“Mother, Mother…”: On Mass Media’s Re-Imagining of Toya Graham

“Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today…” – Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On

I had not yet finished processing my thoughts on the uprising in Baltimore & the death of Freddie Gray – a young Black man who made eye contact with a police officer, ran, and ended up with a severed spine…while in police custody. I was having discussions both online and offline about this when a viral video seemed to surface “out of thin air”. The video featured a mother, Toya Graham, seen beating her child with her fists on national television for participating in social protest, wearing a mask, and throwing rocks. It was not long after a friend showed me the video that mass and social media was lauding her as the ‘Mom of the Year’. The comments that I saw ranged from exclamations of her great parenting skills to admonitions for other parents to do the same thing if their child was ‘out there’. But I honestly could not join in the celebration – the video and the corresponding media reception left me with a sense of dread…

I am not a parent and don’t know much about parenting. I will put that out there early on and let you know that I am not commenting on Toya Graham’s parenting skills. I can only imagine the type of fear she described in her television appearances – a fear that the next Black man left dead in police custody or because of police involvement would be her son. I know that fear as a sister… as a partner… as a friend… but not as a mother. This piece will not even scratch the surface of what Toya Graham’s parenting skills or choices were in that moment.

Yet there are two things I do know about. I know about systemic injustice and I know about the ways in which popular media can & will spin a story or craft a message. I know this not only because I study it, but because I work within two realms – higher education & writing / journalism. I know the ways in which the media can use an individual’s actions to craft a narrative, most times unbeknownst to the individuals involved. So, choosing to report honestly & fairly is a matter of ethics. And American mass media really doesn’t have a proven track record of great ethics when it comes to reporting about race in America.

So, what’s at play here, with our ‘Mom of the Year’ – and the way the media has re-imagined her? If we center the thought and dialogue process on whether this mother was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, then we miss a bigger point about the media’s messaging TO, FOR, and ABOUT people & parents of color. Media is about imagery. And the imagery that we get from mainstream media is already supporting a national narrative of people of color. Not until this moment, has mainstream media had ANYTHING positive to say about Black parenting, specifically.

So, with that in mind, I have to pause and reflect on WHY the mainstream is now media lauding a mother of color – not for marching with her son… not even for pulling her son away from the crowds and sternly admonishing him to get home quickly – but for beating her son in the midst of a protest scene. We have to reflect on that imagery… in other words, how does that image contribute to the national mainstream media narrative about / around people of color?

Is it a coincidence that after being completely silent (and many times berating and condescending about) the parenting skills of people of color… this woman beating her brown son is now touted as an image for the “Mother of the Year”…? I cannot assume it is.

As I looked at the video clip and read comments from people of color and non-POC’s, I could not help comparing media imagery across two mediums – news and creative film / movies. In the film, 12 Years a Slave, there is a scene where the protagonist, Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), is instructed to beat Patsy (played by Lupita N’yongo) as punishment for a minor “disobedience” against her oppressors. Before this beating, she cries out, “I rather it be you…”

What amazes me is hearing a similar cry via social media & offline discussion in the forms, though the relationship displayed in the viral video is not the same as Patsy & Solomon’s. Through my news feed, a repetitive message thrummed, “I rather it be me beating my son instead of the police”, “The woman cares about her son – her beating him is the lesser of the two outcomes…” In the media’s re-imaging of Toya Graham, she is “the lesser of two evils”, as evidenced in CBS’ interview of her and her son as Charlie Rose, CBS correspondent, described that her son had respect & fear of her and her “right hook”.

Though I am not a parent, I cannot completely distance myself from the fear that Toya Graham may have felt. I fear that my friends who engage in political / social protest may not come home. I fear that police brutality will be allowed to continue indefinitely without any accountability from the American government or systemic policy. I feel a tightening in my chest each time I see a police car, roaming down the street, even though I have done nothing unlawful. If I saw a loved one engaged in protest and throwing rocks / bricks, I have no idea what I would have done. Though we can consider the emotional responses of individuals we have to also consider the fact that enacting violence on Black & brown bodies in public spaces, for mass consumption, is codified in an American legacy. It is a function of white supremacy and oppression at its root. How & why? Because in the end, whether it be by a caring mother or a police officer… a brown body is bought ‘into order’ by physically beating. The question is not whether Toya Graham was right or wrong. The question is, How long will we have to beat our own in order to ‘keep them safe’ from oppression…?

