Parenting While Black: Toya Graham on Violence, Fear and Freddie Gray

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A well-dressed woman in a cropped yellow jacket and a Beyoncé weave advances through a group of teenagers. The unlucky target: a tall boy in a black hoodie and a balaclava. Under her glare, he shrinks. The young man allows himself to be slapped repeatedly and pushed away from the crowd.

“Take that mother[bleep] mask off!” she yells. “You wanna be seen? Take it off!”

The last few seconds of that encounter were captured on video, and became one of the most viewed YouTube clips of raw street footage this year—more than devastating footage of Eric Garner’s death in New York City, Walter Scott’s in South Carolina, or Charly Keunang’s on L.A.’s Skid Row. The 50-second video, soon broadcast on CBS and CNN, was shot the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral in April, when hundreds of Baltimore residents rioted in protest of his death after he sustained a spinal injury while in police custody. It’s received more than 8 million views.

The woman in the video is Toya Graham, then 42, a single parent to five girls, ages 14 to 24. The young man is her only son, 16-year-old Michael, and she says that day she had spied a rock in his hand. For a minute there, she was a national hero. #Motheroftheyear trended on Twitter. Oprah called.

“Forget the National Guard,” the New York Post declared. “SEND IN THE MOMS.”

Most parents fear the moment when their children will do something dumb and dangerous. Graham’s moment just happened to be very public—and after the praise, she became a lightning rod for debate around whether African Americans should hit their children. “Why is America celebrating the beating of a black child?” asked Stacey Patton, an opponent of corporal punishment, in the Washington Post. Politicians and pastors batted back, expressing thanks that the old-school Strong Black Mother type still exists. “There was a time when Black children were the best behaved children in the world [and that was a time] when our mothers behaved like Toya Graham,” wrote Philadelphia Tribune columnist Alonzo Kittrels.

But besides a black mother’s strength, something else was on view that day: Graham’s vulnerability. Her son Michael “will not be a Freddie Gray,” she posted on Facebook, a line she repeated when national media called. She could have simply said, “I love my son.” But Graham’s choice of words highlight fears that took root long before Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury in that police van on April 12.

Graham will talk for as long as I’ll listen about the police. “I’ve seen police drag someone out the car and slam ’em on the ground or, it’s 30 below and they got ’em on the concrete or, you call for domestic violence or something that’s been going on in your house and they point the finger at you,” she says. “I’ve seen it over and over again.”

But on this late May morning while her three-year-old granddaughter babbles in the background, Graham will talk at length about community violence, too. There’s the nine-year-old boy in her neighborhood who just got shot in the leg. Or the dozen or so kids over the years who called her Ma, gunned down, gone. In May, the month after Gray’s death, Baltimore had more than 100 shootings and 40 homicides, then the city’s highest monthly tally since 1990. July was worse. As of July 30, Graham’s district in southwest Baltimore had already experienced 50 shootings this year, and 30 total homicides, according to preliminary early August data from the Baltimore Police Department.

“You know how you walk down the street and you walk in the midst of other people? I don’t even want to do that,” Graham says. “I don’t know who’s being targeted for whatever reason. We just don’t know.”

Violent crime has dropped nationwide in recent decades, and Baltimore is no exception. Murders fell from a high of 353 in 1993 to 233 in 2013. Much of that decrease happened in the very neighborhoods that earned Baltimore its nickname: Bodymore, Murdaland. According to early August BPD data, there were 21 homicides in the tough streets of western Baltimore neighborhoods in 2014, for example, as opposed to 43 in 2013. But gains in relative safety have perhaps set in relief episodes of police intimidation, abuse and deaths. And high-profile police killings of black men and boys across the country have given fresh energy to longstanding local demands for reform.

Last year, before Freddie Gray’s death, the Baltimore Sun reviewed more than a hundred judgments and settlements involving the Baltimore Police Department from January 2011 through July 2014 and found a disturbing pattern of abuse by officers of alleged suspects. Injuries ranged from broken bones to head trauma to death. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed. In almost every case, the Sun reported, “prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims—if charges were filed at all.”

Black parents are burdened with the knowledge that, for a black child, the price of error is higher.

