By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Go outside and pick me a switch. And don’t pick a small one either.
That command, for many, is part of being black in America — part of a cultural tradition that sought to steel black children for the world, forge their characters, help prepare them for the pure meanness that waited out there, just because of the color of their skin. Many black parents who whipped felt more was at stake if they did not scourge their children.
Don’t get it wrong. The wielding of the switch and the belt and the wooden spoon is not a practice unique to
black people. Most races spank their children, especially Southern whites who are fundamentalist Christians. But the stories of beatings done in the name of love, beatings that were endured by many — not all — black parents, are like a familiar song. There are some bad associations with slavery. There are some good associations with survival.
Many black parents see what is happening now — the dope, the guns, the gangs — and they wonder what went wrong. When they came up, it didn’t matter what socioeconomic class, a whuppin’ was a whuppin’ — and it seemed that adults were in control. Now, old people are locked in their houses even in the middle of the day, scared to go outside, scared of the young boys up the street. When did the old people, who would switch you all the way home if you did wrong, fold up their chairs and go inside? Maybe when the whuppin’s stopped, the control stopped.
There was a ritual to whuppin’s, and many of that generation talk with a kind of bravado about this rite of passage to adulthood. They tell tales of out-of-body experiences, of spiritual epiphanies, of praying to God, of the art of tearful fakery, of agonizing defiance against belts, of loyalty among siblings and not breaking rank, of the time so bad a parent broke a switch on a child’s soft flesh. And they speak always of the wrong they committed and why they deserved it.
Spankings make up neighborhood legends and family folklore, comical and sincere. They connect folks, haunt them, set them up to wrestle over what they will do with their own children.
The questions are clear, the answers are not. Will the tradition continue? Will the law allow it? Should it continue? At what cost?
When she hung up from talking to the fifth-grade teacher, Armender Banks was sputtering with rage. For eight months, the tension had been building. Her 10-year-old daughter, Maria, had been “in a little rebellious mode.” She had been grounded. Television had been forbidden. Her bicycle confiscated. Extra book reports assigned. “I guess she thought she was grown,” Banks remembers. “We kept asking her, `What’s wrong? Why are you acting this way?’ “
On the afternoon of Feb. 9, Maria’s teacher from Assumption Catholic School in Peekskill, N.Y., called. “Didn’t you get the slips I sent home telling you about her behavior?”
There had been three — and neither Banks, a nurse, nor her husband, the Rev. Henry Banks, pastor of a small, nondenominational congregation, had seen any of them. Maria had forged her father’s and mother’s signatures. That evening, when Henry Banks came home, his wife was waiting in the kitchen to report Maria’s latest infraction.
She pointed upstairs: “Get her!”
Henry Banks, who has a soft, caring face and graying hair, didn’t like the idea of spanking his youngest daughter. But a God-fearing man has to do what a God-fearing man believes God tells him to do. Proverbs 19:18: Chasten thy son while there is still hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.
He loves Maria. He paid for her to go to parochial school when they could barely afford it. He paid for her to have a private tutor to help her with homework. He taught her the ways of the Lord and explained to her what could keep her from going to Hell. Her soul was his responsibility.
On his way upstairs, he counted the commandments the child had broken.
One: “Thou shalt honor thy mother and father.” Her behavior was out of control and there was no honor. Two: “Thou shalt not steal.” By forging their signatures, she had stolen “the integrity of our names.” Three: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” She had lied to her teachers and told untruths to her parents. Four: “Thou shalt not kill.” She had kicked another girl at the tutorial center. Any violence against humanity breaks this commandment.
“My daughter knows the commandments,” Henry Banks said. “We have taught her and she still disobeyed.” He was not angry. The Lord says not to hit in anger. He was hurt. When he climbed the walnut staircase and turned to his left, Maria was waiting. The father told Maria to take her clothes off and prepare for her “strikes.”
There would be seven, two for each commandment she broke. The final strike would be spared because God says have mercy.
“Get on your knees,” he said, without raising his voice, “in a praying position.” The little girl, who still wears pigtails, knelt beside her white canopy bed.
“She had on her panties and training bra,” her mother recalls.
Her father lifted his belt and it came down on her seven times. She yelled and she covered her bottom to break the strikes, but her hands did no good to ease the pain. The belt whipped her arms. She cried. The welts began to swell.
Proverbs 20:30: “The blueness of a wound cleanses away evil.”
The old people in the neighborhood used to say: “The police department finishes raising other people’s kids.” Another way of saying: If you don’t raise your kids right, you’ll lose them to the street corner.
