Ancestral Trauma

“For America to outgrow the bondage of white-body supremacy, white Americans need to imagine themselves in Black, red, and brown bodies and experience what those bodies had to endure. They also need to do the same with the bodies of their own white ancestors.”

Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands

My mother still tells about the time she noticed her own hands had become like Grandmother Moore’s: tapered fingers extending from webs of thick, cord-like veins. Strong, capable hands of a woman who was elegant but hardworking. She is proud of them.

I may have them too. And I think about that every time I pick up Menakem’s book.

It’s taken me over a year to finally begin reading it. I kept putting the book down because I couldn’t commit to doing the exercises, which involve tuning into your physical responses to memories and stories of racialized trauma, particularly those enacted by violent white bodies.

As a survivor of trauma by an aggressive white body, I feel sick sometimes when I read Menakem’s instructions to pursue additional means of subjecting myself to it, even if only through my imagination. I’m already haunted.

Another thing that makes Menakem’s book difficult for me is the assumption that I know who my ancestors were, based on the color of my skin. I have some names on my mother’s side, and some recent DNA clues to my paternity, and yes I can summon them in my imagination. But I’m also triggered by the process of diving into that abyss of unknowing, as well as by the gynecological impossibility of his otherwise uplifting promise: that by healing my epigenetic trauma I can pass on my emotional health and healthy genes to later generations.

I think it’s important for me to document that I’m carrying those things with me into his process of somatic healing. Because my body is responding with anxiety to many of the prompts, but not always for the reasons assumed, making it hard to parse the experience–and re-traumatizing me in ways that don’t seem important enough, in the grand scheme of things, to make me stop and yet still do matter, at least to me personally.

So today I lit a candle and did pranayama and then the exercise on page 53, inviting the presence of an ancestor (he suggests imagining someone at least as distant as a great-grandparent) and observing my body’s response to that imagined encounter.

I found myself feeling anxious, visualizing old portraits that hung in my house growing up, of people I have to keep reminding myself aren’t actually my ancestors anymore. And I remembered we never really had ancestral portraits or even photographs, much, of my mother’s people. Just descriptions told over tea, like about my mother’s hands or her mother’s eyes. The paintings were of my father’s grandparents. The old photographs too. So I tried emptying my mind to summon an unknown character but then finally settled on an image I remembered from the algorithmic “Thru Lines” feature of ancestry.com, which shares a gallery of ancestors from people with DNA matches and ancestral trees that align with yours to help you locate more potential connections. There’s a ghostlike image from that collection of a woman with piercing eyes.

DNA - Elizabeth Palmatier v3

Her name is Elizabeth and she may be my fourth great-grandmother.

After imagining the person, Menakem guides you to sense or observe: “Does the ancestor seem safe and settled? Happy? Fearful? Depressed?”

Then “. . . [H]ow does your body feel in her presence? Does it feel comforted? Welcomed? Loved? Relaxed? Wary? Afraid?  Constricted?”

Wary.

I do not see myself at all in this person. And she frightens me.

I’m unsettled by the image. And by what I know of other women on my family tree–which so far is very little beyond the fact of whether or not they had children. Many had bodies that made baby after baby until they couldn’t anymore, whether they wanted to or not. Maybe every single mother in my lineage found her highest purpose in making and nurturing as many offspring as possible, even if it killed her. I’m certainly grateful for the ones who made it possible for me to be here in this body typing this reflection. But when I see 9, 10, 11, 12 children descending from an individual female on my tree, I also see pain and violation.

My genealogical chart has become an effort to educate myself about this dimension of who I am and where I’m from because I’m coming to terms not only with my DNA mystery but also with what a colleague explained is a kind of lazy white privilege: the lack of inquiry into one’s likely-western-European heritage because in the U.S. it’s “boring” and we’re “just Americans,” an attitude that assumes that white people are what’s ordinary and everyone else is “other” or “exotic.” What might seem like self-deprecation can also be racist.

Contrary to ancestry.com, I don’t believe any person’s life story is told by a genealogy chart and its gallery of internet-accessible artifacts and government records. But Menakem has persuaded me that, actually, we do inherit assumptions and expectations and, yes, trauma, and that these things are connected quite directly to such basic facts as how, and when, and where, and under what circumstances your forebears came to live in the U.S. So I will keep looking and listening for what I need to learn from it.