Voices: On Black Parents and Amy Chua

Amy Chua — author of the controversial parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which gained notoriety recently when an excerpt from it, about the superiority of strict Chinese mothers, appeared in the Wall Street Journal — would agree that assimilation into the American system doesn’t make much sense. In many ways, her experience as Tiger Mother represents both the disease of and cure for modern parenting.

Many have inferred from her much discussed new memoir that disproportionate Asian academic success can be attributed to a regimen of no sleepovers, no playdates, no quitting, no coddling, no praising mediocrity and lots of drills. The ancient Chinese secret is, in short, demand perfection and accept nothing less. Children are not so fragile that they will break under these expectations.

This is the same immigrant work ethic that catapulted my parents from poverty in Guyana to the country-club class of North America. Ditto for my husband’s parents in Jamaica, and Allison’s husband’s parents in the Caribbean. Ditto, it should be said, for Allison’s grandparents, who, as Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant book on the Great Migration showed, had their own immigrant experience moving from the South to Northern cities, where their achievements in culture and society forever changed America. 

But Chua is also part of the disease, because she has essentially written a manual for how to create superior sheep. But I still share many of her philosophies on the sturdiness of children, and in general have enormous respect for her. There she is, a Yale Law School professor, married to a white professor at the same school — technocratic royalty in the land where privilege was invented — and yet she has not allowed that success to be a reason to lose her identity, melting away into the American pot.

–Natalie Hopkinson, How to Raise a Model Minority

Since people are dabbling in gross generalizations about motherhood, children, parenting and ethnicity, I thought I’d compare the ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother‘ to that of black mamas… or at least my mama.

Chua defines her children’s success as their ability to get good grades and play musical instruments. My mother defined her children’s success by their behavior. . . and securing their eternal salvation through regular church attendance, but that’s another post.

I’m not alone in noting the similarity. Culture writer Danielle Deadwyler did her own comparison between Chua’s Tiger Mother and “Southern Black Mothers,” showing they have a great deal in common:

No wuss nurturers are allowed below the Mason Dixon line; Southern black women have been hardcore disciplinarians for generations. Results have been varied… However, there seems to be a ‘get it done’ through line in black parenting that echoes Malcolm’s ‘by any means necessary’. (Danielle Deadwyler)

Danielle goes on to tell a familiar tale about the time her classmate’s mother came to school and whipped him “in front of the whole school” — something we have all seen, heard about, or worse, experienced. Her friend wasn’t alone. We all know many black parents tend to favor corporal punishment, also known as spanking, as a preferred form of behavior modification. In addition, many people of other groups are horrified by this. Yet just as Chua bragged to her peers over dinner about her harsh mothering methods, the black mother is not ashamed to administer punishment in broad daylight.

Having the correct answer wasn’t nearly as important as knowing how to navigate yourself in a world where your “backtalk” would result in death. So frequent beatings were not only the lesser of two evils; a beating was also a lesson that could save your life. Much higher stakes than what Chua is dealing with. But the intensity of her methods is something that black mothers can understand.

Alexis Stodghill, Tiger Mother vs. Black Mamas: Is an Iron Hand the Key to Prosperous Children?

Chua has the kind of theory of life that many black people just cannot stand. There is no mention in the book of a larger purpose, God, community or interest in anything other than herself, her kids, and their grades and accolades — preferably from famous people like the jurists she invited to her home to listen to her children perform.

While she does pause to care for two very ill family members and has potlucks for her students, you really get the sense that she is oblivious to the lives of everybody else in the world who does not touch her life directly; that, say, a drunk driver could mow down somebody else’s kid on her street and she would be too busy drilling her kids with flash cards to take the bereaved parents a casserole. Perhaps most aggravating is that Chua has no patience with those who challenge the status quo, implying that people who challenge the power structure — no matter how stacked or rigged it may be — are just too lazy and selfish to master it.

And that’s all too bad, but black people should still buy this book and study it for its underlying message, which is this: There are no shortcuts to achievement — and no racial secrets — only strategies.

..[W]e need to keep talking about the habits of success, especially the habit of persistence in the face of failure. Ironically, those are the kinds of habits for which our top black athletes, such as Donovan McNabb and LeBron James, are best known, even in the face of the ongoing stereotype that they are all about luck and raw talent. And it is all the more crucial for black parents, who, unlike Asians, are burdened with the stereotype of being considered lazy, unintellectual and all about the party.

Every day, I see kids who will practice jump shots and blocking and tackling for hours a day, with their parents’ support, because they know that the harder they work, the more talented they get. Yet they shut down when it comes to applying that same effort to their academic work.

Similarly, I’ve personally seen white and Asian kids apply time and time again for coveted fellowships and internships, despite rejection, while black kids react to rejection by withdrawing altogether from contention. I know heads of schools who have to fight with black parents to get them to fight to turn off the Playstations and the televisions until the grades go up — and fight they must, because that is what the job of being a parent entails. 

We all know this, and it’s time to name it and fight it.

But we also know that even as we try to teach our kids the habits of success for a tough, new world, there is a time for everything: for joy, for laughter, to lift as we climb and to speak truth to power. Without the sacrifices that African-American parents made and continue to make to advance the cause of equal opportunity in education, I very much doubt that women and other minorities like Chua would have the opportunities they have today.

And this is something that Chua can stand to learn from us.

Michel Martin, Parenting to Win

Image Credit: Chua/You Offend Me, You Offend MyFamily; Black Family/mymajicdc.com