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MY GRANDMOTHER’S HANDS, A Book Review

by Resmaa Menakem

2017, Central Recovery Press


Minneapolis author and licensed social worker, Resmaa Menakem, adds a critical contribution to America’s ongoing conversation about racial equity from his perspective as a trauma therapist in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands.


Why is it, Menakem asks, that after the past three decades of trying address racial equity and white supremacy issues we are still largely unsuccessful? We’ve used “reason, principles, and ideas—using dialogue, forums, discussions, education and mental training.” Yet there still seems to be as much of a chasm between whites and people of color, and between the police and people of color.


Menakem believes that


"… we’ve focused our efforts in the wrong direction. We’ve tried to teach our brains to think better about race. But white-body supremacy doesn’t live in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies.


"Our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our cognitive brains. This knowledge is typically experienced as a felt sense of constriction or expansion, pain or ease, energy or numbness. Often this knowledge is stored in our bodies as wordless stories about what is safe and what is dangerous. The body is where we fear, hope and react, where we constrict and release; and where we reflexively fight, flee, or freeze. If we are to upend the status quo of white-body supremacy, we must begin with our bodies."


When I first read these words I must admit that this perspective on racial equity issues was new for me. But the more I read the more it made sense to me. To be clear, Menakem is not saying that a focus on our bodies will solve the racial equity problems we face as a nation. But he is advocating that including a discussion on how trauma—past and present—effects our perspectives and shapes our unconscious reactions, especially within our bodies—is part of the solution.


As a fan of Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child I appreciate Child’s depictions of how Reacher’s “lizard-brain” begins to kick in at the first whiff of danger, long before the danger becomes readily apparent to the regular folks around him. As a retired Army Major in the Military Police, Jack Reacher has long developed these lizard-brain skills in his military policing career. It’s what’s kept him alive through multiple harrowing situations.


Menakem also talks about the lizard-brain function that’s alive in each one of us, developed over millennia of human history and interaction, that has kept us and our species alive and on top of the food-chain, so to speak. But it’s also what sometimes drives our knee-jerk reactions to people who look different from us, speak differently, act differently, and come from a different culture than us. Part of any resolution to racial equity needs to acknowledge these natural instincts in ourselves rather than pretend they don’t exist.


I found that the most significant insights from Menakem’s book, however, lie in understanding what the long-term effects of trauma do to our bodies, to our “soul-nerve” as he prefers to call it, or simply to “our gut.” In other words, that place that is our “inner self” that is the composite of our physical body, our autonomous nervous system, our brain and its ability to reason, our ability to empathize, our capacity to experience emotions—all of it.


Mekanem weaves together insights from the latest advances in psychology, neuroscience and psychobiology that “reveal that our deepest emotions—love, fear, anger, dread, fried, sorrow, disgust, and hope—involve the activation of our bodily structures,” not just our brains.


Think of PTSD for example, such as the post-traumatic stress of soldiers who return home from war and experience great difficulty readjusting to civilian life after being trained to be keenly aware of danger lurking around every corner and having to react with split-second decisiveness in order to stay alive. PTSD is experienced in their whole body, not just in their brain. Or the woman who experiences a rape at the hands of an aggressor and now has great difficulty trusting men in general or even just being able to relax in her home and feel safe. Or a police officer who works every day in a high-crime-prone neighborhood, constantly on edge, and because of the “macho” culture of many police forces is not able to effectively release this “trauma” energy in healthy ways. Is it any wonder, asks Menakem, that many of our officers are walking traumatic-stress-bombs that, given the wrong situation at the wrong time, can blow up as an enormous over-reaction to an everyday incident?


Menakem spends much of the book helping the reader understand “body trauma” within three groups of people: white people, black people and the police. Menakem has worked with several police departments in America and other countries and has a brother who works for the Dallas Police Department. His understanding of what police live through on a daily basis not only gives his work credibility but helps the reader better understand what’s going on inside the bodies, minds and cultures of our law enforcement officers.


In a similar way to the police, white people have their own trauma to work through. Really? “White-body trauma?” you might wonder. But think back for a moment, to January 6, to what happened at the Capital of the United States of America, and ask yourself, what was it that drove so many to act so violently? Or think back to 2017, to Charlottesville, Virginia… what was it that drove so many right-wing nationalists to exercise such extreme actions of hatred? Or think back to the 1920 lynching of 3 African Americans in Duluth, Minnesota and ask yourself… what was it that drove a gigantic mob of white people to storm the local jail, grab three black men, hold a kangaroo court, and then lynch them, while thousands stood by and watched, in silent complicity, as these African Americans hung in the town square?


It’s not only black bodies, Menakem believes, that carry the heavy weight of past trauma from slavery, rape, family separation, being sold and bought like cattle, being whipped and beaten for minor infractions, being “owned” by other human beings, being born into slavery without having any possibility of escaping it, living under a different set of “laws” from which white folks lived. No—it’s white bodies too.


Menakem urges us to think back further, to the middle ages in Europe … when most white people lived under a brutal feudal system where food was often scarce, the life expectancy was barely more than 40 years, birth rates were high to ensure the family would survive, and most lived as paupers under the “protection” of a wealthy land-owner who WAS the only law that people could appeal to. Fear and intimidation was the best way for these “Lords” to keep people in line and to maintain and expand their land and wealth. Menakem reminds us that in towns across Europe it would not have been unusual for people to see decapitated heads of criminals posted on city gates and bodies hung from posts or trees near the city gates as a reminder to all to “take heed.” It would also not have been uncommon for a public execution to attract large mobs of (white) people to witness the spectacle of someone being tortured for their crime, or pulled apart by four horses. (Uggh—it’s difficult for me to even think about such things.)


What do centuries and centuries of that kind of everyday experience do to the bodies and brains of human beings—to white people? What lingering effect do these families who emigrate from Europe to America carry with them as they try to escape religious persecution, or oppressive living conditions, or severe poverty where there was not enough food produced on the land to keep everyone alive? What do the young entrepreneurial types who saw an opportunity and wanted to become rich carry with them, having learned the effective tools of intimidation and fear from Europe’s rich? Consider millennia after millennia of just surviving as human beings—those who have survived have developed the sharpest senses of detecting danger with their refined “lizard-brains,” over and over. What kind of people emerge from this history, even those who are “religious?” It’s not hard to begin to understand the deep-rooted sub-conscious trauma that whites carry with them too.


I found Menakem’s unearthing of the history of all three groups of people that he focuses on—whites, blacks, and police—to shed new light on the issues of racial equity that we as a nation continue to wrestle with. But far from simply leaving the reader holding the bag with these new perspectives, Menakem spends the bulk his book on offering ways to heal and move through our white-body, black-body, and police-body trauma. He points out that the trauma of each group is somewhat different from the other two, and of course, the way “through” the pain of each group’s trauma is also somewhat different, although there is much overlap.


Near the end of his book Menakem resists the temptation to offer a slick “Top Ten Ways to Heal Your Trauma” To-Do list as a way for Americans to resolve our issues of racial equity. He firmly believes that each group must do the hard work of acknowledging the trauma that each carries—both individually and collectively (as whites, as blacks and as law-enforcement officers)—and then find ways to heal it. For whites, that may mean even creating new forms of an anti-white-supremacy culture, which no longer depends on traumatizing people of color as a primary way to deal with the trauma that we carry with us in our collective histories and experiences.


I also found instructive his suggestions for how black people might attend to their healing, and what police departments (as well as individual cops) might do to move from an “occupying force” model to a “protect and serve” model on their way to becoming much healthier and happier individuals who might once again enjoy the trust that their communities are truly looking for.

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