The first thing adorable 5-year-old Isaiah “Zay Zay” Fredericks explains in "Growing Up Black" is that his dad is "Joe Jackson, but with a little more love." Second, that "black parents yell too much," which he then demonstrates:
Shut up! Go to bed! Come here! Shut up! Go to bed! Sit down! I love you. Get in the tub! I'm gonna punch you in the face. All they do is yell. Can't y'all talk some times? Talk sweetly to me. I'm just a little baby boy.
Hearing “I’m gonna punch you in the face” come from the same tiny little mouth that would have to absorb the blow made me flinch and push my chair away. Zay Zay’s apparent joie de vivre and his doting dad popping into the screen occasionally in no way dispel my repugnance. I’ve got money that says we all know the kid isn’t kidding about his parents barking commands and yelling at him; any trip to the mall will settle that. Where all bets are off is in settling whether we should be laughing about it or not, especially when Zay Zay moves on to actually getting hit.
The video went viral quickly, but most of the sites posting it were obscure and did so with little but “ain’t he cute!” sort of comments. "What's Trending" interviewed the father and son, tossed them a timid softball about the corporal punishment, and then wished them continued success. The biggest coups were a bare-bones posting on Tosh.0 and an interview on a Los Angeles Fox station. The comments on those sites make plain that only a few blacks had my militantly negative reaction; even the minority who were nonplussed were remarkably timid about it. These two, “Amused with a tinge of disturbed” and “[his dad] might want to stop beating him,” bespeak dissenters who felt an abstract duty, but no right to criticize. They perfectly encapsulate for me the ambivalence blacks exhibit about confronting, let alone condemning, what is a routine occurrence in their community. If Zay Zay’s parents are wrong, then so are their own parents and just about everyone’s they know; no two-and-a-half-minute video is worth going there over. Or is it?
All they do is beat us. All they do is whip. Whip. I hate that. Give me a time-out. The kids at day care get time-outs. And I’m black so I never get bruises. I’m calling CPS as soon as I get a cellphone.
I was already squirming, but when he repeated “whip,” the bottom fell out of my stomach. Instantly, I’m 8 years old again, standing at attention and only halfway through the hellfire denunciation of my character required before any lashing could begin. Raised by Holy Roller, Great Migration sharecroppers, I know from harsh, god-fearing discipline, but it might just be the lack of originality that makes me respond so viscerally to this conveyor belt of worn-out, “go-to” “jokes”— “My daddy once hit me so hard that …”—but the black masses exhibit an inexhaustible, and inexplicable, appetite for it. (Only once has a corporal punishment joke surprised me: The underappreciated (NSFW) Earthquake recounted once finding his mother storming about enraged. He turned on his siblings and demanded to know who’d put them all in danger of an extension-cord beating, to wit, “Who got Mama unpluggin’ stuff?”)
“They always tell us to ‘fix your face’. How can I fix my face? They pop me and then say ‘fix my face.’ That hurt! You fix your hand and stop popping me,” Zay Zay jokes. In my day, it was “You look like you don’t like it,” said ominously, head tilted in fairly vicious calculation to one side and daring you to confirm that, as a matter of fact, you don’t like it. Obedience wasn’t enough; you had to endure being hit, yelled at, humiliated with harsh criticism, or denied a treasured privilege without crying, looking rebellious, sullen, angry, or, god help you, unconcerned. The kids today sum that up as “fix your face,” but the same thing happens if you don’t. See also: “You quizzin’ me, girl?” were you to ask “why” or make a statement implying critique or your right to an opinion or even input. My father absentmindedly borrowed my fork once when I was 7 or 8. When the food was almost gone I burst into tears. Asked why, I could only point and hope he’d choose to give it back without punishing me for the critique of my tears. (Getting a replacement from the drawer had seemed too risky, too like a complaint.). My keeping my mouth shut was understood as respect.
Last week I spoke with Zay Zay’s father, Kevin Fredericks, an aspiring comedian. Frederick seems like a devoted dad. He blogged about Zay Zay's glowing report card and is thrilled silly to have his son be discovered. He confirmed that his son’s comedy act was just "something most black people can relate to, not 'This is my life. Come save me.' " It’s obvious from the video that Zay Zay’s home life is at least middle-class-adjacent and comfortable. He says he's never taken a belt to either of his sons (JoJo is 3) "because they're too young." For now, the boys get those "pops," but he admits he's playing it by ear.
