By Abeni Hill
“I want to make sure people understand that they are not defective.”
That is the message of Resmaa Menakem, a licensed social worker, community activist and author who seeks to heal the Black community through discussions and explorations of trauma and conflict resolution.
Through his work, Menakem analyzes different traumatic situations and how the people who experience these situations cope and survive.
In the 1990s, the social worker organized with Rep. Keith Ellison to provide resources to gang-affiliated youth. While working with these youth, he realized poverty could be considered a traumatic event.
“Historical trauma of a people gets transmitted all the way down and then it looks like culture or personality,” said Menakem.
Menakem said that as time passes, a person who experienced a traumatic event might disassociate the event from the situation in which it occurred. When this happens, the traumatic retention has taken the appearance of the person’s personality or the culture of a people.
When talking about historical trauma, Menakem focused on the enslavement of Black people.
“If you look at it we (Black people) say ‘whooping’ (when disciplining a child) but it is actually from the term whipping (which slaves received),” said Menakem. “It is a traumatic retention from what has been done to the body for 400 years.”
Fast forward from 400 years ago to 2016 and the author explains how the Black community is still plagued with the struggle of ownership over their own bodies.
“It is new that the Black body has been able to do what it wants to do with its own body,” said Menakem. He added that witnessing police brutality through a television screen and social media is a “traumatic reminder that we are still in, not necessarily enslavement, but in danger.”
Menakem also said when these events occur, many people claim that Black people are beginning to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how he thinks that is not the correct term.
“When it comes to Black people we don’t experience post-traumatic stress disorder because post has never happened to the Black body. It is perpetual and persistent stress response,” said Menakem. “Post would say that it stopped. The attack on the Black body has not stopped.”
Menakem urges the Black community to educate themselves on the effects of historical trauma and find solutions to heal as a community.
“We’ve got to start having that discussion in the Black community because it affects how we relate to each other,” said Menakem. He elaborated that this kind of trauma not only affects person-to-person relations, but also how Black people relate to topics such as transgender and homosexuality.
Menakem said along with historical trauma, Black people have been given historical methods of resilience.
“There are things that our people did way back that they passed down to us,” said the activist.
Menakem related experiences of his childhood such as sitting at his grandmother’s lap or when she would hum while she cooked in the kitchen to a scene in the movie “12 Years a Slave.” He sets up the scene of enslaved Africans working in the cotton field on a plantation.
“They’re in the field and in the background you see a wagon that comes past. It’s new people coming to that particular plantation,” said Menakem, who said the enslaved African began to hum as the others were arriving to the field. “I watched it and it hit me.”
He explained the ritual of monks chanting “Om” as one and it relates to the vagus or “wandering nerve.” This cranial nerve is connected to various parts of the body such as the heart, esophagus, and lungs.
“Science has shown that monks get into transcendental meditation (and) vibrate and soothe that vagus nerve.”
Menakem said when monks hum or chant as a group, it creates a sense of togetherness. He believes that is what the enslaved people were doing while they were in the fields and that is how they coped with the traumatizing effects of slavery.
“We did little settling things. We couldn’t stop it from happening, but just a little bit of settling allowed those groups of new people coming –they didn’t know what was happening– to come in and be settled,” said Menakem. “Those are communal things that I think we have to start thinking about.”