Friday, March 1, 2013

Meet the R&D: A. Zell Williams

Here's a post by R&D Group playwright A. Zell Williams. His project for the Group is "an investigation into how people's views on racial identity effect their actions in child rearing. The play will look behind the time-honored "White parents/Black parents" jokes of Cosby, Pryor, and Rock, to reveal the effects of spankings, groundings, and when accepted norms stray beyond punishment and into child abuse." For more about him and the Group, click HERE. Many thanks to Zell for writing this post for us.

Over the course of my life, I’ve gone back and forth on whether I ever want to have children. Many of my reasons for avoiding kids are selfish. Having been one of six and seeing my parents struggle to make ends meet made it hard to understand why anyone would reproduce. Other reasons have been practical. In the past eight years, I’ve lived in California, Chicago, New York, and now Philadelphia. Each move has been inspired by an opportunity to develop my career as a writer. It’s not the kind of lifestyle that I would wish on any family.

However, one of the biggest hurdles to the thought of children is how I would be as a father. The few years I spent living under my father’s dominance were life-altering in ways that I still don’t fully comprehend. He was, as the saying goes, “Old School.” He believe that being a man meant gaining experience and knowledge in things as varied as how to drive stick, to how to operate a handgun.

On top of that, he was also a black man that came of age in the early seventies. His family was poor and many his friends were being sent to Vietnam to fight for a country that treated them as less than a full citizens. He was (and rightfully so) angry and active.

Unfortunately for my mother, sisters, and I, his anger didn’t stop at the door to our home. He loved us as much as he could, but he disciplined us the way his parents disciplined him. And to him, this wasn’t just punishment for wrongdoing, but training for how the world would bear down on us as young black people in America.

This country is, indeed, a fraught place for black youth. Tragic incidents from the Trayvon Martin case in Flordia, to the violence afflicting Chicago’s South and West Sides, to the police shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland remind us of this regularly. But America today is leaps and bounds better than the nation my parents were raised in. Their struggle, and that of those before them, made it possible for my generation to progress faster than any other.

There is a history of jokes by comedians from Bill Cosby to Eddie Murphy to George Lopez about the way kids of color are reprimanded. No matter what race, it is always contrasted by the severity of the punishment in comparison to the way that white parents admonish their breed. In the jokes, there is usually a reason for “spankings” or full-on beatings that is connected to their cultural identities. The neighborhood they lived in was rougher or the church told them it was the way to go about child rearing.

But we live at a time where the popular belief in professional and popular psychology is that spanking is itself a form of child abuse. It is almost by definition abusive, but the action of spanking is a product of a child’s poor behavior. And as much resentment as we have for the way my father raised us, my sisters and I have noted that many of the successes in our adult lives were rooted in a clear understanding that misbehavior would not be tolerated.

It seems that parents aren’t allowed to even entertain the thought of spanking anymore. It still goes on, but when I address the issue with friends who have children they say that it isn’t a part of any discussion. Spanking has become the pornography of parenting; it is something everyone assumes someone else partakes in, but no one they know. ...Right?

I have 15 nieces and nephews. Of the 15, 4 are biracial (black and white.) Of the 4, their mothers would smack their hands when they were younger and touched things they were told not to or “tap their bottoms” when they didn’t do as they were told. I have seen many of the 11 others spanked outright (though nothing compared to what their mothers and I faced.) I have wondered if this split in their choice of punishment is connected to their relationships with their partners. Are their white counterparts uncomfortable having their children spanked? Does it conflict with the way they were raised? And what does it say about my sisters who employ corporal punishment?

The change in this country’s views on race affect us in great ways on a national level. But the small ways it is changing how we build families is as compelling to me. By the end of my time with The Civilians, I hope to bring you a play based on the experiences of people dealing with these issues. And that it will make you question how you see your role in shaping the next generation of citizens.

Thanks again for this incredible and thoughtful post, Zell. For posts from our other R&D Group artists, please click HERE.

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