Platform (my university’s magazine) had proposed a theme about ICONs, everyday people who touch the lives of many. For the issue I interviewed Stacey Patton one of my favourite authors of all time. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be…so I’ve decided to instead place the interview up on here.
Please tell Me a little about yourself and what you are known for?
I’m a 31 year-old African-American writer living in New York City. I work for the NAACP Legal Defense and
Educational Fund which is America’s first and oldest civil rights law firm established 70 years ago by Thurgood Marshall. He and a small army of other black civil rights lawyers believed that education was the key to achieving equal rights and freedom for millions of black people who were enduring poverty and racial strife in this country during segregation. I believe in the organization’s mission and the work that we do to advocate on behalf of those who are pushed to the margins of our society.
In addition to my work at the Legal Defense Fund, I am pursuing my doctoral degree in African-American History at Rutgers University. My dissertation is titled – Why Black Children Can’t Grow Up: The Construction of Racial Childhood, 1896-1954. I’m also an advocate for foster and abused children. I travel around the country speaking to diverse audiences about the impact of child abuse and adoption on our youth and families. I also conduct workshops with teens, ministers, social service providers and parents to explore culturally sensitive child rearing. I’m also working on the sequel to my first book.
Tell us a little about the book you’ve written?
My book is a memoir that I began writing when I was foster child. It took many years for me to write because I was still growing up, still trying to make sense of my circumstances and still healing.
That Mean Old Yesterday tells the story of my life as a child growing up in an abusive adoptive home and how
I got free. In particular, it details how I escaped the child welfare system through my pursuit of education. While in foster care, I committed myself to studying hard so that I could eventually earn a scholarship to boarding school. Once I gained admission to prep school I continued to use my educational opportunities to strengthen my mind, to broaden my perspective on social ills, and to unhinge myself from ignorance so that I could become a productive civic person and a contributor to society.
My book particularly speaks to the issue of corporal punishment in African-American families in the United States. I’ve always been disturbed by the public embrace of whipping/beating black children. Don’t get me wrong, hitting children is something that doesn’t discriminate. This behaviour stretches across class and race. But there is an historical specificity to the problem in African-American life that I wanted to address. I knew that I was getting beaten because it happened to my adoptive parents, and their parents, and their parents’ parents who were slave. The history of slavery and racism bled into my adoptive parents’ modern-day child rearing techniques.
This kind of family bullying has devastating consequences for children, families, schools, and society writ large. It stunts a child’s physical, emotional and intellectual growth. Once I broke away from the lash I was able to become a better student and one who believes that conflict can be resolved, not with violence, but with an astute mind.
How hard was it for you to grow up in the environment you grew up in?
It was pretty difficult. First, I hated being adopted. I felt like a child that came from nowhere. I deeply yearned to know my history. It was hard looking around the dinner table at people who shared not a stitch of genetic history with me. I wanted to know the circumstances surrounding my adoption and I grew up tortured by questions – Where are my real parents? What do they look like? Who do I look like? Will I ever see them? Are they alive? Was I loved? Or was I just rejected?
Second, growing up in an abusive home was a nightmare. I was always walking on eggshells, trying not to make my adoptive mother angry. I was always told to stay in a child’s “place,” to be seen and not heard, speak when spoken to. I felt powerless, voiceless, insignificant and unloved. It was also frustrating to grow up in a black community that embraced the perverse violence directed at children. Black comedians joked about whipping kids. Preachers preached about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Women at hair salons scoffed at white people and other blacks who used words and non-violent techniques to raise children.
I yearned to do better, to be better. Childhood for me was like slavery. I was always plotting that moment of freedom.
What is your mission surrounding the idea of corporal punishment and adoption?
I am currently working on a new program called Spare the Kids. It will be a non-profit that brings Positive Discipline to poor and minority communities in this country. What I find is that there are many people who want to change the way they interact with their children but they don’t have the tools and techniques. So I’ll be using new technology, online media, and workshops to bring this to communities for no charge. I want to make this a grassroots effort that catches fire so that we can dramatically reduces the rates of abuse, the numbers of young people who bully others, who shoot each other in the streets, who act violently later on in life in their intimate relationships, and who end up in prison.
On adoption, I am supporting the push for adoptees rights in this country. We want to have access to our birth certificates and records surrounding our adoptions. Currently, there are laws in many states that don’t allow us this critical information about ourselves.
What role did education play in your life?
While in foster care, I committed myself to studying hard so that I could eventually earn a scholarship to boarding school. Once I gained admission to prep school I continued to use my educational opportunities to strengthen my mind, to broaden my perspective on social ills, and to unhinge myself from ignorance so that I could become a productive civic person and a contributor to society.
There is currently a financial situation in the UK that threatens to take university away from the poor by raising the tuition fees of our institutions. This would resolute in many potential students being unable to afford university. What is your stance on this issue and have you heard of it in the US? Does the US have the same problem?
We are having similar problems in the United States. Tuition fees are rising. Middle-class and poor students are being shut out of higher education. Actually it’s beginning before college. Public schools are having their budgets slashed drastically. Teachers are being let go. Classrooms are crowded and so on. The hardest hit communities, of course, or poor and of colour.
The Recession has deeply impacted higher education. People can’t get loans and they can’t find jobs to help support themselves as they pursue education. I think the problem is deeper than with the universities. In my opinion, this whole capitalistic structure needs to be fixed. Homes are too expensive. So is food, medical care and other basic costs of living. In my wildest fantasy, I wish the entire country could sit at a table and find a way to reduce the cost of everything. If we don’t invest in the education of our citizens of all backgrounds then the future is doomed.
What are your views on Education and being able to go to university?
Education is empowerment. But it’s also got to be useful and prepare young people for real life and to be marketable in the workforce. A problem we are seeing here in the U.S. is that even those who successfully graduate from top universities still can’t get jobs because the economy is so bad here. America doesn’t produce much of anything. We are a consumer society. But if people don’t have jobs they don’t spend money. If people don’t spend money then things fall apart here.
I’ve taught at the university level and so I understand the kind of impact that deep thinking can have on students. Just one semester can plant seeds of change in a student’s mind. What they learn can correct old assumptions and inspire a new direction. So I think higher education should not just be an exercise in filling student’s brains with abstract thoughts and useless ideas so that they can sit in an echo chamber with like-minded people. Their education should equip them with the tools to go out into the world and break down barriers and do war with ignorance, poverty and other social evils instead of just reinforcing the status quo. Some people think this is a pretty radical idea.
What would you say to the students of Nottingham Trent University who are thinking about leaving university because of this problem?
Well, of course I say stick it out. You’ve got to finish. You’re already in the door despite the tough times. Do your research and find ways to get your hands on support and financial resources so you can finish. I say, think about the slaves who yearned for education but it was against the law for them to learn. Think about those who sought out an education but didn’t have books and whose schools were burned down. Their sacrifices paved a way for you, for all of us across the globe. If they could unshackle their minds in the midst of such dire strife, you all can find a way to finish at Nottingham Trent.