids right in the middle of the demonstrations at Mondowmin Shopping Center. Leaving a doctor’s appointment, she found her son there with rock in hand, poised to throw at police in riot gear. She even made eye contact with him. What a sinking feeling he must have had! 

Some people have said this mother was being violent when she slapped him in the head. While I do not advocate corporal punishment especially by the state, refusing to give permission to a school system that allowed it, I must point out that this young man suffered no broken skin or bones, bruises or contusions, and certainly not a broken back from this altercation with his justifiably scared and upset mother. Some said that she was humiliating and emasculating him. Others said that she was preventing him from expressing himself; that she was keeping him from standing with the revolution. But they did not ask, “Where are the parents?” because there she was, a parent doing her job, trying to preserve the life of her black child in an America that from the days of slavery has set itself against the well-being of black children. 

Hence, preserving the life of a black child in America is a revolutionary act. From separating children from their parents in slavery to the violent inequities of Jim Crow and from the contemporary criminal and criminalizing justice system, educational systems, healthcare systems and socio-economic systems, it is apparent that the flourishing of black children is a low-to-non-existent priority in our nation.  

The pipeline from schools to prison all over America is well documented. Even black teachers are under attack. In Atlanta teachers are being prosecuted and imprisoned as racketeers for trying to beat an educational system that consistently fails black children. In May 2013, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot, an honor student in Florida, who had never been in trouble, was arrested and expelled for a science project that produced smoke (no one got hurt). Before charges were dropped, she was placed in an alternative school; alternative schools are part of the infamous pipeline. And even as she was reinstated and has graduated, it will take five years for this felony record to be expunged.

We live in an America, where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, trying to get home, was stalked and then killed by a thug vigilante, who went free. Where were his parents? Though not together, Trayvon’s parents had a plan to get him back on track, the first leg of which was to place him with his father, who was waiting for his safe return home. 

Where was Eric Garner when thug policemen choked him to death? In July 2014, this parent, a father of five, was standing on a corner, trying to make some extra money by selling loose cigarettes in an America where the unemployment rate is at least twice as high for Blacks as for anyone else. The economic crisis of 2008, the aftermath of which financial company executives received bonuses for “turning things around,” created more loss in home ownership for African Americans than for any other group, homes where black children might live and grow.

In an America that relentlessly puts real guns in restaurants and on playgrounds, rather than providing protection from police, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot, no questions asked, by police within ten seconds of their arrival, when playing with a toy gun at a Cleveland recreational area. Baltimore is the home of one of the world’s premier medical research facilities, Johns Hopkins. Yet from Henrietta Lacks*, a 1951 Johns Hopkins patient whose cancer cells made billions for biotech companies, to Baltimore’s present community, black people are the last to benefit. Baltimore’s black child mortality rate is more in line with a developing country than with that for white American children.  

Even the church is guilty! Money flows for mission projects overseas, while the problems of black children in America are deemed too difficult, intractable and expensive. Sometimes money flows for Bentleys, helicopters and other senseless extravagances! All of these issues and more factor into my belief that from the moment the first black child arrived or was born on American soil, it has been a revolutionary act to preserve the lives of black children in America.

Revolution means to turn around. John the Baptist lets us know that turning things around requires repentance and that repentance should bear fruit (Matthew 3:8). Revolution means that things should be turned upside down, as Jesus said, the first being last and the last being first (Matthew 19:30; 20:19). Jesus turned tables over in disgust at the exploitation of poor people coming to the temple to worship God (Matthew 21:12). Jesus was a revolutionary who came to heal the sick, liberate the imprisoned and lift the burdens of the oppressed (Luke 4:18, 11:28-30). America needs to repent for its systemic maltreatment of black children and put in place long-term structural changes that can begin to put that which benefits all children as the number one priority.

Every church in America, black and otherwise, should be conducting Freedom Schools**, enrichment programs and afterschool programs in resistance to the pipeline. In order to turn around the epidemic of obesity among black children, and to resist and supplant the food deserts where many black people reside, churches should be sponsoring community gardens, cooperative groceries and nutrition programs. More churches need to do as St. Sabine of Chicago has done, and cause parishioners to be deputized as food inspectors and force grocery stores to provide fresh food kept at correct temperatures.

Where are the parents in church? Why have they not been sought by the respectable deacons, lay leaders, Sunday School teachers and bishops of the corner and mega-church? Churches can make an impact. When Toya Graham realized that she had been filmed on camera and that the video had gone viral, the first thing she thought was what would her pastor think? The teachings of the church helped her to know that she had a responsibility to keep all six of her children safe, to make them know they are loved, to promote their education and to go after them and be with them in time of trouble, just as Christ came after us to be God with us in every situation. He turned creation upside down to save our eternal lives!

Preserving the life of a black child in America IS a revolutionary act. Revolution is about turning things around. And that is exactly what Toya Graham did on Monday, April 27, 2015. Guided into the safety of her car and her home, her only son was removed from a possible disastrous confrontation with police, the very thing that left Freddie Gray with a broken spine and ended his life, spawning the uprising and unrest in Baltimore. Her son lived to see another day.

*Henrietta Lacks is the subject for The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot.

**Freedom Schools, a Children’s Defense Fund program, founded by Marian Wright Edelman, seek to build strong, literate and empowered children by providing summer and after-school reading enrichment for underserved children. 

Marilyn E. Thornton, an elder in the UMC, is a revolutionary parent who has raised three black children to adulthood, one of whom is male, all of who have their master’s degrees and love the Lord.

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