child abuse

Are Black Mothers Beating Their Sons Into Misogyny?

Women who hit their sons—like Dr. Dre's mother—are celebrated. But real-life stories from Black men reveal that the consequences are dire.

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F. Gary Gray’s biopic, Straight Outta Compton, about the rise of the West Coast gangsta rap group N.W.A., is dominating the American box office for the second week in a row. The fact that some members of the group beat women, particularly Dr. Dre, is ignored by the film even as their brand was heavily defined by blatantly misogynistic lyrics.

A number of writers have rightly called out this omission. According to The Los Angeles Times, “The omission of N.W.A’s troubled history with women—from their violent lyrics to actual and alleged incidents of physical assault—combined with the way female characters in the movie are portrayed has provoked angry responses. Some are calling out Compton for perpetuating the misogyny in the group’s music, criticisms that echo the group’s past.”

Dre’s public beating of hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes, which she says left her with long-term migraines and other issues, is most prominently cited as evidence of the revisionist history of N.W.A. Although the film’s original screenplay included the assault, it was left on the cutting room floor—according to the film’s director, the brutal attack on Barnes, and, presumably, Tairrie B and Michel’le were “side stories”—he wanted to focus on the “main story.”

In response to the renewed outrage resulting from the sanitized, revisionist history, Dre formally apologized for some instances of violence against women. While not addressing the specific incidents, the rapper said in a statement to the New York Times, “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.”

There is much that could be said about the refusal to include these incidents, especially given the film’s effort to spotlight the group’s struggle with success and stardom and police harassment, or its willingness to uncritically represent Black women as voiceless sex objects to be consumed by both the group and audiences. The film does showcase the way White men, like Jerry Heller, have denied black performers proper financial remuneration and portrays them as gatekeepers in the way they have shaped the messages of Black criminality and sexual abuse of women in rap music. Yes, Black men lyrically attack Black women, but it is White male label executives and producers who make sure that the music is put on radio stations and feeds the racial appetites of White male audiences who consume 80 percent of hip-hop music.

But I am less interested in discussing Straight Outta Compton, Dre, or his victims specifically.

Yes, folks are right to call out the beatings and misogyny whenever and wherever they occur. But there’s another overlooked dimension of the violence that people don’t talk about. Some of these men grow up to beat women because their mothers beat them.

There is a scene in the film where Dr. Dre’s mom slaps the daylights out of him for mouthing off—and in fact, the film represents this abusive act in a positive light. His mother loves him and wants the best for him. For Dre, the slap leads him to leave home and pursue his dreams rather than lie in his room listening to music. Here we see yet another example, now commonplace within popular culture, where a Black mother is celebrated for whooping her child into success. He becomes a billionaire, and a game changer because of his mom. In another scene, she is seen as loving and caring as he struggles with the death of his brother. 

This part of the narrative gives me pause because of what I know about the research linking spanking children to aggressive behavior in adulthood. And it begs the question: How often did Dre’s mom hit him throughout his childhood, and did her treatment of him inform his views and violent behavior toward women?

Decades of scientific research has concluded that despite the commonly held belief that corporal punishment used by loving parents is harmless, even the mildest forms of spanking a child can have harmful side effects that reach into adulthood, including mental health issues, the inability to reason or regulate emotions, criminal behaviors, aggression, and spousal abuse.

The first place children learn relationship skills and social behaviors is at home. And their first teachers are their parents or other caregivers. So if a child is growing up in a home where they witness violent relationships, or if they are being hit by a parent, then we should not be surprised that some go on to perpetuate these patterns as adults. If a mother hits her son, she is effectively teaching him that violence is an acceptable, even normal part of intimate relationships, at that anger, frustration, and power can be expressed by hitting.

A report from Time magazine showed that “children spanked have higher chances of becoming aggressive by age 5 and can lead to spousal abuse. There is substantial, researched evidence that physical punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future. Women who were spanked as children often have trouble establishing boundaries in relationships and are more vulnerable to domestic violence. Men who were hit, in turn, often have trouble recognizing other people’s boundaries and are more at risk to become abusers. Children who are not hit tend to have broader vocabularies and reasoning skills than children who are spanked, especially when the hitting occurs during the toddler and preschool years.”