In 2000, newly elected mayor Martin O’Malley, now a Democratic presidential candidate, set about implementing “zero tolerance” policing. Over the next decade, violent and property crime dropped by 43 percent, one of the largest reductions in the country. Arrests skyrocketed. In 2005, according to the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore police arrested more than 100,000 people in a city of 640,000. Of those, more than 76,000 were arrested without warrants, according to the ACLU; nearly a third released without charge, adding to community distrust. In 2006, an ACLU lawsuit accused the police department of engaging in a pattern of false arrests. The city settled in 2010, agreeing to reject zero-tolerance and submit for three years to regular audits of quality-of-life arrests. But according to the final audit released in December 2014, the department has failed to measure “behavioral changes in arrests,” meaning the patterns may or may not have changed.

Graham’s son Michael grew up under zero tolerance.

I asked Graham and other black parents in Baltimore about what it takes to raise children here, and they describe being caught in an awful vise: crime on one hand and aggressive policing on the other. They describe policing that reaches far beyond street corners and into formative relationships with their children. Yet, there are no entries in the dozens of popular parenting manuals for “How to help your child respond to gunfire on her block,” or “How to help your son channel his anger over police violence.”

And while all parents ultimately realize that they cannot protect their children, black parents confront a world almost eager with violent intent toward their offspring. They parent while burdened with the knowledge that for a black child the price of error—real or imagined—is higher than it is for white children.

“My father was so very afraid,” writes Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates in his new book, Between the World and Me, a brutally honest love letter to his own tall, dark-skinned 14-year-old son. “I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us…I would hear it in Dad’s voice–‘Either I can beat him, or the police.'”

Graham, raised on the same west Baltimore streets as Coates and now rearing her own children there, absorbed the same truth.

If we hit our children they can come lock us up because it’s the law,” 64-year-old Shirley Foulks, known as Mama Shirley, says matter-of-factly. “But when you don’t hit them, and they start getting out of pocket a few years from now, the police are going to shoot them dead.”

I’m in the airy front room of an office space in Cherry Hill. It’s a gentrifying suburb of winding roads and leafy cul-de-sacs in south Baltimore that’s also home to the city’s largest public housing project, Cherry Hill Homes. A clutch of parents and their children meet twice a week here for afterschool care. A married couple, Jackie and Jerry Mayo, sit around the folding table with a single mom. Mama Shirley watches closely from the opposite end, her cane to the side of the plastic chair. The parents are in their thirties and forties, with five children between them, and are as overwhelmed as she once was.

When I mention Graham during this parents-only time, everyone praises her for getting to her child before the police. Mama Shirley uses the incident as a teaching moment, and the parents listen. “She been through it,” as they say—and that matters to these parents who aspire to do better.

In her nearly half-century at Cherry Hill, Mama Shirley raised five children, mourned the loss of one to gun violence, stopped police from beating on another who was dealing drugs, and survived getting shot by a stray bullet in her home. A respected community leader, Mama Shirley is the reason that a little over a year ago, 39-year-old Fanon Hill, executive director of the Youth Resiliency Institute, brought a new kind of program for families, The Journey Project, to Cherry Hill.

“Sometimes I tell my husband to take over because I can see myself hurting my children.”

Mama Shirley’s sights are just as much on the adults around this table as they are on the kids. “They think I’m going to be training their children,” she tells me later. “I’m going to be training them.”

Today, Jackie Mayo is frustrated with her two boys, ages eight and 10. They’re playing outside, matching black Kangols pulled low over mischievous eyes. When the elder zigs, his little brother does, too. They’re inseparable. They’re also a challenge; they’ve both been diagnosed with ADHD and other behavioral issues, Jackie says.

“Like Miss Shirley said, you should not be punching them or hitting them any kind o’ way,” she says to the group. “But sometimes my sons make you go there. Sometimes I got to go to my husband and tell him to take over because I can see myself hurting my children.” Jackie and her husband are struggling to prepare them for the real world, which they see as hard and unfair—and local police add to their sullied view.

