Friday, September 02, 2011

That Mean Old Yesterday

Last year, I read a book by Stacey Patton entitled That Mean Old Yesterday. It affected me greatly. As a person who studies race relations in the United States.  As a person born with a vagina instead of a penis in a country -- and a world -- where that fact matters greatly. And as a person who later reconnected with memories of childhood torture by my own mother, a memory quite frankly that I might not have found the strength to face had I not read Patton's book.

It's well, well written. In fact, it's so well written, it'll make you crazy. Like a horror movie where you wind up peeking through your fingers, but unable to look away or run from the darkened theater. I often wanted to put it down and sometimes did -- mid-paragraph. I had to stop reading it at bedtime entirely because it gave me creepy dreams. But, at least partly for this reason, I had to finish it. I mean, if you can open a non-fiction book that begins with the narrator lurking in sockfeet outside her adopted parents' house in the rain in November with a 9mm automatic, working up the courage to blow their brains out -- and then not have to follow it to its end, you're way less curious than I am.

Patton lived in hell as a child. Born to a mother who gave her up to the foster care system and eventually agreed to her adoption by a couple who appeared on the surface to be good parental candidates, she was "punished" virtually from day one verbally and physically as a general exercise in preparing her for "life." Her adoptive "mother" demonstrated huge psychological and emotional problems and her adoptive "father" was apparently incapable of protecting her. I know I'm glossing over things, but really, you must simply read the book. Any descriptive details I just threw in here would disrespect the quality of Patton's writing and the horrific nature of her experience.

In any case, her book is far, far from just a memoir, though I assure you, it could stand on its merits as that alone. But Patton has developed her skills and passion not only as a truly fine journalistic writer, but as a thoroughly rigorous historian and what she has created in That Mean Old Yesterday should be required reading for every parent, most particularly in the Black community.

I have long pondered the tendency of many Black parents to be so quick to "train" their children using what is often quite brutal force. But as a person who looks like me, I never felt able to respond when African-Americans would say things like, "The White authorities will arrest you these days for disciplining your own kids!  They want Black children running wild in the street, so they can put 'em in jail."

Don't get me wrong. My parents (who were brutalized as children themselves) were very violent people.  They did great damage to their children as a result of it. And they were resoundingly White. So it's hardly just Black folks perpetrating these practices. But I have noticed through the years a seeming embrace of those practices with rather more vigor in the Black community in general than elsewhere and, as I already stated, I'm a curious person with a lot of training now in sociological analysis.

So I let Patton take me to school.

In a stroke of absolute genius and powerful reporting technique, she presents each chapter of her life story followed by a usually brief but invariably stunning account of how what was happening to her fits into the greater context of U.S. historic brutality against African-Americans by their White tormentors. This juxtapositioning shocks, grieves, teaches, and ultimately demands both attention, realization and resolution.

"America," writes Patton in the introduction to this book, "has never been held accountable for its crimes against black people. The white masters of American slavery left their psychic imprints on the flesh and minds of my ancestors. They were loud, intense, and unforgiving scars."

Later, she adds:

"The real truth is that after slavery, white society had a vested interest in keeping black families dependent, subordinate, and dysfunctional...The family, in essence, plays a vital role in the maintenance of certain cultural norms and social hierarchies. It is also a crucial aspect of democracy. But white society never intended for blacks to equally participate in the adult business of democracy. So the goal was to infantilize the race by trapping it in a continuous limbo of childhood, attacking the physical, intellectual, and moral development of black children and keeping the black family dysfunctional out of fear of the potential and possibilities of what the African American race could become -- healthy, functional, competitive, independent, and equal...In truth, whiteness, white supremacy, and gradation of white identity have always been defined by what it is not rather than what it is.  And what white is not is everything that it deems to be black. "  [p. 163]

"...In slavery, all black children had prenatal and economic value. In freedom, black children became expendable nuisances whose futurity was always problematic for white society. In return for their lost economic value, black children were further devalued in many ways. They became subjects in racist cartoons, postcards, games, household goods, and visual pornography. Black children were also demonized in black baby tales, nursery rhymes, songs like 'Ten Little Niggers,' books such as 'Little Black Sambo,' and films like 'The Little Rascals.' In freedom, black children represented a new kind of African American citizenry that was never going to be disciplined by slavery. Their potential was unhinged from the peculiar institution, and their potential was unknown and feared by whites. For white racists, the goal in the aftermath of slavery was to undermine the future prospects of the African American race by attacking the physical, moral, and intellectual development of its children by denying them the privileges and protections reserved for innocent white middle-class children."  [p. 188]

