The constant drumbeat of negative news stories about violence, from the rioters who stormed the Capitol to the latest neighborhood or school shooting, is all so unnerving. Some people find that they’ve become numb to most of it, except the most shocking of stories. As people of faith, many of us find ways to peacefully address issues of violence that plague our communities. Dr. Melvin E. Banks, the founder of UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.), has biblically based, two-minute podcast shorts that cover injustice, gang violence, drug dealers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program called Daily Direction, which covers a variety of topics.
Asale Chandler holds a picture of her son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, who was murdered at age 19. Now, Chandler is a running for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — More than three years have passed since Asale Chandler’s teenage son was murdered in San Francisco. But Chandler said it feels as though it has been only three days.
The anguish doesn’t get better, said Chandler, a 55-year-old community activist from San Francisco at a recent rally. “It gets worse.”
Chandler’s 19-year-old son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, was one of four young black men who were shot and killed in January 2015 while sitting in a Honda Civic in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. One man has been arrested in connection with the shooting.
Chandler prayed, protested and communed with other mothers — and brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles — who have lost their loved ones to violence.
The “Mothers Fight Back!” rally came amid ongoing unrest over the police shootings of unarmed black men, including Stephon Clark, who was killed in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento in March. His death sparked large-scale protests that blocked traffic and disrupted Sacramento Kings basketball games.
But attendees of the rally noted they were speaking out against violence of all kinds, not just police brutality. They said they took to the Capitol steps to grab the attention of lawmakers and journalists.
A poster commemorating Stephon Clark, who was killed by Sacramento Police in March, sits on the Capitol’s steps during the Mothers Fight Back! rally. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
A few, like Chandler, are running for public office. Others participated to support their loved ones and join in solidarity with other mothers.
“You do want to connect to a mother or a father who’s been through it,” Chandler said. She hasn’t found solace through therapy or medication, but said being around other mothers whose lives were also transformed by violence is “the true medicine.”
The rally was passionate, but it wasn’t as pugnacious as its name might suggest. The moms came bearing snacks, handcrafted posters and children’s books. They sang and said prayers.
Participants said they are facing a dire mental health crisis fueled by violence, trauma and uncertainty.
“It’s traumatic for all of us. … We’re scared to death. We don’t know what to do, we don’t know how to act,” said Leia Schenk, 40, a social services worker in Sacramento, who is close with Sahleem Tindle’s family. Tindle was shot and killed by BART police near the West Oakland BART station in January.
Asale Chandler’s son was murdered more than three years ago in San Francisco. At a recent rally, the community activist participated in a Hebrew “mother’s prayer” at the Mothers Fight Back! rally at the Capitol. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
Schenk said she struggles with the emotional fallout from the violence and fears for her children, particularly her two black sons. “It’s a helluva way to live,” she said.
Black children die from gun-related homicides at a rate nearly 10 times higher than that of white children, according to a 2017 study in the American Academy of Pediatrics. Another study published a few weeks ago showed that black men are at risk of being killed by police at a rate about triple that of white men.
The statistical differences are important, said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation, which awards grants to reduce health disparities.
However, the numbers don’t reveal the mental and physical pain that afflicts victims and their communities contending with violence, said Hewitt, who did not attend the rally.
“You are constantly on high alert, and you are constantly in a state of mourning,” said Cat Brooks, an Oakland mayoral candidate and a co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project.
Brooks, who has a 12-year-old daughter, attended the gathering to address the struggle many black parents encounter trying to protect their children from violence.
“Because there is no rhyme or reason to our people getting killed, that means there’s no one to tactically figure out how to avoid it,” said Brooks, 41. “We teach our children everything we can about how to stay alive.”
A poster commemorating Stephon Clark, who was killed by Sacramento police in March, sits on the Capitol’s steps during the Mothers Fight Back! rally.
That trauma, fear and uncertainty has measurable effects on health.
Community cohesion can help people heal from acts of violence, but violence can also erode that sense of togetherness, said Flo Cofer, director of state policy for Public Health Advocates, a nonprofit organization that works to address health disparities.
Many of the communities most affected by violence also face other physical and social challenges like poverty, hunger and educational obstacles, she said.
“That’s part of the reason why the violence is so devastating. This is happening in a place where trauma is the air they breathe,” Cofer said in a phone interview.
At the rally, the low-key gathering of approximately 50 people consisted mainly of women and children. Moms parked strollers under a tent while their former occupants munched on crackers or toddled on the Capitol steps.
As one little girl, dressed in flowery overalls and shimmery sandals, danced to the “Circle of Life” song, adults and older children, dressed in white, surrounded her, clapping to the beat.
When the mothers gathered for a Hebrew “mother’s prayer,” Chandler stood near the front with her arms stretched above her head.
She is running for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco to address the violence in her Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. “I’ve seen nothing but yellow tape, and it messed me up so badly,” she said.
Yolanda Banks Reed led the prayer.
Banks Reed’s son was the young man who was killed nearly seven months ago near the BART station. She said she knows the mental toll will be lifelong.
“It’s a life sentence for a mother,” she said. “A mother should not lose her children.”
As I watched a diverse group of activists, beyond frustrated with gun violence in Chicago, shut down the Dan Ryan, one of the busiest expressways in the Chicago area, I felt a solidarity with their cause. Led by Father Pfleger of St. Sabina Church and Rev. Jesse Jackson on Saturday, July 7, thousands of activists from all areas of the city and the suburbs screamed “shut it down” right before they took over all four lanes of the expressway on the northbound lanes from 79th Street to 67th Street.