By the time the littlest Mayo was a toddler, Jackie says, he was already learning to distrust the police. He witnessed his first encounter at age three, a few steps from the local Head Start program, when Jerry was stopped and asked for ID by a cop for no apparent reason.

“I feel like I’m just a black man trying to do something responsible and positive for his son and I got the police on my back,” says Jerry, 36, who says this was hardly his only experience with police intimidation.

When the littlest Mayo turned five, he was with his mother when she went to a restaurant to demand a refund for spoiled crabs. She says the owner called the police, and the child watched as a white, female officer pushed his mother out the door with a nightstick to her back, saying, “You gon’ get your black ass over to the bus stop.”

On the ride home, her son told her, “She didn’t have to talk to you like that.” And then: “I don’t like cops.”

The Mayos find reprieve from this and other mundane abuses in the family-style talks, led by Mama Shirley and the guest speakers and African drumming circles organized by Hill. “They really care about what you say and don’t care about how you look or how you is,” Jerry says.

It’s almost impossible to escape judgment when parents talk openly about how they’re raising their children, which may explain why the twice-weekly sessions remain so small. As it is, Cherry Hill residents struggle with the stigma of living in public housing. And even at black churches where talk of the “the black family” dominates, that’s still a different conversation from one that creates a safe space for parents to untangle the knotty how-tos and funky foul-ups of parenting.

“If a parent comes to ‘parenting class,’ [they perceive] some amount of shame in that, as though they’re failing in some area,” says Tara Doaty-Mundell, PhD, who has led workshops for families in Baltimore across the economic spectrum for nearly 15 years. “But classes really are no different from going to see your doctor or hairdresser.”

During a break, Jackie shares what’s at stake in her struggle to control her boys’ behavior. “I’m afraid that when they become teenagers, the older one will have his brother out there doing stuff and adults will hurt them,” she says. “I have drug activity in front of my home. Every time we sit out there, they’re watching the dumpster, making sure you don’t touch their stuff.” The Mayos wonder, Why can’t the cops go after those guys? Or the five teens who recently jumped Jerry and beat him up over his cell phone? But neither parent expects police to protect their family.

So a big part of the Mayos’ parenting consists of keeping their rambunctious boys inside their apartment. They feel like they’re under a looming deadline to train them right. Jerry worries the boys’ mouths will get them in trouble with police.

“Oh, the kids become angry,” Mama Shirley says, explaining how routine police harassment impacts parenting. “That’s when they want to rebel because they feel like, ‘What’s the use if I’m going to be treated like a criminal?’ It takes a whole lot of talking and one-on-ones to get them back on track.”

Doaty-Mundell has seen how both violent crime and aggressive policing infect the parenting process.

Constant exposure to crime, she says, teaches children and parents that they are unworthy of love, care, or concern. On the other hand, if at three years old a child sees police “get out of the car and wrestle all these boys to the ground, that’s already informing what [the child’s] thought process is.”

The Police Athletic League and McGruff the Crime Dog once came into communities to counter stereotypes and offer positive role models, Doaty-Mundell says, but many of these programs have dramatically been cut back.

Trying to bridge the gap, Mama Shirley and Hill recently took parents to their first community relations meeting with police in the Southern District and invited a few cadets to a plainclothes play date with the families. Mama Shirley wants officers to learn that “just like all cops is not bad, all residents is not criminals.”

Belonging to Baltimore’s black middle class can mean slipping into a sense of security, a luxury that few low-income black parents even imagine. Violent crime, though it does exist, is less of a worry in many middle-class neighborhoods—as is the Mayos’ concern that if you become a crime victim, the police will not protect you. But every now and then, police harassment breaches the walls that black middle-class parents build for their children.

“There is no way to work your way out—earn your way out—of this sort of crisis,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote earlier this year when a Yale University campus police officer stopped his son at gunpoint. “All of our boys are bound together.”

In a tidy suburb in northeast Baltimore in early summer, the sun is setting and casting a soft orange glow over a new children’s park that could only inspire Cherry Hill kids to ask, Where can I get one? In a gazebo next to a jungle gym, I meet Nicole Brown-Scott, 42, a divorced human services specialist who lives a short bike ride away. She bought into Waverly nearly 20 years ago after falling for one of its single family starter homes on her way to and from daycare. Those toddlers are now grown and she is raising a third, an outgoing three-year-old girl with big, clear eyes and a dimpled smile. “With my older two I was very overprotective,” she says, “but with this one, well, she’s teaching me about exploring.”

