By: Resmaa Menakem
When my brothers and I were little, we spent a lot of time at our grandmother’s house. She was always happy to have us, but sometimes, when we got into serious trouble, she would whup us. She used a switch braided from the branches of a willow tree that grew in her backyard. She kept that switch behind a portrait of her and my grandpapa, painted many years earlier, that hung in her living room.
My brothers and I were normal boys, so we probably did what adults expected of us about half the time. The rest of the time we did whatever we pleased. Sometimes my grandmother would get upset with us. Her most common complaint went like this: “What did I just tell you? Y’all don’t listen at all. You boys don’t realize you’re eatin’ fat till your faces are covered in grease.”
Like most young boys, we’d listen politely while she chewed us out. We’d be obedient for the next fifteen minutes. Then we’d go back to doing whatever we wanted.
About once a year, though, we did something that seriously upset her. When that happened, she wouldn’t even bother chewing us out. She’d just say, “That’s it” and head toward the portrait in the living room. When she wanted to, that woman could move fast.
My brothers and I would freeze in terror. We knew what was coming next.
If you’ve never been whupped with a willow switch, let me tell you this: It’s something you want to avoid. When the switch strikes you, it wraps around your arm or leg. It doesn’t usually break the skin, but it leaves welts that last—and sting—for a couple of days.
On at least two occasions, my grandmother was so upset at us that she made us go into the backyard, cut branches off the willow tree, and bring them to her. Then, as we watched in dread, she braided a new switch right before our eyes.
My grandmother grew up in a sharecropping family in Round Lake, Mississippi. Her grandparents spent much of their lives on a plantation. You don’t need a degree in psychology to recognize my grandmother’s whupping us with a switch as what psychologists call a traumatic retention—a trauma-related behavior that gets passed down through the generations until it loses its original context and begins to look like culture.
The term whupping is a slightly sanitized version of whipping, which for centuries was a standard practice in America. (Today, the apparatus used to inflict pain has also been somewhat sanitized, from a whip to a switch.) Overseers on plantations routinely whipped Black bodies to punish and control them. This was typically done in front of other Black people on the plantation, in order to terrorize them.
But there was another aspect to my grandmother’s whuppings. She never got any pleasure out of whupping us. In fact, sometimes when she did it, there were tears in eyes. Always, after she had hit each of us a few times and put the switch away, my brothers and I would sit on her living room floor, sobbing. She would sit down with us and tell us, “What did I tell you boys? Y’all got to listen when I tell you somethin’s dangerous. If I tell you to stay away from somethin’, you need to stay away from it. I don’t want y’all gettin’ hurt. You understand?”
My grandmother never whupped us because she was angry or just because we had been disobedient. If we broke a vase or a window, she’d give us a talking to or, at worst, deny us peach cobbler at supper. She only whupped us when she felt we had put ourselves in danger, either physically or socially.
Afterward, she would always explain why she whupped us and why we needed to be more careful. This gave us context, safety, and security; it helped us process what had happened; and it helped instill more resilience in our bodies. She whupped us in an attempt to protect us from what she knew could easily harm the young Black bodies in front of her. Her whuppings may have been misguided, but they were well intentioned—done out of her love for us.
As a father and a therapist, I can’t condone any of my grandmother’s whuppings —or anyone whupping their kids. Yet, I understand why she whupped us. I also recognize that what she did was a partial mending of her own trauma. And because of her loving explanations afterward, something deeply healing occurred: she did not pass on her traumatic retentions to any of us.
I’ve never whupped my son, Tezara, who is now seventeen. There have been times when I’ve had to hold him close to me, press my face up close to his, and announce, “You . . . are . . . going . . . to . . . have . . . to . . . get . . . your . . . shit . . . together.”
The times when I’ve gotten most upset at Tezara—and the moments when I’ve most had to override the temptation to whup him—have usually been when he was about to put himself in danger.
Long ago, I stopped worrying about him running out into the street without looking both ways or poking his eye out with a bow and arrow. But I do still worry that he will get hurt—mostly at the hands of police and strangers.
Tezara is a normal teenager. He wants as much freedom as possible, and he simply doesn’t understand the dangers that await him out in the world. This is the unsettling and unavoidable paradox of creating a loving home: parents raise kids whose bodies are unprepared to protect themselves from all the evils they will eventually face. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had some version of the following dialogue with my son:
Tezara: “Daddy, why can’t I? You’re just being mean. Hayden’s parents are letting him do it.”
Me: “I’m not being mean. I’m trying to protect you.”
Tezara: “Hayden’s parents don’t think he’ll be in any danger.”
Me: “I don’t think your friend Hayden will be in any danger, either.”
Tezara: “So, why can’t I go with him?”
Me (sighing): “Because Hayden has a white body and you have a Black one. You’re subject to dangers that he isn’t. That’s just how it is. I’m your daddy, and part of my job is to keep you from getting hurt or killed. That’s why my answer is no.”
Tezara: “Oh, come on, Daddy. Who would want to kill me?”
This is when I often blink back tears and think of Tamir Rice and Emmett Till. I want to tell my son, “Tezara, the list of people who want to kill you is long.”
Of course I don’t. I usually just say, “This conversation is over” and leave the room.