A timely piece by Terrence McCoy in the Washington Post recently highlighted the rise and fall of 43 year-old Toya Graham, heralded, “The Baltimore Mom”. Graham rose to instant celebrity when she tracked her masked teenaged son down near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore among a crowd, reportedly throwing rocks at the police in the midst of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray riots. Gray was the 25 year old black man who died on April 19, 2015 of a mysterious spinal chord injury a week after being taken into custody by the Baltimore Police Department. After recognizing her son in the crowd, “The Baltimore Mom” attacked her son with a flurry of slaps to the head as she tried to unmask him in front of television cameras. For her actions she was widely heralded as a “hero”.
This story is yet another example of our society’s tendency to ignore real issues in favor of what will evoke the most emotional response, and garner the most headlines. McCoy’s piece is an interesting retrospect regarding the aftermath of Graham’s instant celebrity, and how ironically things stay the same despite grand promises of change, and a whole lot of noise.
When the media set its eyes upon the Toya Graham story, little to no interest was sparked regarding the most obvious societal questions permeating both the riots and the peaceful protests that ensued: What has led to the generational depression of a large segment of Baltimore city for decades, when the city around it is blooming and transforming? What are the obstacles presented by persistent and pervasive single motherhood in economically depressed urban areas? Why was “The Baltimore Mom’s” son participating in the riots – and does it matter? Is there ever a legitimate reason in a civilized society for anyone to “riot” in response to prolonged systematic abuse, neglect, and even perhaps murder? How do race, class and gender influence the positive or negative perceptions we had of “The Baltimore Mom’s” public violence against her teenage son? Is there a certain amount of violence and depression that is considered “acceptable” and “normal” in communities of color – even for those of us that consider ourselves “liberal”?
Unfortunately, most journalists, and most of society, took the bait – the easy route, and never delved genuinely an deeply into any of the above questions. We flocked to the sensationalism of violence in a familiar paradigm – violence by and against brown faces, mysteriously lauded and very acceptable by our society in selected circumstances. Where are those who cheered her now? What have they done to provide any opportunity or education for this particular family or their community? What discourse did they shepherd by challenging us to dissect not only the impetus behind the riots, but also the dynamic that led to “The Baltimore Mom’s” plight? What effect did their applause have on the greater good of similarly situated single mother’s, and their young sons living every day in the concrete jungles of urban America? Is “tough love” the panacea missing from black America?
Eventually, Graham came to the realizaton that she and her son had been used. Used up by a sensationalist media and tossed away, no longer good for selling nespapers, garnering internet hits, or advancing a pre-established social and political narrative. Their purpose was served. And just like before the riots that made them known to the world, their lives no longer matter.