Put 29 black men in a room and cover Robert Hayden's "The Whipping," and you already know there will be a tough conversation. For years in my classes of first-year black men, I've taught Hayden's poem about observing a boy being whipped. The poem always prompts a discussion about the many "beatings" that guys in my classes endured as youngsters.
Thursday was no different. There are 24 first-year college students in the course, 4 high school seniors taking the course for college credit, my graduate assistant, and me. All black men. Last year for some reason or another, I had skipped covering "The Whipping." So I almost forgot how intense the conversation about disciplining black boys can become.
Early on, I asked the class, by a show of hands, how many had received serious whippings with objects other than belts. Only three students did not raise their hands. Everyone else noted being hit with an assortment of items: sticks, brooms, shoes, hangers, and in one case, a wooden spoon.
Some of the guys spoke of black boys "needing" stiffer, physical punishment than others. They noted that some of us were "bad" and thus "deserved it." One student noted that he lives in a rough neighborhood, and that the guys who cause the problems probably did not receive "enough whippings." I pushed back on many of the initial comments.
It's common, at least in some realms, for us to speak of beatings as good things and humorous even. African American comedians have long made recollections of whippings a central set piece in their comedy routines. Eddie Murphy, Sinbad, and the late Bernie Mac performed memorable stand-ups about receiving and giving whippings. Folks regularly compete for the best, most humorous tales about whippings they received.
But there's rarely talk of the short-term and long-term consequences of beating black boys. So I asked the guys in my class: what if the beatings did not necessarily solve certain behavioral problems? What if there were in fact better alternatives? What if mothers and fathers were sometimes wrong about beating black boys with shoes and brooms and a wooden spoon? What if some mothers, like the woman in Hayden's poem, were beating boys "in part for lifelong hidings she has had to bear"?
A few guys began speaking up. One noted that if his parents really wanted to punish him, they should have limited his time participating in recreational activities that he loved like basketball as opposed to often whipping him. Someone else mentioned that the "whippings didn't hurt; they just made me angry. And it caused me to like them less."
The back and forth continued though. Some guys insisted black boys sometimes "deserve it." Some questioned whether it was too much. The conversation was intense, active, painful, challenging, and important.
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