A few thoughts about Toya Graham, just in time for Mother’s Day.
You may not know her name, but you probably know what she did. You’ve probably seen the viral video of Graham, during last week’s unrest in Baltimore, using some rather pungent language and some open-handed smacks upside the head to pull her 16-year-old son out of the riot zone. She told CBS News he had gone there in defiance of her orders. When she saw him, dressed for mayhem in a black face mask, rock in hand, “I just lost it.”
In so doing, Graham, a single mother of six, has inadvertently become enmeshed in the ongoing shouting match between left and right. She has become a symbol – though neither side can agree on what she is a symbol of.
On the right, where many observers seem just a little too giddy over the image of a black boy being smacked, Fox “News” contributor Ben Stein called her “Rosa Parks for 2015.” It was an inane observation that minimized the legacy of Rosa Parks, but it was perfectly in line with the conservative view, which says our most pressing concern in Baltimore’s unrest is “behavior” – i.e., the need to reign in lawless Negroes smashing windows and setting fires in the city.
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Fact is, behavior is, indeed, our most pressing concern: but it’s the behavior of police in dealing with African-American citizens. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whom police arrested for carrying an illegal knife – a charge that is hotly disputed – somehow wound up with a partially-severed spine while in their custody and died. Death seems to come with jarring frequency to unarmed black men who interact with police, something that ought to trouble us all.
The fact that some knuckleheaded black kids used the protest over Gray’s death as a pretext to riot – in other words, to behave as knuckleheaded white kids do after sports victories, sports defeats and during last year’s pumpkin festival in Keene, N.H. – makes that no less true.
On the left, meantime, there is a tad too much dewy-eyed hand-wringing over Graham’s resort to violence to drag her son off the street. While conceding Graham’s actions were “understandable and maybe even reasonable” under the circumstances, Eliyahu Federman, a columnist for USA Today, nevertheless wants you to know her parenting style was not “ideal” – whatever that means.
“Shouting and insulting teens just doesn’t work long term,” he writes. “You are more likely to positively modify teen misbehavior by calmly and maturely discussing the consequences of the misbehavior.” One struggles to imagine how a calm and mature discussion with a willful teenager might have played out at ground zero of an urban riot.
Look: that video – the hitting, the cursing – is not a pretty picture. Such tactics would never be endorsed by Parents magazine. On the other hand, the largely white and middle-class readership of that magazine likely does not live where Graham does nor struggle with the challenges and fears she faces.
Every pundit, yours truly included, has the sometimes-regrettable habit of reducing people in the news to symbols of our own social and political concerns. But if we want to understand what she did, it might help to concede that Graham is nobody’s symbol, but somebody’s mother. As she said, she “lost it” because she feared her son might end up like Freddie Gray, another tragic police “oops.”
For most of us, that is a distant and unimaginable fear. But for some of us, it is a fear all too close and all too imaginable, a night terror that gnaws at sleep. Understand this, and that video becomes less of a mystery. When she saw her son in danger, Toya Graham waded in to save him from it – at all costs and by any means necessary.
Is that not what mothers do?
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at email@example.com.