I finally got a chance to listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “Fear,” a feature song from his new album ‘Damn.’
The song takes us on a journey through his developmental stages of fear, beginning with his childhood at age 7, then 17, and 27. Each stage represents a window into Lamar’s awareness of how the toxic smog of white supremacy poisons Black life at every turn, especially our intimate and social relationships with each other.
Lamar’s lyrical analysis of his own life cycle reveals that Black folks never age out of fear because at each developmental milestone we are met with new amped up forms of devaluation by the state, other Black folks who are walking around as victims of unrecognized traumas, and from the people who are supposed to love us and provide a refuge from hate and violence.
In a recent Facebook post, I griped about how I hear so many Black parents sowing the seeds of fear in their children early on. I wrote:
It really unnerves me when I hear black people say, “I want my child to fear me.”
There’s already so much racist ugly in the world for them to fear. There’s already so many mean-spirited people in the world who hate and want to destroy us. Why, as their giver and nurturer of life, would you want to put yourself within that spectrum of angst and devaluation?
And from a scientific perspective, fear is a form of chronic stress that activates biochemical responses in your child’s body which moves them into maximum alert in times of threat, and they don’t always immediately return to normal levels.
Fear causes inflammation throughout the body and prompts biological changes that can affect the immune, vascular, metabolic and endocrine systems, and can prompt their cells to age more quickly. This cumulative wear and tear – known as an “allostatic load” – can negatively impact your son or daughter beyond childhood, and even the future health of their children because stress also causes genetic changes.
Fear is killing black people. And I’m not being hyperbolic. Just take a look at any report on health disparities. The foundation is often laid with the accumulation of toxic stress that begins in childhood.
The fear, the pain and damage of unresolved childhood traumas is the bitter root of most of what ails our communities: child abuse, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, misogyny, misandry, phobias, substance abuse, and dare I say so much of our political fecklessness. So many of us are walking around saying, “I turned out fine.” But really, so many of us are victims of unrecognized trauma.
If we prime our children to fear the people who love them most and teach them that obedience is survival and their greatest virtue, then how can we expect to raise future generations of young people to engage in effective resistance against our enemies?
Fear does not equal respect.
A few days later, a number of folks sent me messages on Facebook: “Did you hear Kendrick Lamar’s new song? He talks about beatings.” So I begrudgingly decided to check it out, thinking that it was going to be yet another one of those rap songs by a Black male artist thanking and celebrating his mama for hurting his body to prepare him for a cruel racist world.
Here’s that verse folks were telling me about:
“I beat yo’ ass, keep talkin’ back
I beat yo’ ass, who bought you that?
You stole it, I beat yo’ ass if you say that game is broken
I beat yo’ ass if you jump on my couch
I beat yo’ ass if you walk in this house with tears in your eyes
Runnin’ from poopoo and ‘prentice
Go back outside, I beat yo’ ass lil nigga
That homework better be finished, I beat yo’ ass
Yo’ teachers better not be bitchin’ ’bout you in class
That pizza better not be wasted, you eat it all
That TV better not be loud if you got it on
Them Jordans better not get dirty when I just bought ’em
Better not hear ’bout you humpin’ on Kiesha’s daughter
Better not hear you got caught up, I beat yo’ ass
You better not run to your father, I beat yo’ ass
You know my patience runnin’ thin
I got buku payments to make
County building’s on my ass
Tryna take my food stamps away
I beat yo’ ass if you tell them social workers he live here
I beat yo’ ass if I beat yo’ ass twice and you still here
Seven years old, think you run this house by yourself?
Nigga, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else”
I won’t dissect the entire song, but I’ll focus on that first verse because it is yet another testimony of a Black male rapper reflecting back on his mother’s cruelty and how that pain has continued to reside within his body and spirit as a grown man. What it reveals is how a Black boy had to grow up under constant attack, on guard, and unconsciously reacting to his own repressed past.
Sadly, like many young Black males, Lamar’s first experiences with cruelty and humiliation came at the hands of his mother. But unlike other artists before him, Lamar does not celebrate his mother’s cruelty by calling her a “queen,” thanking her for the beatings, and crediting mother-perpetrated violence for his success.