As the debate rages across the country over whether to spank — as some Christian groups advocate the Bible-sanctioned striking of children, as the American Psychological Association releases its limited blessings on spankings, and more books and chapters are published — conversations in beauty shops, churches, living rooms and around kitchen tables start to sound like this:
“Kids these days just don’t know how good they got it. . . . I remember my daddy’s belt. . . . Look at them acting up. . . . They could use a good whuppin’.”
“It is a cultural thing,” says Russell Adams, chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. “There is almost a masochistic celebration that it happened, that it was good for me. They say it like an ordeal righteously survived. You get this kind of amen to the old days.” You know this is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you . . .
The whuppin’ ritual has certain theatrical elements.
First, the anticipation: “Oooooh, you gonna git it! Wait until your father gets home.”
Then, the interrogation: “Did you do that? No? Well, you are lying because so and so said they saw you.” Then there is the recital of the law of the house, the neighborhood, the universe: “Now you know better. How many times did I tell you not to . . . ?”
The next stage is the laying on of hands: In some families, the child is held, often producing a hopping dance around the pole that is the parent. In other families, the command is to freeze.
“You were supposed to stand there with your hands raised up in the air,” Adams recalls. “We called that the crucifixion position.”
The next thing is the art of the preemptive wail, often followed by: “I haven’t hit you yet!” Or: “Quit all that crying.” Or: “I’m going to give you something to really cry about.”
Cunning children always learn fast how much noise to make to receive mercy.
Adams: “There is always the outcry, `Mama, you are killing me!’ The crying is supposed to be a sign you got to me. You almost try to make the whipper feel wrong.”
Proverbs 13:24: He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes. Henry Banks is sitting at his dining room table in his Victorian house in Peekskill, a small riverfront town. White, ruffled curtains cover the window. A white lace tablecloth protects the table. A worn King James Bible in big print sits before him.
His is not a dusty Bible. The scriptures are highlighted in blue, orange, yellow. Some are underlined in blue ink and red ink, indicating he has read them over and over again, consuming the Holy Writ, turning the meanings of the words over in his head.
Banks, 59, has been a minister for 15 years. Ordained by the Disciples of Christ in Brooklyn, he heads the Church in the Wilderness, whose 27-member congregation meets every Sunday right here in his living room. Spanking is a commandment, he says, not a choice.
He’s reading from the Good Book now.
“In the Old Testament, if a child is disobedient, he could be taken by his elders and stoned.” He is pointing to Deuteronomy 21, verses 18 through 23.
“It is not that easy to spank, believe me. But God tells you how, where and how many strikes. This is not something you play with.”
He is flipping through Proverbs, stops at 13:24 and reads slowly. He that spareth the rod . . .
This is a sermon he has preached many times.
The day after the seven lashes, Maria went to school. She wanted her teacher to know what had happened after that phone call — the impact of her words.
Maria asked her teacher for an ice pack.
The teacher sent the child to the nurse’s office. The nurse called Westchester County Child Protective Services, and an hour later, social workers came to the school and drove Maria away.
“If we didn’t believe there was a God, I would be in my grave,” her mother says now, recounting that awful time in February.
“For seven days,” says Henry Banks, “we didn’t know where she was. It was pure torture. They incarcerated my daughter.”
The Bankses found a lawyer though the 700 Club, a Christian television ministry. And they took the agency to court. Reveal Maria’s whereabouts, the parents demanded.
Armender Banks begins to cry, remembering how she could barely hold on during the separation from her daughter. “They are nothing but the Devil,” she says. “It’s a horrible thing.”
“It’s very evil,” her husband concurs. “Once they get a child into that system, you can’t do anything.” The authorities made it clear: Maria could not go home until her parents promised never again to spank her.
They refused. They were answering to a higher authority.
Ultimately, spanking is about control. Not just controlling your child, but running your household as you see fit –no matter what the nanny-state social planners and the supposed child-rearing experts have to say. But increasingly, parents who favor spanking are clashing with the law.
In Minneapolis, police are investigating the case of a 12-year-old girl who was whipped in church, in the presence of her congregation after she was suspended from school. In Florida, a pastor was arrested on child abuse charges after he spanked a 5-year-old child for refusing to eat a strawberry.
Any number of psychiatrists and pediatricians and social workers can be mustered to support either side.
“There is absolutely never any reason to hit a child or adolescent,” writes Irwin A. Hyman in his 1997 book, “The Case Against Spanking: How to Discipline Your Child Without Hitting.” Hyman is leading a national campaign to make spanking not only illegal in all public schools but at home as well.
“Every state I know of doesn’t allow foster parents to hit children,” notes Hyman, a psychology professor at Temple University and director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives.
“The only place you can legally hit kids is in schools and in the home.”
The debate on spanking escalated in the late 1970s as a number of states outlawed corporal punishment in public schools. Some states still allow, and even encourage, corporal punishment in schools, including Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama and Kentucky. A number of private and parochial schools also continue to spank.
