I love learning who people were before their entrance into adulthood, hearing the stories that tether them to their childhoods, and introduce you into their world. I often wonder how our worlds may differ. About two years ago, I asked my grandmother about her parents and their relationship with her siblings. What she told me altered the way I viewed my great-grandparents’ relationship with one another.
While reminiscing about stories of easier days with her siblings, she mentioned the abuse within their relationship. The abuse inflicted on my great-grandmother, both physical and emotional, became a daily occurrence. She would make comments like, “You didn’t mess with Daddy,” she spoke about him with high esteem and courage. I knew that old forsaken rule greeted her in Black families; to stay in a child’s place. My grandmother’s response resembled other elders in the Black community, alluding to the idea that the abuse they witnessed was a rite of passage. My grandmother never elaborated on that experience, though I know she carries some of those scars along with her, presenting themselves in other facets. I’ve always wondered how the trauma of one person’s past can wreak havoc on an entire generation if left to linger.
Generations before my grandmothers dealt with racial trauma, while some experienced parents/ grandparents who endured the cruelty of slavery. “Despite being currently five to six generations removed from slavery, the trauma of enslavement was so severe that it implanted a psychological and social shock in the minds of Black people.” (The Effects of Racial Trauma on Mental Health: Deaths Captured on TV and Media). This added to the number of generations unable to talk about the trauma of being Black in America. Emotionally scarred adults who were once unable to process the woe of their pasts are now reckoning with their inner selves. Roughly, “57% of Black Americans experienced chronic depression with more acute symptoms compared with a rate of 39% among Whites.”(African American Health and Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome: A Terror Management Theory Account – Michael J. Halloran, 2019) How many generations must suffer before we collectively identify our mental and emotional health struggles?
At my first therapy session, I had to lie to my mother about where I was going. Though I frequently visit healthcare facilities, this appointment was different for an illness many cannot see. Black families can’t fathom healing and seeking guidance from someone not within the family circle. The stigma “towards people who live with mental health conditions is pervasive within the U.S. and can be particularly strong within the Black community. One study showed that 63% of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness. As a result, people may experience shame about having a mental illness and worry that they may be discriminated against due to their condition.” (African Americans). So I was fearful of telling her the real reason I was seeking therapy. Endless questions of “Why would you tell a stranger all our business?” The stigma of Black people receiving treatment for the years of trauma inflicted continues to be a taboo topic. Colonialism stunted the Black family structure to perpetuate the idea that we cannot navigate a white world. Instead, we attempt to defy the odds while living in a world inaccessible to us.
From chattel slavery, through Jim Crow, well into the Crack epidemic, Black families attempt to divert their gaze from our pain and suffering into work ethic and family structure. I empathize and acknowledge the tremendous chore of being Black and raising Black children in this country. However, we need to identify and rectify our ability to heal together. I remember a friend telling me how her mother would brag about her to friends and family but scold her so badly at home she would endure a panic attack. Could it be the weight of being the eldest daughter? Or maybe the need to excel in school while juggling being a caretaker at home? Young adults feel more like performers than the author of their stories. But what can be done? To find the healing we all crave so deeply, it must start within the home. We must survey parts of ourselves that require a gentle touch. Identifying those areas in our lives that cause immense pain may help redirect those old feelings.
I am only two generations removed from the Jim Crow era, yet the thoughts and ideals inflicted upon me from my parents mimicked parenting styles of the past. For instance, I know many young Black children come home to parents having expectations and quotas to meet as though our mere existence is to please and serve them. Our parents go into an unjust system that they can’t possibly fight alone. To then come home emotionally unavailable, carrying the weight of the world upon their shoulders. We have the tools to free our families from years of trauma, abuse, and neglect, but finding the courage to access those tools is the most challenging step.
I believe many of us desire to heal because we see the potential. But how can a community of people ever really be connected if we never address the trauma inflicted upon us? But yet, I remain hopeful. May the years that have yet to come to bring us healing, joy, and the ability to rest safely.