With Dalton Harris’ meteoric success on the X Factor and the accompanying controversies which Jamaicans had varied opinions on, his disclosure of childhood abuse and his mother’s response to those disclosures have shone a light on a harmful norm that we historically haven’t been willing to probe. That is, our cultural acceptance of ‘tough love’ parenting (emphasis on the tough) and it’s deleterious effect on the people Jamaican children grow up to be.
How many of us have experienced the manifestations of that favorite saying of Jamaican parents and grandparents, “spare the rod and spoil the child?’ I’d guess plenty. Most Jamaicans have tacitly accepted our traditionally violent methods of child-rearing and parental discipline. Growing up, I remember laying in bed and listening to the wails of another child a couple of houses down who, by the rawness of their screams, was being beaten by a belt. I recognized the sounds because I had experience letting loose those very screams too. Though torturous in an animalistic kind of way, the beatings I received as punishment when I was young didn’t scar me as much as the other forms of cruel discipline myself and other Jamaicans have been victim to.
I’ve seen mothers, who are usually the primary if not single caregiver in a Jamaican home, lace into their progeny with vile expletives delivered with a rage that resembles seething hatred. I’ve heard hungry toddlers told to stop bloodclaat crying. I’ve been on the receiving ends of screeds that I was worthless, dirty, lazy, akin to a dead dog. My mother once told me it wouldn’t be a big deal to her if I killed myself. She once explicitly told me to kill myself. My father was virtually absent. More than once during my adolescence, I was sent to live with relatives and left feeling like I was basically an orphan.Dalton Harris’ revealing profile in The Sun which outlined the abuse he suffered as a child in Jamaica, including being put out on the streets at 15, led me to reflect on my own experience and to wonder how many Jamaicans have similar ones.
Though my grandmother has mellowed in her old age, I know my own mother was raised with a traditional Jamaican strong hand. She likely developed welts of her own from belt beatings, and I’ve heard stories about my grandmother’s explosive admonishments whenever my mother or her siblings committed any transgressions. I fully admit that, as a grandchild, my view of my grandmother may be more rose-colored than that of the children she raised under rough financial circumstances. So, I won’t dismiss the possibility that there’s things she did that may have scarred my mother.
But the larger concern to me is how Jamaicans over the generations have allowed those scars to past down to their own children, unacknowledged, unexamined, and so given free reign to inflict more scars on future children. The scars themselves have their roots in many things: our adherence to the belief that violence is key to raising a child, absent fatherhood and persistent poverty that makes for simmering discontent and hair trigger tempers, the idea that children are to be seen and not heard, our bias towards believing decisions made by parents are just and unassailable. And though the consequences of the absent father have been much discussed, the archetypal mother is so revered in Jamaica and around the world that there’s not much nuance to account for the many who far from live up to the idealistic depictions of motherhood.
In the day ahead of Dalton’s most high-stakes appearance on The X Factor, his mother gave a video interview to The Jamaica Star where she laments Dalton’s public disclosure of the physical and emotional pain he was subjected to as a child. She demonstrated a sort of anguish in front of the camera, as she groused at him for painting her badly by discussing his truths. Though Dalton’s interview with The Sun about his abuse detailed both the physical and mental scars it left behind (“When people tell you to go and kill yourself, after a couple of years you feel like you probably should,” he admitted), his mother told The Star she didn’t think she should apologize. She admitted telling her child to go stand in front of a truck so he could be run over, but believes that is ‘scolding’ that ‘people move past’. This kind of cruel, dehumanizing ‘scolding’ is something that I suspect many Jamaican people–myself included–have received from the people who brought them into this world and are formative in their development from child to full-fledged adult.
