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Reginald Leamon Robinson

excerpted from: Reginald Leamon Robinson, Dark Secrets: Obedience Training, Rigid Physical Violence, Black Parenting, and Reassessing the Origins of Instability in the Black Family Through a Re-reading of Fox Butterfield's All God's Children, 55 Howard Law Journal 393 (Winter 2012) (365 footnotes omitted0


Since slavery, most black families have suffered instability because, even if two parents were present, they relied on obedience training and rigid physical violence as an appropriate childrearing practice. Traditionally, it has been de rigueur to point simply to slavery's soul-murdering practices and to Jim Crow's neo-slavery violence to explain such instability. Traditionally, instability has meant that black families have only one parent, principally the mother. And while that traditional definition can explain inconsistency in family structure and children's outcomes, instability ought to have a functional definition, which would then require us to focus on whether a single-or two-parent family can meet its children's best interests and welfare. By making this inquiry, we must examine how issues like poverty, multiple children, poor wages, school dropouts, criminality, depression, intimate partner violence, child maltreatment, alcoholism, rage, and resentment limit a parent's ability to meet her moral, legal, and educational duties to her children. Accordingly, for example, if one or both parents abuse alcohol, then they invariably neglect the children's welfare interests, suggesting that the family, as a unit, malfunctions and suffers instability. However, do these issues follow logically and inexorably from slavery and Jim Crow?

For some sociologists, slavery and Jim Crow directly caused the traditional instability of the black family and related issues. Slavery and Jim Crow, they assert, disorganized and destabilized the black family by wrestling it from its cultural moorings. As a result, these rudderless black families have for generations drifted through the high, rough seas of instability, which have become indelibly marked on the black psyche and consciousness. Adrift and bewildered, blacks now suffer from a deep cultural decay, if not pathology, so that their personal experiences and social realities become self-referential acts that condemn adults and children to intergenerational ignorance, poverty, violence, and hopelessness. In short, while these blacks have internalized beliefs and practices that have become self-annihilating, we cannot uncouple such beliefs and practices from the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In sum, they would argue that America's oppressive structural forces like slavery have caused instability in the black family.

Other sociologists or scholars disagree. They point to obvious examples in which intact black families meet their children's needs and best interests and are not contaminated by drugs, violence, illegitimacy, poverty, and disorganization. Then, they also argue that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow lacks the ongoing, inherent power to cause the breakdown of the black family. Accordingly, the instability of the black family emanated less from ephemeral white racism and more from far more concrete childrearing practices like child maltreatment, and unfortunately few legal or race scholars have acquired an insight into the impact of childhood maltreatment and its power to destabilize interpersonal relationships. And while these scholars acknowledge the impact of slavery and Jim Crow, they focus on the impact of personality disorders and pathological culture on the prevalence of child abuse (e.g., emotional neglect) on black family instability.

Regardless, neither group of scholars has explored the etiology of disorders and pathologies, nor how it impacts black family instability, which suggests that radical, liberal, and conservative approaches lack completeness because they too have not linked black family instability with black parenting styles, obedience training, and rigid physical violence. This etiology predates slavery and Jim Crow because West Africans, including other cultures around the world, were--and remain--deeply committed to obedience training and rigid physical violence, which at the very least breaks the child's will. Even if obedience training and rigid physical violence were not an indispensable tool for black children's survival, blacks generally and culturally would still believe that obedience training and rigid violence are interwoven and positive approaches to childrearing, especially if they had suffered obedience training and rigid physical violence as children. Unfortunately, some psychologists and sociologists argue that even mild spanking may have long-term impacts on a child's development and personality. If so, what impact does obedience training and rigid physical violence have on black children, especially males, and to what extent, if any, can this training and violence cause black family instability? For example, does it co-create poor or weak attachments between mothers and sons, and if so, do the results of such low trust and weak intimacy make stable marriages or cohabitation more difficult for blacks?

In this Article, I attempt to address these questions on the etiology of black family instability, and I do so principally through a re-reading of Fox Butterfield's All God's Children, which in effect argues that slavery, racism, urbanization, and an inherited impulsiveness gene birthed Willie James Bosket (Willie James), a violent, juvenile killer, into our world. While I acknowledge that slavery and racism impacted the black family's stability, I reject Butterfield's premise. Rather, I posit that Willie James had been soul-murdered by his mother, Laura, principally not only because she brutally beat him, but also because she refused to emotionally nurture him. In effect, Willie James suffered from Reactive Attachment Disorder, thus over time revealing the psychopathic results of his early childhood maltreatment. Such maltreatment is the dark secret that explains the present-day, ongoing instability of the black family. Therefore, it is my thesis that Butterfield fails to explain the advent of Willie James because: (1) Butterfield mistakenly links Willie James' violence to working class honor codes and killings; (2) Butterfield almost completely discounts the legacy of West African child-rearing practices of obedience training and rigid physical violence, which survived slavery; (3) Butterfield, like other race scholars or writers, is loathed to find fault with black parents who have been the first people to violently traumatize their children; and (4) Butterfield, as other writers, does not account for the impact of obedience training and rigid physical violence including emotional neglect, on children's personalities, on family cohesiveness and stability, and social violence.

Part I critically presents Butterfield's accounts of why Willie James became a violent criminal at a very young age. Part II. explores the legacy of West African child-rearing practices and the role those practices played during slavery, Jim Crow, and today. Part III considers some of the critical arguments about black family instability, all in the hopes of exposing the degree to which such debates precluded any indictment of black parents' obedience training. Part IV applies Alice Miller's poisonous pedagogy to All God's Children, which reveals that racism less likely and childhood maltreatment more likely explains why Willie James became a violent criminal offender.

. Professor of Law, Howard University School of Law, Washington, D.C.