Notice, Brown-Scott tells me, that every now and then her little girl will look up to see if Mom is watching. Satisfied, she’ll turn around and continue playing on her own. The safe harbor/explorer dynamic that all kids perform with their parents is something Brown-Scott learned to look for in a recent parenting class with Doaty-Mundell. It’s a dynamic that a police officer interrupted four years ago when he called about her middle child and only son, Andre. Just like Graham’s son Michael, he was 16.

Because of racism, black parents struggle with letting their children explore.

“I remember it was after-school hours when he called and he said, ‘Ma’am, I’m here with your son. He’s walking around basically aimlessly, like he’s up to something,’” she says.

Brown-Scott says her son was a skinny A student, forgetful, lost in a cloud. He was always misplacing or breaking things, like his cell phone or an expensive video game. She used to punish him by taking away his library time.

“I ask, ‘Where is he?'” she says, but the officer’s answer confused her. Andre was within walking distance of his high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which borders one of the city’s oldest planned communities, which is majority white. What Brown-Scott didn’t know at the time was that Andre had stopped by a friend’s house to pick up his video game. That meant walking on side streets among homes, instead of the main corridor outside Poly’s campus.

Andre Warsaw, now a 20-year-old retail worker, says the officers got out of their car and ordered him to sit on the curb in plain view of whoever might be watching from inside their homes.

“I wanted to know why I needed to sit on the floor,” he explains, but his frank curiosity quickly turned to fear “They said I fit the description of a robber. So I asked, How did I fit the description?”

Each time he asked what had he done, Andre says the officer’s questioning became more aggressive. When he couldn’t show ID, the police officer called his mom.

“I was embarrassed,” Andre says. “I was hoping she wouldn’t get the wrong image of me.”

On the other end of the line, Brown-Scott’s alarm bells went off. “With everything going on with the police then, I was just scared they would hurt him.” She got Andre on the phone and yelled, “Get home, now!”

Brown-Scott says her heart fell that night, as she talked Andre through what it meant for him to be a young black man, even today.

“You have to show your children how to respect authority,” she tells me. “If we don’t train our children how to conduct themselves in the street, then they’ll do something to make the police look at them in the way they perceive them to be anyway.”

Brown-Scott is fine-featured, with feathery-light freckles. In this moment she reminds me of the parents in Cherry Hill. They all expressed with great conviction the belief that good parenting could save their children from harm.

In the face of their own experience, however, this belief struck me as a fragile, bird-like thing.

I point out to Brown-Scott that home training didn’t work that day for her son.

“No, it did not work in that situation, and it’s not always going to work,” she replied. “I did tell him that.”

The day of the Freddie Gray riot, Doaty-Mundell says, she graduated Brown-Scott and eleven other parents from a parenting class. She says that because of racism, black parents struggle with letting their children explore and, as a result, tend to stifle children’s natural tendency to discover their environment.

“We tend to parent out of fear,’” says Doaty-Mundell. “We don’t want our children to do this so we parent off of that, versus ‘I want you to do this so I’m going to expose you to this.’”

Warm weather for many African-American families brings with it fears of gun violence. For Toya Graham, the new season brought regret. Last December, she made an uninformed choice with high stakes, moving with her youngest four children into a three-story row home in the southwest suburb of Edmondson/Poplar Grove. In the early 1950s, blockbusting had fueled its transformation, as working class whites fled, replaced by blacks escaping overcrowding in the central city. Now the area competes with parts of northwest Baltimore for the city’s highest homicide rate. Graham didn’t know that when she moved in.

Graham has attended the same church since she was four years old, so she tends to find blessings in life’s detours. She lost her job in March. Had she not, she wouldn’t have been present to grab Michael that day in April before the riot began. Once, she thought she’d never want to be a parent; later, an early miscarriage of twins devastated her. Now, her life is her brood.