"We're young parents. We got whipped [growing up] just for asking why, for everything, so we talk to our kids. We explain and let them ask questions, not just hit." As for the harsh language and strict discipline? "Oh yeah. He needs to do what I tell him to do. 'Fix your face' is something we definitely say. Everybody can relate to that. We say it when he should be smiling and he's not."
My eyes widen, "whoa" and many exclamation points appear in my notes, but I don't point out that being whipped for asking “why” and being required to smile when you've just been punished are on the same, hypercontrolling continuum. He's young. Perhaps, though, he should spend some time with parents who can help him disaggregate his choices because parents who hit and yell, then threaten further punishment for looking unhappy about it are, at minimum, illogical. Crying or sulking isn’t tantamount to either defiance or disrespect, it’s what naturally occurs when a human is physically hurt, embarrassed, or believes herself to have been unjustly punished.
Kids should obey their parents, but they shouldn’t have to like it. That’s not respect, that’s tyranny. I pride myself on how rarely I speak harshly with my children and, depending on the situation, apologize when I do. (There are black people all over America now tsk-tsking and predicting wrack and ruin for my “non-home-trained” kids.) They’re children, not short adults who can take it. Heinous disrespect and endangerment should be the only exceptions. In desperation once, I “popped” my then 7-year-old son on the hand three times exactly and took away his Nintendo until he’d gone a week without tying ligatures (like belts) around his throat, positioning chairs so he could bind them to the highest reachable fixture, then jumping down to Maypole around. He just wouldn’t stop doing it. Of course, he cried and pouted, but his feelings are just that—his. His behavior is another matter; as Jesse Jackson put it, “You can’t tell a man who’s hurting how to holler.”
It's both depressing and maddening to belong to a community that finds the funny in a child's screams, whimpers, and stoicism ("Fix your face. Don't ask why"). For a really good laugh, check out Twitter’s #BlackMomsCatchPhrase, and it's not so implicit condemnation of parents who “coddle,” i.e., the parents of “the kids at day care” who get time-outs instead of beatings, and we know who those kids are, don't we? On the Tom Joyner Morning Show, probably the most influential black show in any American medium, the call-in topic one morning was for “whoopin’ ” stories. I missed my pedicure listening to anecdotes in my car about being beaten with wet washcloths, or razor-strapped so hard that ... or having to dodge Mama's shoes but finally a stiletto caught me in the eye and ... . The gang laughed themselves nigh into asthma attacks.
Take your pick of explanations for the prevalence, and tolerance, of harsh discipline among blacks: a residue of slavery when servile obedience was all that kept you alive; a post-slavery fear of Jim Crow and the police; our “spare the rod and spoil the child” religion (poor Southern whites grew up the same way; at Whitney Houston’s funeral, Texan Kevin Costner joked about the Baptist religion and stern discipline they had in common); single moms desperately trying to rein in a child before he's towering over her; centuries of powerlessness that make our wives and children the only people we can terrorize; the unresolved, communal PTSD we can’t acknowledge since “only white people have time to be crazy”—because this is one time we shouldn’t ask “why.” That’s beside the point now. Until we decide as a community that we will neither employ nor tolerate intimate violence, physical or verbal, our comedians will continue to inform the world that black people can't tell the difference between pain and love, respect and subservience. That history has so brutalized us (think: Trayvon Martin), we have to keep re-enacting it, filming it, and sharing it, even though it’s obvious that there’s simply no upside to manhandling and stifling our children.
Zay Zay's video is far from the worst of its kind, given that it's staged for laughs rather than instruction, so that partially explains the lack of interest in having the kind of conversation we must to stop the violence in our homes and its effects on us in the wider world. No one else can help us with this. The mainstream's interest in black interiority is virtually nil in the best of circumstances and it can't be blamed for staying miles away from a hot potato like this. This headline, to a critiqueless posting of the video, says it all: "One last thing for our black fans." We're on our own.