The rightful outrage about Dre’s history of violence against women must push back against the narrative that reduces violence against women to an Andre Young problem, an N.W.A problem, a rap problem, or a Black pathology. Like the film’s refusal to include abuse of women as part of the story, the singular focus on Dre, at the expense of conversations about the costs and consequences of whoopings (along with patriarchy and racism) limits potential interventions.

We must consider that, for some men at least, there might be a link between the spankings they received as children and their hostility and abuse toward—or avoidance of—Black women as grown men.

Last week, I spoke with a dozen Black men who were whooped as children, and asked how the violence made them feel as boys, how that discipline has shaped their feelings toward their mothers and how they feel about and have treated Black women.

These men told me they saw other Black children around them being beaten, so they thought it was the norm. Most shared that being spanked as children left them with conflicting feelings toward their mothers, doubts about whether they were truly loved, questions about their own sense of self worth. Some of them admitted that their mother’s beatings made them turn away from considering Black women as intimate partners.

Brian Kevin Alsup, a 22-year-old valet from Baltimore, said his mother was verbally abusive, and started beating him when he was 2 or 3, using her fists, a packet of clothes hangers, a plastic T-ball bat, and other objects.

“She would use mostly her fists or whatever was around that could hurt me, but not possibly kill me. Some stuff she took out on me because I was there. She’s thrown a glass bottle at me. She picked up a dining room chair and was about to hit me with it, but I screamed and she put it down,” Alsup said.

His mother used verbal and physical abuse simultaneously. “She would tell me I wasn’t shit. She called me the b-word. She called me motherfucker. She called me a fat pig. She called me stupid. That I was a fuck-up,” he said. “A lot of stuff that I spent a good part of my childhood suppressing and trying to forget. Wanting to hit her back was always going through my mind. Feeling like I hated her. Which I told her while she was on top of me beating me one day. Feeling like I just wanted to die.”

Marvin Murray, a 51-year-old network administrator from Lake Ridge, Virginia, was beat by his mother until he turned 16. “She used her hands, switches from a tree branch, belts, extension cords, and a fan belt from a car engine.”

The first time 28-year-old Anthony Modesto Milian remembers being hit was at age 8. “She busted my lip open,” he said. His mom died when he 13 and then an aunt took him in and resumed the beatings.

“My aunt would hit me almost every day. My aunt would use anything she could grab. Once she hit me with a metal pipe and another time she lacerated my head with a can of Glory mustard greens. She then kicked me out the house and made me walk to school with my head open and blood pouring down my face.”

Keith McNeil, a 40-year-old reservations manager for Alcoholics Anonymous was “popped,” beaten with belts, switches, shoes, or a broom anytime he gave his mother “attitude.”

“She often laced her comments with profanity,” McNeil said. “I usually experienced the full gamut of emotions, including fear, stress, guilt, and anger. I certainly felt that being whooped was normal, and that I ‘brought it upon myself.’ I felt like she hated me. She would be so intense and so angry as she whooped me, that I felt that I was receiving someone else’s punishment. In my mind, I remember wondering what I possibly could have done to deserve such treatment.”

Among the list of weapons that 34-year-old Roy Brooks’s mother either beat or threatened to beat him with included a hanger, extension cord, and a water hose.

“My mother cursed at me. She used typical curse words: fucker, motherfucker, asshole,” he recalled.

“Many things went through my mind depending on why I was getting a beating. Sometimes I was just mentally preparing myself to take it, but sometimes I would think things like, ‘I can’t wait until I grow up so I can leave and never come back.’ Or, ‘I hate this woman.’ 
As I got older, thoughts like I hate this woman turned into I fucking hate this stupid bitch. She beats me and curses me out for stuff even when I’m right, and she lets these men that she dates lie to her face and get away with anything.”

Anthony Jones, a 58-year-old electrical mechanic from Pasadena, California, was around 5 when his mother started beating him with belts, electrical cords, and switches. During the beatings, two thoughts went through is mind: “I’m never gonna do that again. And, When is this gonna stop?

“My mother whooped me every time I did something that she thought was serious enough. She often bragged about it to family members,” said 38-year-old Ramone Billingsley, a Ph.D. student and a minister from Birmingham, Alabama. His mother continued beating and threatening him up to his senior year in high school.

“If she did not hit me then she would threaten to do it in an effort to make me comply with her instructions. Her belief was ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’ It is a passage from the Book of Proverbs that I despise to this day.”