The unknowing participation of some Black parents in this process is outlined in the book when a Black woman says to some other Black women in a beauty shop:

"Don't you see that when you beat your children down that you are doing just what the white man wants you to do to them? They want you to break them. They want you to make them passive, submissive, deferential, and never question or challenge anything. You are breaking their self-esteem. Killing their spirits. Murdering their souls. This is what the white man wants you to do. You are doing his work for him. Don't you see that this behavior stems directly from the plantation? From slavery? Slave mothers beat their children so the master wouldn't do it. And look at you all standing here today saying you beat your children so the white man won't do it. This is so plantation...This is why black people are dysfunctional. Their minds are still shackled to a slave mentality. And you are passing it on to your children. What they need is love and assurance, not violence and more degradation. We need to teach black boys and girls how to cope and compete in this racist society. Not break them and twist them to fit into some limited place in it."  [p. 128]

I can imagine these ideas resonating powerfully, and possibly negatively or at least defensively, among my Black readers.  I don't offer Patton's work as a point of contention, but as a point to consider.  Her story is beyond painful and masterfully told.  Her redemption and restoration is monumental and inspiring.  But she never suggests that her evolution made her pain "worth it all."  And I, for one, appreciate this greatly.

I tell my students on a regular basis that I'm living proof there is life after weird.  But that doesn't make me glad I suffered.  Still, I celebrate what I have learned through my suffering, as does Patton, if I don't miss my guess by much.  The book she has birthed is important.  It needs to be read and discussed, especially in this time of such unmitigated attacks on the Black community (in the form of increased poverty and joblessness) and against Black youth, in particular (in the form of disproportionate and ever rising targeting by law enforcement and criminal "justice" personnel).

When you make the connection she draws between Black family violence and the history of White Supremacist violence against Black people for the past four hundred years, and then drop that connection into the context of the burgeoning violence perpetrated against Black people in the present by White people and by each other, you have a Molotov cocktail that must not be ignored.

There's no quick fix to the dilemma of the "color line" in the United States.  And White people must step up, learn from, and take responsibility for initiating radical, wide-ranging, and to the extent possible, instantaneous change in the "racial" arena.  But I think Patton's work and her voice provides fertile ground to nurture and nourish a Black empowerment movement at a crucial time in history.  It's not the whole answer by a long shot, but I think it's an important, pragmatic, and therefore hopeful note.

Here's Patton reading from the introduction to That Mean Old Yesterday:

Note: Stacey Patton has a new website dedicated to providing Black parents, families and communities with a full range of alternatives to corporal punishment.  You may visit it at Spare the Kids.


Bee said...

I'm teaching grade 10 English this year for the first time. The book sounds intense, and I'm always on the lookout for page-turners. Do you think it could be read by 15-year-olds??

Brotha Wolf said...

I wish I could get the book, but due to a crappy economy, I can't afford to.

However, her highlighted writing is the same message other authors wrote in other books I've read. The legacy of slavery still exist within psychological scars, and white supremacy is still as powerful as ever.

I'm skeptic on the majority, or at least some of white society taking any responsibility for the sins of the past or present. As we've heard time and time again they always blame black people for everything wrong with society even when it's clearly their fault. They are unaware that they too have been brainwashed.

Also, history's conditioning has made it so some blacks to object not only their history in this nation, but the history of their ancestors before European colonialism and American slavery. Plus, we've been taught that our emotions don't matter because we don't matter, and white people are superior in...every way.

When you think about it, it's like living in hell on Earth. Not saying that everyday is a hard day, but when you think about how your history, culture, and name were destroyed, your soul devalued, your skin demonized, and your humanity stripped, it is hell.

You could also say that in an opposite sense, some whites live in Heaven, but at the cost of their humanity and sense of reality.

Changeseeker said...

You have major nerve, Bee! You don't say whether or not the students are Black. I think I wouldn't have a majority White class read it. And even a majority Black class might wind up head-butting with their parents, which might be difficult. It would also depend on their reading level. Why not read it yourself and then decide?

Other possibilities: Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall or Laughing in the Dark by Patrice Gaines (both memoirs by Black writers).

Changeseeker said...

Oh, Brotha Wolf. That's the kind of comment you get when a blogger drops by. Whew! Intense.

As for not being able to buy the book, maybe you could get your local library to order it. I do this all the time (both books and movies) and am amazed at how often they'll follow through. I've also read a chapter or two at a time in book stores. And, as a blogger, you can sometimes get a free copy, if you'll commit to review it online, especially when it hasn't been out long. (These are the tricks of a reader who's always wanting to give away money instead of spend it.)