In the past decade, advocates for spanking seem to have gained ground among parents — although earlier this year the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that spanking was “no more effective” than other forms of discipline and that corporal punishment has “negative consequences.” Conversely, the American Psychological Association, which has opposed corporal punishment in schools since 1974, recently decided not to condemn spanking in every circumstance.
Some academics believe that the history of spanking among blacks can be directly tied to slavery. Adams, the
Howard professor, argues that whippings — as an act of brutal control by white owners — spread into the black
culture on these shores.
“There is not a record in African culture of the kind of body attack that whipping represents,” he says. “The maintenance of order by physical coercion is rare in Africa.”
The custom may be connected to a desire by some blacks to be like the majority culture: “We have imitations, just as we have imitations with hot combs, from those who wanted to look Caucasian. I grew up at a time when people wore clothespins on their noses to make them smaller. We would go to the movies to see Hopalong
Cassidy and come back and compress our lips to make them smaller.”
Blacks and others who endorse spankings might be suppressing or rationalizing their pain, some psychologists suggest.
“Most of us must admit that the most indelible and most unpleasant childhood memories are those of being hurt by our parents. Some people find the memory of such events so unpleasant they pretend that they were trivial, even funny. You’ll notice that they smile when they describe what was done to them. It is shame, not pleasure, that makes them smile,” writes Jordan Riak, who heads Project NoSpank, a California advocacy group. Gary Ezzo teaches that a swat here and there on a child’s backside to prevent a dangerous situation is not child abuse. He’s the co-author of “On Becoming Babywise,” one of the top-selling books on child-rearing, and a franchiser of sorts when it comes to discipline. During the last 10 years, more than 1.5 million parents — most of them white — have used the Ezzo program in churches and Sunday school classes across the country. “Spanking is not a cure-all,” says Ezzo, who has been portrayed in the media — unfairly, he believes — as a pro-spanking spokesman. “While 85 to 90 percent of parents may be spanking, we in no way are saying they are all doing it correctly.
“We teach never to use a wooden spoon, never to use a father’s belt. . . . We teach never to slap a child in the face, never to spank them on bare skin. . . . The dignity of the child must always be preserved during any type of punishment. You should never ridicule a child, never attack their dignity as a human being.”
Ordinarily, juvenile cases are sealed by state law, but because Henry and Armender Banks made their case public, Westchester County prosecutor Alan D. Scheinkman will give the official side of the story:
“The school nurse observed the child and found reason to think there are reasonable grounds for child abuse. .
. . It was unrefuted testimony that the child was hit with a plastic belt that caused bruising and swelling.” According to Scheinkman, the Bankses initially agreed to allow Maria to stay with a “third party” while an investigation was conducted, but the “parents did not honor that agreement. And because the parents violated the agreement, that effected a removal of the child from the home, which is allowed under state law.” Removing a child from her home is not something county officials do lightly. Ted Salem, an associate commissioner in the county’s department of social services, says officials may investigate 5,000 reports of child
abuse and maltreatment any given year. “We will probably remove fewer than 250 children.”
Was Maria’s whipping excessive enough to qualify as child abuse?”
“The department has never brought a case against somebody based on a slap on the wrist,” answers Salem. Scheinkman says the law respects the rights of parents to raise their children. “The law becomes involved whenever a parent crosses the line.”
In a red brick building in Seat Pleasant, Md., several women in their twenties and thirties are gathered to receive lessons in what social service bureaucrats call “life skills.” This particular program will help them find jobs. They are doing double duty: Raising children on their own and trying to pay the bills. Keeping their kids in line is important.
Seated at a table at the side of the classroom, their teacher, Carol McCreary-Maddox, invites a discussion on how they intend to control their children while they juggle.
TuSheena Watson is remembering her parents’ house in New Jersey:
“They beat us for what we did — wrong things, for wrongdoing. And I appreciate it. I appreciated it then and I appreciate it now more than ever. And I know my other brothers and sisters do as well . . .
“When they took us anywhere, we were like soldiers, we were in line, respectful — and because of that I know right now to this day that’s why all the 10 of us had never been in trouble and incarcerated or any of the bad things.”
A woman named Beverly begs to differ. “My mother beat us and three are incarcerated and one is dead,” she says of her siblings. “When they got out of the house, they broke all the rules.”
Beverly is 34 now. She has three boys — 12, 8 and 3 months. She hated getting spanked by her mother. She believes discipline must be unwavering, but she is resolved not to spank her own kids.
“I don’t see how it helped me — not that it hurt me, but it didn’t help me,” she says. “Her spanking me . . . well, we called it beating when I was growing up because that’s what they were, a beating. All it did was make me scared to come to her with things.