When I asked Billingsley and the others if they had ever hit women, most of them said no. “I knew that hitting women was wrong,” Billingsley said. Their mothers taught them that it was wrong to hit girls and women, even as they were abusing them. As a result, most of these men suppressed their anger for decades, while other men end up unleashing their pent-up rage, not at their mothers, but other women in their lives.

Nickolas Gaines, a 30-year-old from Salt Lake City thought that being hit was a normal ‘Black thing.’

“In my circle it is, and was completely normal and justified because you are her child so she could do whatever she wanted to you because it came from a place of love. It wasn’t until that I got married and had my own child with my White wife did I see her have such an adverse reaction to my whooping our son that I realized how deeply engrained as normative and embedded in our culture that whooping is,” Gaines said.

Gaines said he didn’t have any animosity toward women but “I do think having a mom who was the traditional Black mom—loud, overbearing, strict, religious—made me really timid as a child. I always tried to make her happy and please her,” he said. “In dating I never wanted to be with a woman who had those tendencies or personality. I wanted a strong, educated, fierce, and career-driven woman, but didn’t want any of those aspects or traits that my mom had that I worked so hard to please.”

McNeil lost his mom at age 10. His grandmother who raised him died a few years ago—he misses them both. Their deaths seemed to have foreclosed his ability to feel anger or bitterness toward them.

“Besides the whoopings, they were both warm and nurturing, which is why I honestly felt conflicted when I was disciplined. They made me believe that it hurt them more than it hurt me.”

When Brooks reflects back on memories of his mother, the recurring theme, he said, is that she ruined his life.

“So much of my current dysfunction in personal and romantic relationships can be laid at her feet. So many of my personal failures. Not all of them of course, because I believe that we are responsible for our own actions but when you start off with a faulty perspective or with misinformation and you have to work to discard beliefs about yourself and people in general and relearn on a trial and error basis, I don’t believe that I should shoulder all of the responsibility for the trajectory of my life. Honestly, in a nutshell, when I think about my mother, I wish I had never been born to her,” he said.

Brooks also said that he has bore some animosity toward Black women as a result of his childhood experiences. Although he is physically attracted to Black women, he’s losing interest in them for long-term commitments.

“I don’t think that I will ever marry a Black woman and I’m relatively certain that I won’t date another one, at least not in the near future. I don’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong with Black women nor are they deserving of being bashed as a group, I just feel that my experiences with my mother and the resulting tendency to choose women that share many of her personality traits and characteristics have turned me off from them because I just don’t think I will ever find one that I’m compatible enough to be with.”

“Honestly, although I loved my mother I almost grew to hate her for beating me,” said Billingsley. “The beatings were so painful. I often had marks. One time my mother waited until I had taken a shower to beat me while I was still wet. It was awful. Although I knew she loved me, she had a mean side. I often felt that she was taking out her own private frustrations while beating me. From time to time mom would threatened me with, ‘Ramone … keep on. I’m gonna whip yo ass for old and new.’”

His resentment of his mother grew so strong that he tried to poison her by putting dishwashing liquid in her Mylanta.

For a long time, Milian said he only slept with and dated White women. “I saw all Black women as a reflection of my aunt because I thought they all had the same viewpoint when it came to how to treat children. I had immense animosity for Black women and Black culture. Life has come full circle for me. I am now married to a Black woman. I have no children and
I have no intentions of treating my kids a fraction of the way I was treated as a child.

While he has never hit a girl or woman, Aslup believes that, “All of us Black men were cultured and socialized to hate Black women at some point. So we were all misogynists-in-training by our pre-teens. Some earlier. I think I really started my animosity to women after my first heartbreak. When I felt like I couldn’t be loved. I just stopped loving.”

His point about beatings training young Black men to be misogynists resonates with me, because the logic is there. If, as experts say, men generally base the way they treat women on their relationships with their mothers, and if physical violence is associated with family dynamics from an early age, we need to consider the link between spankings and adult domestic violence, whether it be physical, emotional, and mental or any combination thereof.

As we continue to experience misogyny and misogynoir in all forms, we must continue to call it out, challenge and confront it in the name of human justice and progress. We must fight it in every constructive and progressive way. We must refuse the tendency to simply call out the “end results,” the abuses and violent assaults, while ignoring the violent seeds that grow the behavior.

It is striking how even amid the outrage over Dre’s history of violence, we still are okay with whooping children with impunity. It is striking not only because abuse and dehumanizing violence is recast as “good parenting” but also because this is a pathway toward violence against women.


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