Lamar is different from the Black boys and men that have for generations accepted the internalized “lie” that slavery, Jim Crow, and racist policing practices requires cruelty to protect Black children, especially males, from their own impulses. While his mother tried to conceal her cruelty to justify the beatings, a more honest truth emerges from Lamar’s lyrics: he never associated the beatings and the fear with safety and comfort and love.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Black mothers who whup their sons and terrorize them in early child do not truly realize the damage they are doing. And yet, the racist notions of Black boys as deviant and violent are ultimately reinforced by parents who are doing their best to minimize the stressful realities of poverty, racism, sexism, and inequality.
Like many folks in the Black community, his mother may have rationalized her violence against her son by calling the harsh discipline an expression of love that ultimately kept him safe and led to his success. But this kind of denial and justification, and even much of the joking about being whupped, feeds the cycle of abuse in Black communities and drives the truth about our traumas underground.
Think about Ghostface Killah’s song “Whip You with a Strap,” from his 2006 album Fishscale. He recalls his mother’s response to his temper tantrums:
“Take me across her lap, she used to whip me with a strap
When I was bad
Take me across her lap, she used to whip me with a strap When I was bad Bad
Picture me snotty nose sittin on my aunt’s lap
The kid like 5 or 6 shit I will curse back
I got it from the older folks sittin in the living room
Everybody had cups stylistic song boom
But then came Darryl Mack lightin’ all the reefer up
Baby caught a contact I’m trying to tie my sneaker up
I’m missing all the loops strings going in the wrong holes
It feels like I’m wobbling, look at all these afros
Soon as I thought I was good the joke’s on me
I heard a voice “get in the room, I get angry”
Sting my feet catch a tantrum
Spit, scream, fuck that
Momma shake me real hard, then get the big gat
That’s called the belt help me as I yelled
I’m in the room like (panting)”huh, huh, huh” with mad welps
Ragged out, bad belt yes her presence was felt
Then get my black ass in the bed it’s time crash out (crash out)
Take me across her lap, she used to whip me with a strap
When I was bad
Despite the alcohol, I had a great old Mama
She famous for her slaps and to this day she’s honored
But when I was a lil dude her son was a lil rude
I picked the peas off my plate and pour juice in her nigga food
Get beat, then I’d run and tell grandman “mama hit me for no reason”
She whipped me hard when I finished eatin
And felt that belt stingin after I wet that bed
Hid my drawers and start cryin, when she felt that bed
Caught another when I told her those the fake pro-keds
In the corner weavin and screamin trying to block my head (ahHH!)
Nowadays kids don’t get beat, they get big treats
Fresh pair of sneaks, punishments like have a ceas
Back then when friends and neighbors would bust that ass
And bring you back to your momma she got the switch in the stash
That’s back to back beatings
Only went outside for free lunch with welts on my legs still leakin yo
Take me across her lap, she used to whip me with a strap
When I was bad
While the cruel Black Mama is often placed on a pedestal, innocent black women ultimately become the targets of this repressed rage accumulated since boyhood. As Howard University Law School professor Reginald Robinson has noted, “that cruelty gets repressed, surfacing again as nearly autobiographical lyrics because these artists uncon-sciously need to reveal the truth of their cruel sufferings to others, and they need others like enlightened witnesses to validate their lyric-based personal histories, without at the same time directly confronting their cruel mothers.”
He further explains that these artists, who may not have been touched lovingly as children, become hyper-masculine as a defense mechanism as they relive their painful childhood experiences through their music. They’d never admit to it, but these men really want to assault the mothers who were the first to hurt and emasculate them.
It’s important to emphasize that black men are not born hating black women. It is the trauma they suffer that teaches them the need for self-preservation. But there are very few spaces for black men to talk about their trauma and pain other than through comedy, rap music, or nostalgic anecdotes about being whupped and turning out fine. Even speaking about their abusive experiences at the hands of Black women is often considered misogynistic.
I hope that folks will really listen to each verse of “Fear” and understand how the insanity of white supremacy requires the destruction of Black children physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. And the greatest trick of all is to invite their loved ones to participate in the process.
If we are ever going to become more politically effective warriors in the fight for racial justice, producing children who live with toxic fear in their body is the very last thing that Black America needs.