Friday, August 14, 2009

Continued Beating of Children in the South and Slavery: Making the Connections

A day or so ago, the Arkansas Times posted a piece about the continued use of corporal punishment for children in Arkansas schools. Yes, it does still go on all over the South (here and here), one of many vestiges of barbarism that we like to sanctify with hand-picked biblical passages that conveniently justify our barbarism, while we ignore the overweening weight of other biblical passages that expose our barbaric cultural norms as cruel, immoral, and unjustifiable.

And a vestige of slavery: when I saw the Arkansas Times article, what caught my eye immediately was the photograph of the paddle still used in Southern schools to beat children. This is exactly the kind of paddle used in schools in south Arkansas when I was growing up. And it’s apparently the kind of paddle that many slaveholders used to punish slaves in antebellum Arkansas.

I did not know of that connection between ongoing corporal punishment of Southern children and slavery until I recently read Grif Stockley’s Ruled by Race, surveying the racial history of Arkansas, a state in which race trumps everything, Stockley thinks. Stockley notes that the WPA slave narratives, transcripts of interviews that WPA workers held with former slaves in the 1930s, indicate a high level of violence against slaves in antebellum Arkansas. Approximately a third of the WPA slave narratives collected in Arkansas recount violence done to slaves by slaveholders and overseers (p. 3).

Arkansas was unique among slave states in that there is no appellate record at all of prosecution for excessive force used against slaves (p. 26). The record suggests that whites could abuse blacks with impunity in antebellum Arkansas, without any “interference” from a state government totally enmeshed in and supportive of slavery, and of churches totally captive to the slave system. Shortly before Arkansas became a state, its citizens succeeded in running off Jesse Haile, a Methodist preacher who followed his church’s teachings against slavery and advocated abolition (p. 38). By 1850, a large majority of Methodist ministers in Arkansas owned slaves themselves (ibid.).

And Stockley includes a detail about one of the ways in which slaves were punished in Arkansas that makes a light bulb go off in my head, one that illuminates the connection between slavery and corporal punishment of children which had previously eluded me. Stockley notes that, on many plantations, paddles were used to beat slaves, which had holes in them to raise blisters on the skin of those being beaten (p. 6).

As I say, this historical tidbit catches my eye, as does the picture of the paddle used in Southern schools today, because that same paddle with holes bored into it was used in the schools I attended as a child and a teen in south Arkansas in the 1950s and 1960s. I myself was never beaten—not in school, at least (home was a different story). I knew in my bones that I was “different,” and that whatever nameless thing defined my difference was likely to attract unwanted attention from older boys predisposed to violence.

So I kept my head down, went my way, and found myself in an uncomfortable spotlight only when my tendency to excel at schoolwork, joined to my refractory willingness to say honestly what I thought when asked my opinion, even when said opinion countervailed popular ideas, got me into trouble. I know about the paddle only vicariously.

But what I learned about it even vicariously was enough to make me know its power to inflict considerable pain, and to make me determined to avoid being the recipient of its pain. In junior high and high school, paddling was a privilege reserved for the most part to the coaches (though the male principal and vice-principal that ran the school were also known to beat boys in their offices).

Many gym classes were preceded by periods in which all of us in the class were required to sit in silence as one and then another boy got called outside into the hallway to be paddled, while the rest of us listened. All the male coaches who taught physical education in our school were burly, gruff men, heterosexual (or heterosexual-posturing) men prone to violence who stood at the top of the social pecking order of their world and intended to remain there, through force, if necessary.

When they beat boys, they really beat them. Sitting in the gym and listening to the beatings, we could hear the paddle with the holes bored in it whistling through the air. We could hear its solid splat on the naked buttocks of the boys being paddled. We could hear their yelps of pain.

These were normally tough boys, boys who wouldn’t whimper or cry out if their lives depended on it. We knew, as we listened to them being beaten again and again, and yelping after each thwack of the paddle, that the pain had to be considerable, to bring these toughs to any admission that they felt the beating.

And then, after they had been whipped and limped—often in tears—back into the gym, the coaches would appear. With the paddle they had just used. They’d swing it casually around so we all could see it. And then they’d put it away in their office, until it needed to be brought out again for another round of punishments.

These beatings were clearly designed to be public. They were about more than just the punishment of individual malefactors. They were about intimidating—terrorizing is not too strong of a word—the rest of us, showing us who had the power and who didn’t. And what was likely to happen to anyone who ran up against the power of those who owned the paddle.

Just as in the slave system: when slaves were beaten with the same implement, or forced to lie splayed on the ground as they were scourged brutally across their naked backs, or put into stocks, the point was not merely to punish an individual slave. It was to terrorize a whole group of people. It was to show those people that they did not count as human beings, and that if they decided to pretend they counted, swift, horrific reprisal would follow immediately.

And does the beating of children in schools (or at home) work, as many bible-spouting social conservatives like to tell us it does? Not in the schools I attended. Those beaten were beaten repeatedly. Their offenses (sassing teachers, violating school rules, and so forth) were repeat offenses. Beating did not deter them from continuing their refractory behavior. It even seemed to spur them on to acts of larger, more insouciant defiance.

And to violence: the violence done to them by the coaches, the humiliation they endured at the hands of the big men? They simply passed it on to smaller, weaker boys, boys who needed to be shown that they were not big men and could never attain big-man status. The violence bred more violence, so that school became a torment for any child who stood out in some way that attracted the negative attention of the thugs.

Just as the violence of the right-wing thugs now seeking to shut down national debate about health care will inevitably breed more violence, as long as the bullies go unchecked and are afforded the luxury of believing that their tactics are productive, that they truly hold in their hands the unchecked power they believe they have. Thugs whose faces don't look a great deal different from those who wielded the paddle in my schools, or those whom they taught through their beatings to use violence as a tactic of social domination and control of the "weak." Thugs whose faces remind me and many others (here, too) of the faces we saw in mobs determined to roll back integration in the South of the 1950s and 1960s.

Thugs who surely look a great deal like those standing over slaves with whips and paddles in the South of the slave days, beating and beating and beating again, as they spouted bible verses to justify their savage behavior.