“Slave owners used a whip to tame their slaves, to break their spirit. He didn’t care if the slaves respected him; he wanted them to fear him.”
I wanted to stay away from the Adrian Peterson story of using a switch (braided tree branches), as it is known by southern blacks, to discipline his son because it brought back memories of my own childhood of abuse inflicted on me by my stepmother. Adrian may think that it was an act of love, but I would bet you as a child when it was happening to him, he didn’t feel loved at all. And I would wager, his son didn’t feel loved when it was happening to him.
Using a switch is not discipline, it is violence. Slave owners used a whip to tame their slaves, to break their spirit. He didn’t care if the slaves respected him; he wanted to instill fear in them. He wanted the wounds left by the lashes to the slave’s back to be a constant reminder of what would happen if they didn’t do what he wanted.
The switch serves the same purpose as the whip. It is a symbol of fear. It cuts deep into the skin and leaves scars that sometimes are forever visible. For that reason alone, black folk in particular should not want to have anything to do with using a switch on their own children. When you do, you have embraced the mindset of the white men that whipped our African ancestors. A mindset that you want your child docile, that is habitually inclined to submit to your wishes.
Chapter 17 of my book of personal experience essays published in 2005 recounts the violence of me being whipped with braided tree branches (“a switch”) by my stepmother, who was also beaten with switches when she was a child.
My mother passed when I was three, and my father, a widower and single parent of seven children, remarried several years later then at age 45, he died when I was 11, leaving me and four other siblings to be raised by my stepmother, the woman who would become my abuser and tormenter until I reached age 16. Here are some excerpts of my personal story:
“. . . My father’s passing seemed to delight my stepmother more than it saddened her. He was her abuser, and now he was dead. You would think that she would have jumped at the chance to dump his children on his family, but she didn’t. She lied to the court to keep us with her, not because she wanted to honor some promise to her dead husband to care for his children or because she loved us, rather she wanted money. She kept us from going to live with our other relatives so she could keep the social security checks coming. Daddy had wronged her so when he died, she took all of the anger and rage at him out on his children. . . .
The beatings were cruel and heartless and they seemed endless. . . . It seemed just my very presence provoked her wrath. She would braid tree branches together to reinforce their strength, make me take off my clothes and beat me butt-naked. When she was done, I had large, red, bloody welts all over my arms, back, thighs and legs. If a tree branch wasn’t available, she took a board and hit me with it. This went on for years. We kept the house clean, washed and ironed her clothes, cooked the meals, and then had to earn good grades in school. I wasn’t bad because I was too terrified of her. I drew back if she came near me. I didn’t know when she was going to strike. . . .
Not only was I being abused and beaten, another sister [Annette who is now deceased and NEVER forgave my stepmother] was being treated much worse, if you can imagine that. Her screams used to send chills through my body. “Beat me, beat me,” I would cry trying to defend her. It was easier to be beaten than to watch my stepmother beat my sister. But my tears didn’t stop my stepmother from unleashing the full thrust of her rage on my sister. After awhile, my sister wouldn’t even cry when she was beaten. She would just take it. . . . I cried out every time she beat me, and in my mind, I imagined her dead. I even thought of putting rat poison in her food, but killing her was not written into my story. . .”
At age 16, “. . . an act of defiance and rebellion on my part provoked her to a point of no return. She telephoned me at my [after school] job and threatened to blow my head off with the gun that she often brandished. She called me every deleterious name that she could think of. I was trembling like crazy. I knew with everything inside me that this time she was going to kill me. I just knew it. There was this loud, powerful voice in my head telling me to run. Not to go back to her. I didn’t know what to do so I started screaming, “Somebody please help me. Help me somebody!”. . .”
Francis, a co-worker heard me screaming like I’d been attacked and rushed to my aid. I told her my story and she was horrified. She called my supervisor Miss Alma and together, with support of Francis’s family, I took matters into my own hands and ran away from home.
“. . . Miss Alma was just a few inches over four feet tall, Caucasian, and had the courage of a lioness. She always had a kind word or something uplifting to say to me or about me. I remember her crying on the phone after learning that I came from such a background. She promised me that she would not let me face my stepmother alone . . . Knowing that she was willing to put herself at risk to prevent me from having to return to my stepmother helped me to have the courage to tell my story to a judge. She picked me up the next morning from Francis’ house and drove me to the courthouse in town where I had a chance to meet with a judge.
