Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Living

My Whipping Story

In the black comedic canon, the “whipping” story simultaneously unifies an audience and gets big laughs. As a people, we have a collective memory of getting the switch off a backyard tree or having extension cords flung toward our behinds in an effort of our parents or grandparents to keep us in line and alive. Barbecues, birthday parties, and even girls’ nights out can be the backdrop of these childhood remembrances, leaving listeners in tears as we laugh uproariously at the paradoxically exaggerated but real experiences of the modern day griot while we wait our turns to jump in to tell our own versions.

Here’s one of mine:

One day my brother and I concocted a plan to gang up on my mother. We wanted to do something–go outside when my parents had forbidden us to do so for whatever reason–and with the heft of my father’s presence being at work, and the daintiness of my mother’s standing over the stove, we decided that this was the perfect time to force the issue and get our way.

“Man, we goin’ outside!” my brother proclaimed, hopping from foot to foot and pounding his fists together like a boxer about to begin the prize fight.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “What she gon’ do? She can’t take both of us.” I allowed the energy emanating from my little brother to wash over me like a pseudo Holy Spirit.

“We just gon’ go in there and tell her we goin’ outside,” he offered, getting more and more amped as he realized my willingness to ride out.

“Yeah, and we just gon’ say, ‘We’ll see you when the street lights come on,'” I added.

A few quick shoulder massages passed from one to the other, and we walked confidently in our twoness to the doorway of the kitchen. Now, we were not large children. In fact, the two of us could fit in the door frame together with elbow room remaining. But my mother wasn’t a large woman either. While she was taller than us, she was slim, and there was a kitchen table between us and her. We had this on lock!

“Mama,” we announced together, declaring our presence at the kitchen.

Never looking up from the stove, she replied sweetly with a “Hmm?”

“We goin’ outside,” my brother barked with the bravado and posturing of a 1970s black film star.

“Yeah, and we’ll see you,” I joined, punching my index finger in the air toward her back, “when the street lights come on.”

“What’s that now?” My mother didn’t turn around or stop her stirring, but her body began to stiffen, revealing muscles we didn’t know she had.

“We goin’ outside?” my brother repeated, looking at me for the confidence boost he all of a sudden needed.

“And we’ll see you when the street lights come on,” I whispered into my chest.

Continuing to stir, the sleeves of my mother’s shirt began to slowly tear away from her biceps. “Who the hell you think you talking to?” she countered in an almost melodic way.

In a flash of deranged unison sparked by the incongruence of her words and her tone, we replied forcefully, “We talkin’ to you!”

At that, my mother stopped stirring whatever was in the pot and straightened her body. We knew we had messed up big time when she whirled around, a green and muscle-clad monster, and picked up a belt we did not notice was on the table.

“RUUNNN!” we screamed into each other’s faces as we turned to flee.

My mother flung one end of that belt, and I swear, it Stretch-Armstronged across the kitchen before splitting in two like the parting of the Red Sea and smacked us both simultaneously so hard on our backs that we flew into the living room and crash landed on the coffee table.

As we helped each other up, we looked cautiously toward the kitchen where my mother, stirring her pot serenely asked, “Now, where you going? And when you plan on seeing me?”

“We goin’ to our rooms,” my brother answered with tears streaming down his face.

“And we’ll see you when you call us for dinner,” I finished between sobs.

These aren’t stories of abuse to us. These are stories of correction and lessons learned the hard way. They admit a fallibility and self-awareness that serve to humble us while humanizing and connecting us as a larger community. We laugh loudly and thank God sincerely that we had parents who weren’t afraid to be parents instead of friends. We point to former acquaintances whose parents “spared the rod” and use them as cautionary tales as we work as a village to save the lives of our children. We no longer send our children to get switches or use extension cords to make a point, but many of our kids already have their own versions of “whipping stories” they are old enough to tell to the “that’s right!” of their grandmas and aunties, the quasi-embarrassment and “come on now” of their mamas, and the pure comedic delight of their siblings, cousins, and play cousins.

This morning, while studying John 2, I ran across one of the Jesus at the temple stories. We hear about the driving out of cattle and moneychangers. We hear about the turning over of tables. But I can honestly say, I have never heard this little nugget of information: “He made a whip out of cords…” (v. 15). Y’all, was Jesus whipping people at the temple?

Now, I’m not trying to make light of this because we know that every detail in our Holy Scripture is “given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17, NKJV), but can we just pause for a minute to appreciate the imagery of a resolute Jesus taking the time to personally fashion a whip to purify God’s holy temple? To me, reading this was like the “I’ll be right back” a mother calmly asserts as she heads toward her bedroom to retrieve the belt or a grandmother sitting in the living room everybody under 30 was forbidden to enter, stripping the leaves and bark off a switch and testing its flexibility and sting on the palm of her hand. I got so tickled by this thought! Lord knows I’ve been there: braiding my own whip to clean up some stuff and not realizing the onslaught that was about to greet my insolent behind.

Listen, Friend, regardless of your personal views on whipping, you must admit that there is a purification needed at the temple of the Lord. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3: 16, NKJV). Every sin argues that God is not Lord over our lives. Every sin positions us and our desires over those of Jesus Christ. And as authentic believers, we ought to have increasingly more moments when the “zeal for [His] house [should eat us] up” too that we resolve to make a whip of cords and drive out everything that defiles the temple of the Lord (John 2: 17, NKJV)!

We may cry or be angry in the moment, but more than our mamas, God loves us and seeks our ultimate good because of it. He knows that we will come to appreciate His correction. He knows that a looking back over our lives from the vantage point of maturity reveals a faithful Savior and an enduring Presence intent on drawing us toward a life of abundance in Him. He knows that we will see His grace and mercy, just like we see all the times our mamas didn’t get after us when she could have, and we’ll love Him more because of this divine balance in rearing His children. And we will sing His praises, just like we honor our mamas with the tight hugs and kisses at the end of our “whipping stories,” telling Him thank You for being all that we did not understand or value because we now see that we are better because of Him!

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2 thoughts on “My Whipping Story

  1. Alice Fournier on said:

    A hundred years ago, in a poetry unit at MP, I had the kids read “The Whipping” by Robert Hayden. I thought that they would commiserate with the boy and castigate the woman. Well that poem unleashed a torrent of “whipping” stories that had the whole class in hysterics. At first I was appalled, but by the end of the class I came to realize that even the “victims” of these punishments viewed them as expressions of caring. The story that I always remember and that every student affirmed with glee was the whipping in which a parent would deliver one swat for every syllable she chanted. “Don’t…you…e…ver…talk…to…me…like…that…a…gain!” Some lessons do resonate forever – and not just for the students!

    • So funny, and this was my mom, too! And you’re right, we do see it as caring because more often than not, our parents got absolutely no joy out of doing it (although their commentary later may suggest otherwise)! LOL!

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