By now, we have all heard (or heard about) a leaked, threatening and expletive-laced phone conversation between the Grammy award-winning gospel artist Kirk Franklin and his estranged, 32-year-old son Kerrion. Both Kirk and Kerrion Franklin have admitted to a strained relationship, and in an advance clip from an episode of Tamron Hall’s talk show, Franklin offered a bit of a backstory on the argument between himself and his son. According to Franklin, his son has had a toxic relationship with his family for many years—beginning in his teens. The performer, and his wife Tammy Collins, claim that Kerrion has been in and out of counseling for over 20 years.
Responses to the leaked call between the father and son have varied throughout social media spaces, with some people calling out what transpired on the phone call as verbal and emotional abuse and demanding that Franklin be held accountable for his actions against his son, Others are claiming that Kirk Franklin was well within his right to address his son so aggressively because Kerrion is an adult who had been disrespectful to his father.
I have no interest in canceling Kirk Franklin. Anytime Black folks throw around the idea of “canceling” someone within our community, I pose the question that feminist, abolitionist author and activist adrienne maree brown offers in her latest book We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice, “Can we release our binary ways of thinking about good and bad in order to collectively grow from mistakes?” I am much less interested in what is happening within the Franklin family (since this is a personal matter that has become public spectacle, and the family deserves the privacy, time and space to work through it); I am much more interested in addressing what I see as an ongoing issue within Black families and Black communities—the normalization and rationalization of abuse.
To be clear, Kirk Franklin did verbally assault his son in that leaked phone conversation, and we should do more to recognize and interrupt verbal, emotional and mental abuse—as a community—when we see it. Yes, Kerrion Franklin has a strained relationship with his family—the depth of which we do not know. Yes, Kirk Franklin has a right to be upset if his son continually dishonors him (as he claims). But we should never okay abuse, and regardless of whether Kerrion Franklin is an adult or not— there is a power dynamic at play between him and his father where Kirk holds the most powerful position. He even admits when speaking with Tamron Hall, “I respect Kerrion. I’m not Kerrion’s equal though… I’m his dad.” The question becomes, how can we expect to be treated as authority figures in relationships with our children, without also owning our responsibility to guide (and even correct them) while leaving them physically, mentally and emotionally intact.
I made the decision early in my parenting journey that I would work to not physically discipline or verbally berate my child after reading bell hooks’ seminal book All About Love: New Visions, where the scholar and author reminded me how much it can confuse children when their primary caregivers—who are charged with loving and molding them—also harm them through physical and psychological abuse. hooks writes in All About Love…:
Most psychologically and/or physically abused children have been taught by parenting adults that love can coexist with abuse. And in extreme cases that abuse is an expression of love. This faulty thinking often shapes our adult perceptions of love. So that just as we would cling to the notion that those who hurt us as children loved us, we try to rationalize being hurt by other adults by insisting that they love us.
Our collective response to the leaked call between Kerrion Franklin and his father, and what should obviously be recognized as a moment of verbal and psychological abuse tells me that many of us need to reconsider how we define abuse, and why any kind of abuse is deemed acceptable in our families and communities. Dr. Racine R. Henry, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist—and owner of Sankofa Marriage and Family Therapy, PLLC, believes that we have become comfortable with violence and abuse within our communities. She shares, “For most people, abuse is only defined as unprovoked, incessant, extreme physical violence. Rarely do we break down the intricacies of abuse being enacted with words, neglect, or mental trauma.” Dr. Henry adds, “I also believe that we overlook abuse as being what it is because in the criminal justice system, Black victims and survivors of abuse or violence rarely see any justice.” Joi K. Madison, a professor of psychology and a clarity coach whose work centers on trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, believes that we must examine the ways we define abuse by also examining our collective past and current experiences:
Whenever we talk about sociocultural conditioning in the Black community, in general, it has to be viewed through the context of our history in this country. The type of treatment that is classified as abuse, in general, is seen by Black parents as preparing the child for the “real world.” The idea being, the world is not going to care about your feelings, the world has no problem stripping you of your humanity, the world will often vilify you and view you as a threat and, as your parent, it’s my job to protect you from and prepare you for what you will face out there. [As a result] the people who are meant to care for and nurture [Black children], become their predators.
Joi K. Madison also believes that we collectively struggle to see Kerrion Franklin as a victim of abuse because he is an adult:
Adulthood is often conflated with maturity. So, when a person becomes an adult, again, there’s this idea that they should know better. This ideology doesn’t account for the fact that there are a lot of wounded children parading around in adult bodies. They present as “grown” or mature but still have the emotional processes of a youth.”
Dr.Henry also reminds us that children represent the most obvious representation of innocence, and since Kerrion is an adult we believe that he should be able to defend himself against his father’s abuse, or return that abuse. “What we are forgetting”, she says, “is that you never outgrow being your parents’ child.”
Ultimately, we have to recognize that many of us cannot identify or address the abuse Kerrion Franklin experienced, because many of us experienced the same kinds of abuse at the hands of our parental figures, and we believe we turned out fine. Lisa Butler, who is a licensed clinical social worker and who specializes in helping individuals and families heal from trauma, believes that there are not enough safe spaces for Black folks to process and heal historical and racial trauma, let alone their own interpersonal traumas. “Many of my clients normalize invalidation, manipulation, narcissism, and abusive behaviors from parents. And sometimes perpetuate the behaviors within their own families.” She adds that many within Black communities believe that ““fine” means I’m still above ground.”
If we are honest, many of us are not fine. Many of us need to reckon with the myriad kinds of abuses we have faced and continue to face while navigating the world as Black people. And some of us need to seek to heal the inner child within in us who might still believe that we were abused because we were loved, to ensure that we do not continue that cycle in our own love relationships.
Josie Pickens is an educator, writer, cultural critic and community activist. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram: @jonubian.
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