Are we really that naive to believe our people have largely ‘gotten over’ the cruelty that too often characterizes our childhoods? To not question the wisdom of our parenting customs, many of them harmful, is a self-indulgence we can’t afford and that future Jamaican children can’t either. The proof of this can be seen in the culture of violence which successive Jamaican governments have struggled in vain to mitigate. Our people are undeniably quick to anger and disconcertingly comfortable with depravity and brutality. An argument can turn deadly at the drop of a hat. A disagreement between families or neighbors can escalate into a house being firebombed. Whether you’ve been on the receiving end of these performances of rage or carried out a degree of it on your own, it’s clear we’re a nation of the walking wounded.
But why wouldn’t we be? Our hereditary pains have barely been examined because for the most part no one wants to acknowledge them. And so the connection of those pains to the pain we continue to inflict on each other is uninterrogated. Jamaican parents don’t want to admit to any wrong they may have done to their children, though there’s no perfect person or parent on earth. For their children who still grapple with the deeply ingrained by-products of their complicated childhoods, it’s difficult to move beyond it when you’re told what happened isn’t significant enough to apologize for.
I struggle with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I’ve been to enough therapists to understand my debilitating sense of self-hate can be traced to a childhood of being told I was unlikable and worthless. Understanding that the past cannot be changed and my mother was likely suffering from hang ups from her own childhood, I would find an apology–though admittedly symbolic–incredibly healing.
Because it would affirm that what I went through was wrong. It would acknowledge that as a child I was vulnerable and still had person-hood, and that no person deserves to be emotionally decimated at the whim of their parent’s extenuating circumstances. It would be an admission that the pain I feel isn’t baseless, that the trauma I still struggle to overcome isn’t a fiction of my imagination.
But that apology and acknowledgement has never come. Instead it’s sidestepped in favor of reiterating what I benefited positively from–being clothed and fed for most of my childhood, and being the recipient of my mother’s dedicated investment in my education which undoubtedly enriched who I am as a person.
Similarly, in an interview with Loop News Sylvia Campbell disavowed responsibility for any of the emotional upheaval that Dalton says he felt as a result of being abused, but declared responsibility for his talent and success (“He is a star but me a the first star. Ah my belly blessed.”)
Though both can be true—that a parent deeply hurt their child and that a parent was also beneficial to the child in other ways—dismissing the former and implying only the latter matters is cowardly, nonsensical, and detrimental to us all. Dalton’s victory on The X Factor stage wasn’t the result of him being made homeless at 15 or encouraged to commit suicide. He succeeded because he was scrappy and fought back against the limiting narratives he was told about himself. That’s a hard won battle that survivors of child abuse often spend their whole lives grappling with. Alongside every story of overcoming is the silent suffering of Jamaicans still shackled with trauma of their childhood. Providing for a child is a responsibility you choose when you bring them into this world. Providing for their emotional well-being, or at least not being the person who eviscerates it, is another another responsibility you take on when you conceive a human being.
How much has our deliberate dismissal of that second half of the parenting equation hobbled Jamaican society? How much has our concerted refusal to acknowledge, assess, and disrupt the emotional trauma passed down through many of our families robbed us of our growth as a nation and as a people? We can’t be cruel to the most vulnerable among us, and then be surprised at the cruelty we group up and show each other–up to and including the bloodletting that takes place in our streets.
Though it was unfortunate that Dalton’s triumphant stint on The X Factor stage was clouded by a public dissection of the complex relationship with his mother, I’m hoping his bravery and our shared pride in his win will inspire more Jamaican families to have those difficult conversations in their own homes. Let’s not leave our aching hurts buried, and let’s not exhort others to do so, because what’s buried but not dealt with comes out in damaging ways. Let’s not urge for forgiveness while forgetting to call for the acknowledgement and healing that gives birth to any lasting form of it. Every society must periodically reflect on what it’s ‘always done’ to see if it’s working towards or against the betterment of its people. An honest reckoning of the relationship between Jamaican parents and their children, along with meaningful reconciliations based on shared respect and empathy, is a critical component in crafting the Jamaica we hope to be.