To Graham, “free-range” might as well describe actual chickens.

Graham says she raised them on her own with occasional help from her pastor and her dad. They know that their mom’s dining room furniture is off limits and that bleaching down the kitchen counters and cleaning the sink each night is as non-negotiable as her beauty ritual: lashes, nails and feet done every two weeks and hair done weekly courtesy of an elder daughter.

“You represented for us moms out there,” Graham often hears when local women recognize her on the street. “You wasn’t on TV in a head scarf, looking raggedy, and I thank you for that.” She cleans house every morning and spends her days caring for her granddaughter before heading out to run errands with one thought in mind: Get home before dark.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Yes, she had noticed that the block was pocked with four boarded-up and overgrown eyesores. But once Graham stepped beyond the white stone steps, she was sold. Amber hardwood flooring throughout, pale gray and gold walls, decorative ironwork trim on the stairs, three baths, three bedrooms, a deck. A large basement that now unexpectedly doubles as a bunker.

“I hear gunfire so loud out here I find myself taking the children down there,” Graham says. She now lives in an area where Bloods, Crips and the Black Guerrilla Family are all said to operate. She wants the police to make her feel safe, but doesn’t support the sacrifice of residents’ rights or respect.

“I think what happened with Freddie Gray—the protests was something that needed to be done years and years ago,” Graham told me. “Police had been outrageous with the beatings and false arrests for years.”

Graham, who recently completed training to help her secure a job in an assisted living facility, has seen what good policing looks like. When Michael was a preteen and playing football, a police officer with a local team donated money to buy him a uniform. When her oldest daughter was a teen and worked late nights at McDonald’s, another officer sometimes brought her home. “I felt safe knowing I didn’t have to worry when she got off at 11 p.m.,” she says.

But Graham regards positive interactions with the police as pleasant surprises. She more often sees aggression. The other day, she says she saw nine or 10 officers chase a young man in the middle of the street, then throw him face-first into the concrete as one officer put a knee to his back. “After doing all of that to this young guy, they let him go,” she says. “So that right there says they had no probable cause to even stop him.”

On most days, her four children are home by 4 p.m. Everyone has their own room, their own gadgets to keep them occupied during the long hours indoors. “I know as a mother that I can’t keep my children in the house for eternity,” she says, “but right now I feel more comfortable with them being with me.” To Graham, “free-range” might as well describe actual chickens.

Black churches keep asking her and Michael to come speak. In recent months, she’s been to Virginia and Texas. Graham says she doesn’t care what people say about her videotaped rescue mission.

“I don’t owe anybody no explanations,” she says. “ That is my only son, and at the end of the day, I didn’t want anything to happen to him. Come into my home and see how I try to raise all my children and then judge me. Would I do it again? Yes, I would.”

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, where Carla Murphy, formerly of, is a reporting fellow.

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Notable Replies

  1. “Why is America celebrating the beating of a black child?” asked Stacey Patton, an opponent of corporal punishment, in the Washington Post.

    “Beating”?. Yes, she got physical to get his ass out of there, but in no way would I call that a beating. Go to a domestic abuse center if you want to see a “beating” victim. Very poor choice of a word to describe what she did. What she did was good parenting for that situation. Any good parent would grab their kid and haul his/her ass out of there.

  2. This is hard for me. I’m a survivor of child abuse, having said that I don’t think a pop here and there to get a kids attention is a bad thing and in the midst of the potential that her son might become a statistic I think that Toya was desperate to get he sons attention and given the circumstance’s she couldn’t waste any time. Like she says her son could have very well become the next Freddie Gray, Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. For Toya it is a no win situation aside from the simple fact that her son is still alive.

  3. Yes, she gave him a few attention grabbing slaps, this was not a beating. The look on the kids face was not pain, it was “momma you are making me look bad in front of my friends”… Totally different from what you endured as an abuse survivor, not even the same planet.

  4. Avatar for Nona Nona says:

    For the record, the author didn’t use the term “beating”–the Washington Post writer did.

  5. Yes, I did not clarify that or copy the text in my comment.

    I have edited the comment to show the link to the author. The article Patton wrote was pathetic.

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