I started reading Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands last week. It is fantastic. I’m only a couple chapters in. As much as I wanted to pour through it all weekend, each chapter is punctuated with several somatic exercises, and he asks that you do them as you read. This book is not to be devoured, as much as absorbed intimately and progressively. Through “titration” in the vernacular of Somatic Experiencing--which is one of the modalities Resmaa is certified in and informs his approach in this book.
Resmaa Menakem is a trauma expert and his work is centers healing trauma in individual bodies and collective bodies. My Grandmother’s Hands is about understanding and healing trauma caused by white body supremacy in Black, white, and police bodies. I don’t know what the invitation is for non-Black POC readers, and maybe that will come later in the book, I’ve been curious.
The first couple of chapters feel like a timely answer to my yearning for a way to engage with my ancestors. Resmaa talks about white-body supremacy as a trauma inflicted on Black, Indigenous, and POC bodies, yes, but also on and through white bodies. The thing about trauma is, is that it’s not just traumatizing to be a victim of physical or systemic violence, it is also traumatic to witness and perpetrate violence. Trauma is not rational, and it cannot be willed away by the thinking mind. It is embedded in the body and is passed around to each other and down through generations. The only way to stop the continual reproduction of trauma is to see that it is there and heal/metabolize it.
The first chapters of the book have journal prompts to help readers begin to trace lineages of trauma in their family lines, and meditations to engage in the somatic relationship we have to an ancestor. In the chapter on white body trauma Resmaa traces the brutality of the first colonizers of america to the brutality of britain in the middle ages. These were traumatized people fleeing poverty and violence, which they inflicted first on each other and then externalized onto the bodies of Indigenous people and Black people.
I’m continuing my research on my ancestral lines and using the journaling prompts from the book to inform my approach. I feel like I’ve gotten most of the autobiographical information I’ll be able to get from ancestry.com and now I’m looking for historical information to give framing. I’m beginning to write stories of why they left their homes in the first place and what was happening in America as they built their lives here. I am also working with dreams to get clues.
Before I began really thinking about my ancestors or doing any of this research I had a surprising dream. This dream was at the very beginning of the quarantine, mid-March. I frequently have vivid dreams and I have a lifelong practice of recording them. I believe dreams are a very meaningful piece in understanding ourselves, our history, and our world, in a way that synthesizes the material and spiritual realms.
In this dream I was in a medieval european setting, a town with wooden structures and dirt roads. We were wearing brown felted clothes. I was myself. There were many poor desperate people in this time, it was a time of starvation and suffering. In my dream a queen was offering the poor to come have a last decadent meal and then be killed publicly by sword. People knew the agreement and many were lining up to participate. It was considered a necessity and people across classes considered it to be a good and moral thing to do and offer.
My thought process in the dream was that I was outraged and disgusted, but then there was another voice in me that was encouraging some kind of moral relativity. Encouraging me to consider the situation from another perspective, to not jump to conclusions, and be open-minded to what the masses seem to be agreeing on. It is a feeling I know really well in my waking life.
I can have very fixed moral outrage about things and I actually work hard to try and not hold them so sharply, to understand things from another perspective. Is it morally reprehensible to shop on Amazon, to buy fast fashion, to fly in an airplane, to work in tech, to eat meat? We live in a world where the basis of our collective exchange--the economy--is built on racism, brutality, exploitation. I realize that the individualistic avoidance of complicity is a sort of purist illusion that would be more functionally channeled into collective struggle. But still I struggle with knowing that there is no way to completely avoid participating in the harm our collective systems perpetuate. It’s all so uneasy.
And it makes sense that I was especially feeling this at the beginning of the quarantine. The way the pandemic immediately amplified existing inequities of our system. The narrative of disaster, emergency, and pandemic, turning to the expansion of reliance on cheap conveniences that are afforded on the backs of underpaid, largely BIPOC workers who are now the ones bearing the brunt of this virus. To me this feels exactly like the dominant class demanding bodily sacrifice and framing it as morally right, or at least neutral and unavoidable.
The feeling I remember most distinctly in the dream was how specific the setting was. I’d never dreamed of this place before, and I don’t normally have “historical fiction” settings in my dreams. I don’t have a clear mental image of medieval times, whatever I do have it's probably an amalgam of Game of Thrones and King Arthur stories, and this place was different from those places. I’m not going to say that I was necessarily channeling a real memory of an ancestor, but I do think there are clues to what in my lineage was speaking through to me in that dream. I’m left tracing the answers to… What were my ancestors doing in times of brutality, in europe and in america? What was the woman in my family line, who’s heart protested injustice, thinking and doing? How did it feel in her body to witness, experience, perpetrate violence? What of those fragments are left over in me?
To live in our world is to cause harm, there’s no way around it, but at the least we can not do it so innocently. We can work to understand the systems we’re in and how we got here. We can join collective struggles for change and slowly, progressively, continually heal our cultural, ancestral, and individual bodies from the many converging traumas of empire culture.
By the way, I’d like to offer a distinction around my inquiry, as the relationship of ancestral work and anti-racism is something I will continue to talk about. I want to reinforce that looking at this type of trauma, the trauma of white people, does not excuse white supremacy behavior and systems past or present, and deconstructing white body trauma is not a substitute for anti-racism work. White communities can only do anti-racism work in accountability with BIPOC communities. I do think that investigating the roots of white supremacy aids us in doing anti-racism work, as does unearthing the feminist, land-based, and otherwise harmonious traditions of European people. I definitely intend for my research and sharing to aid myself and those I connect with in anti-racism work, which is fundamental to deconstructing empire-culture. But I don’t claim to be teaching anti-racism, that is not my place.
Resources from this entry
Resmaa Menakem is a trauma expert and his work is centers healing historical and racialized trauma in individual bodies and collective bodies. You can get a sense of his work in the free 5-day Racialized Trauma Course he offers on his website. And check out his book My Grandmother’s Hands, preferably not on Amazon, yeah?
And more on this soon, but I also just started reading, A Dream Map to the Sixth Sun by Eleanor Barron Druckrey, and am taking a class with her through Ancestral Apothecary. Lots of interesting threads around dreaming as a pathway to ancestors, in the tradition mostly of indigenous Mesoamerican culture, but also how that interplayed with Spanish and other European traditions.
[photo i took at the beginning of quarantine (???) ]