We arrived at the courthouse and were asked to wait in the judge’s office. Miss Alma held my hand, and reassured me that everything was going to work out. She told me to stop worrying. I didn’t know if the judge would believe me or not. What if he didn’t believe me, would he send me back to my stepmother? What if he did send me back to live with her? Surely she would kill me. All of those what ifs raced through my mind.
I was trembling like crazy when the judge walked into his chambers wearing his black robe. The expression on his face was very rigid and serious. He listened intently to me recount in vivid detail the terror I had lived under. I pleaded with him not to send me back to that life. The judge became so incensed at what he heard that he pounded his fist on the table and said, “This should’ve never happened! What’s her number?”
He picked up the telephone and dialed her number. As soon as she identified herself, the judge pounced on her. He threatened to put her behind bars if she ever laid a hand on me again. He let her know that I would be coming for my clothes and he didn’t want her to be home when I got there. He even told her that if she saw me on the same side of the street as her, she better cross over to the other side. He slammed down the phone.
All the while he was shouting at my stepmother, Miss Alma clutched my hand to keep me from trembling. But I wasn’t free yet. . . .The judge talked to me a few minutes about making sure that I didn’t throw my life away and then declared me an emancipated minor. I was free. He had freed me from constantly being beaten, frightened, intimidated, and threatened. I had to first become of age and get a job before I would meet people to be brave and courageous enough to rescue me from the fear I lived under for five years. . . .
I enjoyed my newfound freedom, but I didn’t let my emancipation stop me from finishing high school. . . .” I drew inspiration from “James Brown shouting, “Don’t be a fool stay in school” and “I’m black and I’m proud” to fuel my determination to finish high school, go to college, and realize my dream. . .
After I graduated from high school, I went to back to New York for a few months before going off to college . . . I never felt like I had a choice not to go to college. I wanted to prove to everybody that I could take care of myself. With the help of federal grants and loans I was able to pay the tuition cost and pay for books. Work study and money from my father’s social security benefits provided me with spending money.
. . I suffered inside from the psychological fallout of what my stepmother had done to me. I felt such shame. To have someone treat you worse than they would have treated an animal is devastating. It makes you feel unlovable, less than a human being. It makes you feel unimportant, unwanted. I didn’t want anyone that I met to even know she had treated me in such a way.”
Even into my adult years as a wife and mother, I would have dreams of being in a prison and my stepmother was the warden. I escaped and she chased me with dogs to bring me back. I would run so hard that I would fall out of bed. My legs even ached as if I had been running for real and not in my dreams. It took over 10 years to stop fearing her, and that ONLY happened because I had to forgive her.
None of what I have described here caused me to abuse my own children. My sister Annette and I VOWED that we would NEVER treat our children the way that we had been treated by my stepmother, and we kept that promise. We disciplined our children but not with violence or words that made them feel unloved or worthless.
I treated my children the way that I wanted a mother to treat me. Simply, I did unto them the way that I wished had been done unto me as a child. I gained their respect, which I’m blessed to still have today, by communicating with lots of praise and always making sure they knew that I love them. Thereby, when it came time for discipline, it was much easier to administer punishment by taking away things they valued or preventing them from doing something they wanted to do. I used endearing words when communicating with them, and still do. It was my aim to earn their respect and I NEVER wanted them to fear me like I feared my stepmother.
Adrian Peterson: “But deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives. I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.”
Some adults who were beaten with switches think the violence inflicted on them as a child made them a better person. The violence against me made me a more sensitive, caring, and loving person, not a violent one, because I could not imagine ever inflicting that kind of harm on the three children that I gave birth to. I simply made a choice to either look to my stepmother’s way or discipline them in a way that would not emotionally, mentally, or physically scar them.
I’ll be 61 in a few days (September 19th), and I don’t have the mental scars of being beaten with switches, but I remember the details of it as if it happened yesterday. I still carry a three-inch physical scar on my right shoulder that was put there by three braided tree branches. It’s not as visible but I know why it’s there. I still remember the small sticks from the branches that my girlfriend had to pull out of the deep wounds left by that switch and the blood she wiped away.
Adrian Peterson’s son will not forget the blood-stained welts and scars left by the switch his father used on him. Hopefully, he won’t repeat what his father did to him on his future child.
I would ask Adrian Peterson to put himself back in time to when he was being whipped with a switch: Did he feel loved when those tree branches were ripping open his skin? Did he feel, at the moment that it was happening, that his parents were justified in what they did? Did he harbor anger and resentment for being treated like that? Then I would ask him, why would you ever want to inflict that same pain on your own child?
# # #
Follow me on Twitter: @smaxxmahaffey
Visit my website: http://www.smmahaffey.com