People of color beating other people of color in order to fold into mass messaging about what is & is not acceptable in the system of white supremacy has been institutionalized since slavery times. So, I have a hard time watching THE MEDIA’S response to Toya Graham’s intentions & actions, and saying, “Oh yes… they are just telling it, as it happened, with no specific and intentional messaging”.

As indicated in Race Forward’s report, Moving the Race Conversation Forward, in order for mass media to be what it is, we have to walk away with a specific message about ourselves, the world around us, what is socially acceptable, and what is not. Media correspondents and executives do this by playing to the “frame” of the audience it is serving. If you look at popular media coverage even today, in regards to racial / socioeconomic justice issues, we can uncover the frame by certain cues. These cues include the consistent usages of the word “thug” in conjunction with people of color, the frequent coverage of crimes perpetuated by people of color, the usage of the word “riots” instead of “protests” and / or “uprisings”, the erasure and omission of people of color in mass media awards shows… I could go on and on.

RaceForward’s 2014 report on mass media states that frames converge to create a narrative, and that “Narratives must include characters (e.g. protagonist, antagonist, heroes, villains), settings (context, time, place), action (interconnected events that change the situation, leading to a climax and resolution), and a core idea that grounds the story” (p. 4). So, let’s come back to Toya Graham and the uprising in Baltimore. Given the framework already established, we are lauding Toya Graham as a “hero” in the story [with her own son as the antagonist, mind you]. The part that becomes interesting is that the media has re-imagined her as a hero, because she states to CBS, in her own words, that she did not feel like a hero. From her comments, I feel safe to say that Toya Graham knows that the issue is more complex than hero / villain, protagonist / antagonist. The issue is systemic injustice and pragmatic survival.

The setting is an under-resourced location in Baltimore, MD- the site where they shot her early interview. However, the platform has grown as she has since appeared on ABC News and the View. At some point, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why are so many networks gravitating toward this story’ – what’s the spin?  Well, let’s go through the process of elimination. No one centered the story, or even commented, on the fear that she felt for her son’s life BECAUSE of police brutality. No one, except her, that is. No one, within the mass media, talked to her son about the decisions that prompted him to throw the rock and what his thought process was from the time he arrived to “fight for what (he) stood for” (as stated on the View) to the time that he picked up the rock to throw it. Her story did not include any depth of analysis or real follow up on the social identities she described – single, mother of 6 children. No one asked about what exactly she meant when she said she lived in an impoverished neighborhood or specifically, why she feared for her son to “become another Freddie Gray“. No one commented on her employment status OR EVEN the deep emotional relationship that she had with her son. No one, except her that is.

So, what WAS the resolution and the core message that comes from this story? I think CBS news reports did a good job of subtly laying that out in their following section (emphasis mine, so you can unpack the semantics):

“Graham, a single mom with six children, denounced the vandalism and violence against police officers. She said rioting in Baltimore is no way to go about getting justice for Freddie Gray and that she doesn’t want that life for her son.

mom2.jpg
Toya Graham lays into her son Michael after seeing him with the protesters.
CBS NEWS

‘There’s some days that I’ll shield him in the house just so he won’t go outside and I know that I can’t do that for the rest of my life,’ said Graham. ‘I’m a no-tolerant mother. Everybody that knows me, know I don’t play that.’

It’s that reputation that made her son wince the second he saw her.”

Over the next few days, watch the media coverage on Toya Graham, her son, and the story that is being told. See if her re-imagined heroism is continuously situated alongside violence and establishing order, in both text and in graphics. See if you can find another narrative that does not myopically focus on the climax of her son throwing rocks at police officers, and the ‘resolution’ of him being beaten and sent home. You might find it in brilliant pieces like that of Dr. Brittney Cooper’s or Dr. Stacy Patton’s, but see if you can find it on CNN, ABC, etc. When we talk about Toya Graham’s story, let’s not be confused… we can harshly critique the media sensationalization of violence on Black & brown bodies WITHOUT coming for Toya Graham. This is what it means to think critically and incorporate nuance.

4 comments

  1. Jade, this was a great read and very helpful in aiding me to process this entire story. I struggled with how this story was being touted in the media and reading this post helped me to identify why. I think it is important for all of us to remember in times like this that we must consume what’s put in front of us critically and that we can do that without tearing someone down.

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