Why Baltimore Mom Toya Graham Is My Shero—And, No, It's Not the Same Reason the Media is Using

A viral video out of Baltimore shows a mother slapping her teen son for threatening to riot. Here's why we shouldn't be so quick to judge her.

It was a 49-second clip. But when the terrorized mother ran up on her child—spying him among a throng of young Black teens, my whole soul ached for Toya Graham. When she spit an expletive-filled rant and smacked her son upside his hooded-head as he tried to escape her grip?  I felt that too; pangs in my gut, as though I’d birthed the boy myself. 

I’ve got love for Toya Graham. 

Not because I condone violence. Not because I’m crippled by a slave mentality. And certainly not because white media pundits—with their dubious intentions and voyeuristic zeal—lauded her swings, dubbing her “mother-of-the-year” on tabloid after tabloid. My heart connected to a sister mom who, in Mama Bear, fashion set out to rescue her child—by any means necessary—from the policemen charged with protecting him. As I sat watching the Baltimore uprising on TV and listened to journalists report—selectively, of course—on the brick throwing, the fires burning, the windows smashing, I saw a Black woman, who could very well have been me. But for His grace. A Black mother with her anger seething and her fears flaring, desperate to save the life she created some 16 years prior. 

Let me paint you a picture: While our behinds were sitting on the sofa munching potato chips, kids tucked safely in bed, Toya Graham was marching head-on into clear and present danger, a war zone.

While doing so, the single mother of six forgot to read up on all the damning evidence researchers have conducted on corporal punishment. She ran out onto the street with no talking points; no spiel on teachable moments; no reasoning whatsoever, in fact. Apparently, Toya Graham neglected to take her son’s self-esteem into account when she whaled on that poor boy, who—if you follow Black Twitter and other social media threads—will now have to face his peers and prove he’s not soft. 

I’m scratching—and shaking—my head as the judgments pile up on this woman. Now people across the blogosphere break on Toya Graham’s cussing. They diss her parenting skills. I even saw one comment deride her weave and bright yellow clothes. Like most Black folks, I am highly offended when any of us are judged. I was fist-pumping and high fiving the air when Van Jones ripped reporters for calling our angry kids “thugs.” And I was reading CNN’s Erin Burnett when she had the nerve to brand a group of sorority sisters as gang members because they were clad in blue. Call me naïve or just plain stupid. But I’ve been stunned to see how Toya Graham has been painted—by her own people.  I would be wrong to assume that these posts are intentionally hateful.  I get the idea that to see yet another Black boy pummeled, especially when it seems the blows are being celebrated, is difficult to reconcile. And it’s a shame that, given the utter disregard for Black lives, we cannot see this for what it is. 

I am in the minority I suppose. But thankfully I am not alone. A comment from a sister I don’t even know caught my eye in the midst of all the vitriol.  She wrote: 

“This is wartime….Reasoning shuts down in these times,” posted my new friend, Marinieves Alba. “I am pissed at the people (black, white, and other) who are making a caricature of her and using it to degrade her humanity, her son's, and that of the "rioters" they use him to foil. This is all simply painful.”

In a touching interview with Anderson Cooper, Toya Graham and her son Michael nervously told their side of the story. My sister-mom “shero” said repeatedly—perhaps in response to the social media frenzy—“People looking in can’t see what we go through,” she explained. “No one sees us mothers, our pain.” As much as I love her it was her son, her baby, who stole my heart. 

As only a teenager can, he stumbled to find words and with little elaboration, he told Cooper that yes, he was embarrassed—even angry at first—when he saw his mama charging toward him. “But you know, after we talked,” he stammered, “she told me how much she loved me and how she was scared for me and wanted to protect me…And, you know…I see why she did what she did.”

Ylonda Gault Caviness is author of Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself (Penguin).

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