“I don’t beat my boys because I don’t want them to feel like they have to beat a person in order to communicate with them, or to get them to do what they feel they should be doing.”
So how does she punish her older sons? For misbehaving in school last year, 8-year-old Jocque was confined to the house all summer. Totally grounded. He couldn’t go outside to play. No matter what, he had to stay inside.
McCreary-Maddox tells Beverly that some people might say confining a child to the house all summer is a more severe form of child abuse. She believes that a spanking provides an immediate lesson about what is right and what is wrong. “Kids need to know what the limits are. You don’t want a child growing up to think they can get anything they want and all that will happen is a good stern talking to.”
McCreary-Maddox has three children, ages 20, 17 and 12. She loves them all, and she has spanked them all –just as she was spanked as a child. She favored a wooden spoon. “Belts leave marks. I think there may have been a time when I used a belt, but suppose the buckle hits and they are scratched. That is not what you were intending to do.”
Her 12-year-old, Allyssa, sits still in the campaign office where her mother volunteers after class. The ponytailed girl freely offers this opinion: “I find it unfair when parents are allowed to hit when they get mad, but we aren’t able to do anything. Getting a spanking only makes me madder.” She is remembering the last one.
“I kicked this boy and I got suspended. She said go up to the room and I got a spanking. It didn’t really hurt, but I cried before she hit me.
“My cousin told me to say `Kunta Kinte,’ ” a reference to the scene in “Roots” in which a white slave owner tries to beat Kunta Kinte’s name out of him. “He did it when he was getting a whipping and his mother started laughing.”
That tactic didn’t work for Allyssa. Her mother still gave her the spoon.
Proverbs 23:13-14: Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
Henry Banks presses those words on the thin pages of his Bible. The rod, he says, “that is like a belt, or a switch.”
After a series of court hearings and 28 days in which Maria was kept from them, the Bankses finally agreed they would not spank the girl. A judge agreed to return Maria to her home and scheduled the whole case for dismissal in December — if the parents abide by that promise until the hearing.
Banks says he had no problem agreeing because the judge understood the Bible, and further understood that spankings are not done spontaneously.
“Spanking is not the first thing,” the pastor says. “It is the last thing you do.”
Besides, Banks says, Maria is now 11 and soon she will reach her age of reason — 13 — at which point, he says, the Bible commands him not to spank.
Since Maria came home, there have been no major problems. She hasn’t had a need to be spanked, her parents say.
“She is scared she could be taken,” Armender Banks says.
Maria takes a seat in the corner of the living room. Her parents tell her it’s okay to talk about what happened to her. She is reluctant at first. She doesn’t want to discuss the time she spent in foster care.
“That’s in the past,” she says. “It was bad. I didn’t like it. There was a lot of cursing, drinking and piercing.” “Piercing?” her mother asks.
“Yeah, piercing body parts,” Maria says. “They tried to pierce me.”
“You see what can happen when a child is out of her household.”
Maria says she doesn’t even think much about the spanking that started this whole story. She fidgets and recites the Bible: ” `Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ That means give your children spankings. . . . They spank me because they love me.”
Maria asks to be excused. She is tall for her age, but inside she is still a child. It’s a Saturday; she wants to play.
She chases a friend into the kitchen and they beg for sodas, then run upstairs to watch television.
A few minutes pass and they run back downstairs, now wanting to walk to the riverfront for a festival. After a series of nos, then maybes, Armender and Henry Banks relent.
“But be back before the sun goes down.”
The parents keep talking, the daylight fades and Armender checks her watch: 8:45 p.m.
“The sun been done gone down,” she says. “Where is Maria?”
The mother climbs in her van, drives to the riverfront and scans the crowd. Neither the girl nor her friend is there.
“Maybe they already walked home,” Armender says.
She drives home and opens the screen door. The house is dark. Her husband comes in. He has not seen Maria either. It is pitch black in the foothills of the mountain-ringed town. Worry creases their faces.
This would be the perfect scenario for a spanking. But they are under court order.
They get back in the van. “Maria is going to be grounded for this,” says Armender, now riding in the passenger seat.
A block from the house, Henry Banks lowers his window. Two figures are walking slowly up the street.
“There she is.” He stops the van.
“You were supposed to be back before dark,” Armender says. “Get in the van.” “But we were walking back,” Maria pleads.
The father will hear no excuses.
“The next time you ask to go somewhere the answer is an automatic no,” he says.
He wheels the van slowly up a hill, his wife at his side, his daughter sitting in the seat behind him. He is still the father. He is still the man in charge of his household. But not totally. The child has disobeyed in a blatant, dangerous way. He thinks of the time she left the yard when she was 3 and her mother burned her legs up with a switch. After that, she never left the yard without permission again.
You can see the frustration in his face. He knows that girl could have used a good spanking.
DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.