This year I finally joined my family’s fantasy football league. I’m fairly indifferent to football — I’ll watch it if that’s what everyone else is doing, but the two years I was teaching in Virginia I don’t think I watched one game of my own accord. But last year my father-in-law died, and so this year I took over his slot in the league. My first draft was Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back. I chose Peterson for several reasons. First, he’s probably the best running back in the NFL and as a new team I got first pick in the draft. Second, my old friend Sarah Kelen is a Minneapolis native, and has inspired in me a love for all things Minnesotan, including the Vikings (this was during the early 1990s, the Warren Moon era, when the Vikings were a pretty great team).
Then came Peterson’s arrest for child abuse: beating his four year old son with a hand-fashioned switch. Peterson referred to his actions as a “whupping,” and his representatives invoked the image of the caring, if stern, father: his attorney, Rusty Hardin, explained that “Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son. He used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in east Texas.” This explanation launched an intense and ardent debate on the internet about the meanings of “discipline.” Former NBA athlete Charles Barkley weighed in, arguing that corporal punishment is part and parcel of a black Southern childhood. In his words, “whipping — we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.” Miami Herald columnist Ana Veciana-Suarez likened Peterson’s actions towards his child to Ray Rice’s earlier violence against his then-girlfriend. And, most notably, former Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter spoke out passionately against Peterson’s actions, relegating them to a past era in which parents made mistakes that current parents should not repeat. “This is the 21st century; my mom was wrong… And I promise my kids I won’t teach that mess to them. You can’t beat a kid to make them do what you want them to do.”
Notably absent in all of this is Adrian Peterson’s son, the recipient of this violence (which we can imagine was not an isolated incident). His name is not mentioned in the news reports; he is described only in the context of the injuries he suffered. Given that a preschooler, it’s hard to know how clearly he could articulate what his father’s violence meant to him, although the fact that doctors found defence wounds on his hands suggests that he resisted the beating. What’s most striking to me, though, is the idea, articulated by Barkley, Hardin, and others of Peterson’s defenders, that this kind of violence is a routine part of disciplining a child, an experience that all black children go through and, implicitly, emerge from unscathed.
We know, though, that black children are hardly untouched by violence that is visited on them or that they witness. Looking all the way back to 1845 we read Frederick Douglass‘s account of his initiation through “the bloodstained gate” into what he called “the hell of slavery,” which came from watching the severe beating of an aunt when he was “quite a child” (certainly younger than seven or eight when he went to live in Baltimore, and most likely younger than the five or six years old at which children were put to work at simple tasks). US slavery was in effect organized around the institutionalized abuse of children. As Anna Mae Duane points out in her pioneering book on children and violence, Suffering Childhood in Early America, children were a significant population in the transatlantic slave trade from its beginnings. She cites the case of the 1734 journey of the slave ship Margarita, 87 percent of whose human cargo was under the age of 16, with an average age of thirteen. More chillingly, she notes that another slave ship, the Henrietta Marie, “had over eighty pairs of shackles designed expressly for children’s hands.”
With the abolition of the international slave trade in the US in the early years of the 19th century, slave children were a constant feature of the domestic trade: after all, the only way to increase slave owners’ stock was through reproduction. Abolitionists were particularly fascinated by the phenomenon of very light-skinned enslaved children, the obvious result of sexual violence against enslaved women.
As Duane shows, violence against black children was defined in contradictory ways. The first was the accusation against enslaved parents that they were so violent towards their children that slave owners had to rescue the children from “their excesses of cruelty or rage.” The second was the claim that enslaved people were themselves children, incapable of caring for themselves, let alone their own children. But by the mid-19th century there was an even more insidious narrative about violence towards children in slavery, one that is described by Robin Bernstein in her field-changing book, Racial Innocence. Bernstein demonstrates in precise detail how over the course of the nineteenth century, black children were increasingly defined as “insensate” — incapable of feeling physical or emotional pain. Even as (or perhaps because) white children became the symbol of innocence, black children were represented as pickaninnies, smiling and laughing in the face of sometimes mind-blowing levels of violence.
As Bernstein argues, US culture constructed black children as appropriate recipients of violence from their white counterparts: the manufacturers of black dolls included hitting, throwing, and smashing them as part of appropriate play for white girls. Illustrations of girls at play showed them whipping and even lynching black dolls. This understanding of what black dolls were “for” extended well into the twentieth century. Bernstein convincingly revises our understanding of the Clark doll studies in this context: when black children were asked to “give me the doll you like to play with,” they were in effect given the choice between “a white doll that prompted cuddle play and a black doll that scripted play of violence and servitude.” And told to choose the doll they felt most similar to, these children were being asked to identify with an appropriate victim of abuse.
This history doesn’t simply disappear. To me, Charles Barkley’s rationalization that black children must be beaten to be disciplined echoes slavery- and Jim Crow-era beliefs that “pickaninnies” don’t feel pain like you and me, that they can and should be subjected to heightened levels of violence to make a dent in their behaviour. Of all the legacies of slavery, this is one of the most entrenched, and even romanticized (“my daddy whupped me and look how well I turned out”). As we are still reeling in the wake of the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, we can see that the myth of the unfeeling, super-resilient black child is still doing its violent work.