***discaimer*** I am not assuming that all people of color, or people who have had cycles of abuse within their family line, are currently affected by historical/transgenerational trauma. This isn't an "all or nothing" discussion, and is purely based off of my interactions with clients and my personal viewpoint on life. I completely understand that many people don't feel connected to this narrative at all, and that's okay!
Last week I met with a client for the first session. He was articulate, friendly, and seemed like the kind of person whose present day life was "all together" (whatever that means, right? Because um none of us have it all together but I digress). As he talked, it was obvious he wasn't quite sure what it was that brought him in other than an unsettled, disconnected feeling that he couldn't put his finger on.
We meditated on each chakra to see what was there. As he opened his eyes, he cried as he sensed the disconnect he felt with his root chakra. The root signifies our connection to our tribe, to the earth, to our family, it's all about where we came from. This young black man knows and loves his family, but felt a deep pain in his being of disconnection from his ancestry.
That session was so powerful to me, especially because I rarely hear people having this conversation about the real live present day impact of historical trauma. It's almost like it's become such a normal part of life that we aren't fully aware of it.
Historical trauma is defined as “a constellation of characteristics associated with massive cumulative group trauma across generations” (Brave Heart, 1999).
“The sign of ultimate oppression working is when the oppressor can take away his hands, stand back and say ‘look at what they’re doing to themselves.’”— Jessica Gourneau, Ph.D.
What this means is individuals can feel the impact of trauma that has been transmitted down through generations, even if that individual didn't directly experience the trauma! A person may internalize emotional abuse and a sense of unworthiness, and unknowingly pass this down to their children directly or indirectly; we mirror behaviors that we grow up seeing, and without consciously knowing, can continue these patterns throughout generations. For people of color, we still have present day systems that re-enact the oppression that "ended" 140 years ago, which only reinforces this cycle.
In the case of my client, as we got in touch with where he was feeling the most pain, he talked about feeling a disconnection of "where he came from", and felt that even the language he uses daily isn't his own but he has no awareness of what his native tongue is. In that moment, it was as if he was grieving the pain of his ancestors. The forceful kidnapping of Africans for slavery was making it's presence known in his being, and made it's way into the room with us.
It made me think about how many other ways this historical trauma plays out in our day to day, particularly as people of color. If we looked at the history of black people in America as the lifetime of one person, the timeline may sound as follows:
A child is kidnapped from their home, where they had a strong sense of culture, pride, and identity. They are forcefully taken to a new unfamiliar place where they are abused in all different ways. As they grow older, they learn that the way to survive is to assimilate to the people in power, which sometimes means denying their own identity and even degrading parts of their culture that they originated from. As they grow into an adult, they begin to question the way they were treated and are still being treated. Even then, they are accused of "playing the black card", experience microaggressions in their daily lives, and their experiences are often dismissed or minimized. They quietly repress these emotions in a continued effort to survive in a space that was not necessarily created for them.
The person above will still get things done. He/she will still be able to love, create, evolve, and rise. BUT, that doesn't mean that these struggles aren't real and that they shouldn't be talked about, and that there isn't real healing work to do.
I share this (very very oversimplified) narrative not because I think that there hasn't been progress, and not to emit an "us" versus "them" dialogue, but because I think sometimes it's ignored because it's uncomfortable to talk about: slavery was only legally ended about 140 years ago and that there are still very real effects in Americans' daily life. Part of the nature of abuse and trauma is to often deny the seriousness of what happened. It can be really painful to acknowledge what's happened. But healing is often calling what's happened out of the shadows into the light so that it can be repaired.
This intergenerational/historical trauma can happen in a variety of ways; cycles of abuse handed down through generations carried by a tide of secrecy and shame. Cycles of addiction as a means to cope with pain that noone talks about openly. These hand me down pains that we give and we get.
There is no clean cut way to have an answer to these problems, because they are deep rooted. But I have hope that cycles can be ended. I see the work being done in my community, and think of generations to come that will not have the same hand me down hurts because of the work that's being done. How powerful is that? That we have come to a place that we can heal the pains of our ancestors, and that many people are being called to repeat the healing work of their ancestors; we are here because of them and their resilience, and can simultaneously begin new cycles of healing and end cycles of pain.
And when we were done with our session, I could feel that he felt lighter. I saw that he had a level of awareness that connected him not only to his struggle but to himself as a whole. Healing happens when community and connection is created not despite pain, but including pain. I'm grateful to have witnessed his level of pain but also his level of connection to himself, because it reminded me of how resilient the human spirit is.
Here's to paying attention to what hurts so you can heal it,