When I texted a friend of mine, who is very active in her South Side Chicago community, she was a lot less enthused about the event.
“What I don’t get is we’re primarily killing each other. How does marching on the highway reduce crime in our own community?”
I countered that it’s hard to ignore the problem when people practice civil disobedience. Then she responded, “Agreed, but it doesn’t influence or shape policy.”
Thousands descended on the Dan Ryan expressway in an anti-violence march organized by Father @MichaelPfleger of @stsabinachurch. After lengthy negotiations, police opened all inbound lanes to the mass demonstration calling for more public resources to be devoted to the S&W sides. pic.twitter.com/BBfAFMAhPx
But our question is: How do memorials to that dehumanizing violence help the African-American descendants of such treatment heal from their history?
History as trauma
Jim Crow was grounded in the lie of Black inferiority. Dismantling the impacts of that lie on individuals and communities has been an ongoing effort of members of the Association of Black Psychologists, of which we both are members. The organization was founded almost 50 years ago so that “psychologists of African descent … can assist in solving problems of Black communities and other ethnic groups.”
For African-Americans, history and trauma aren’t just in the past. Indeed, it would be simpler to help our communities heal if Jim Crow were but a memory.
In the last 50 years or so, black Americans thought ole Jim Crow had died. But really, ole man Crow had simply gone to finishing school and emerged as James Crow, Esq. He had polished up his language and was operating in an alleged system of diversity and multiculturalism, soft-selling his system of exclusivity as “traditions.”
One of the clearest examples of ole man Jim Crow resurfacing has been the documented public assaults and assassinations of Black bodies during the last 10 years. Men, women and children of African ancestry are being beaten, bruised and executed by police across the country simply for being Black and alive. Our communities experience direct and vicarious trauma every day.
Now, to this daily terror, add historical trauma for Black Americans.
Historical trauma is the cumulative phenomenon where those who never directly experienced trauma (enslavement, rape, lynchings, murder) can still exhibit signs and symptoms of the trauma.
That historical trauma can be observed in African-Americans’ unresolved grief, expressed as depression and despair and their harboring of unexplained anger, expressed as aggression and rage. Often they internalize oppression by accepting the lie of inferiority, which can then lead to self-loathing.
This historical trauma must be addressed. It functions as a persistent sickness, a deadly virus – in the family, in the African-American community and in the larger society.
Memory as medicine
The establishment of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice begins a long-awaited process of healing from the unspeakable and unacknowledged acts in our history, whose echoes can still be heard today. It is an excellent example of one step towards the process of healing historical trauma for persons of African ancestry.
By accurately documenting the gravity of the massacres, the NMPJ names the nameless, counts the uncounted and frees the victims, who were savagely desecrated, from the perpetrators of the atrocities of racial terror lynching.
The NMPJ was established in an effort to promote social justice that can be liberating and validating to African-American people. Its mission aligns with that of the Association of Black Psychologists, which is the “liberation of the African Mind, empowerment of the African Character, and enlivenment and illumination of the African Spirit” – all with the goal of restoring humanity, promoting optimal functioning and insuring psychological wellness.
Most trauma experts recognize that the restoration of memory is healing. Developing a story in which the victim is held blameless from the infliction of abuse is essential for rebuilding a sense of independence and self efficacy.
In our work as psychologists, we understand that helping our clients manifest resilient, powerful stories can help them negotiate the distress of historical trauma.
Focusing on strengths can help descendant African-Americans learn to overcome challenges and tap into reservoirs of strength and self-determination. For example, understanding that many of the African-Americans represented in the NMPJ were killed because they stood up for injustice, had the strength to resist and fought for the freedoms of subsequent generations can be healing.
Stories that heal
In an earlier work, we advanced an argument that there is a set of general healing goals that are important to consider for persons of African ancestry. Those healing goals, taken together, allow us to reconstruct understandings our community and ourselves.
This is done through helping us take back our individual and collective identities and stories, especially those that replicate and reflect our true and righteous African heritage. The goals also allow us to restore our spirits, sense of self, sense of wonderment and potential.
Recently, scholar Shawn Ginwright argued that addressing the ongoing exposure of African-Americans to dehumanizing experiences calls for a shift to healing-centered engagement instead of trauma-informed care. That departure shifts the focus from “what’s wrong with you” to “what’s right with you.”
For example, rather than locating the trauma within the individual, a healing-centered engagement would address the issues that created the trauma in the first place, and would view the individual holistically, highlighting strengths and resilience.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice helps restore memories that demonstrate the violence perpetrated against black people during the horrific epoch of publicly sanctioned lynching was not the fault of the victims and survivors of African ancestry.
The memorial defies the lie of Black inferiority.
The danger of accurately retelling the horrific stories of people of African ancestry in the U.S. is that it may create new trauma. Pairing accurate histories with healing-centered engagement can limit this risk.
For example, the Association of Black Psychologists, in partnership with the Community Healing Network, conducts Emotional Emancipation Circles. These national self-help groups focus on overcoming the lie of black inferiority and the emotional legacies of enslavement and racism.
We believe that the restorative memories developed in public spaces like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice create a shared story that can inoculate African-Americans from ongoing dehumanization.
Jamie Foxx as Django and Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz. (Photo credit: Columbia Pictures/Newscom)
Critique and controversy surround Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, a phenomena that may increase due to Tarantino’s Oscar win last night. In particular, many lament the depiction of violence in the film. While cinematic violence is a worthy debate topic, it’s ironic that this critique is levied on this movie when innumerable films in the cinematic landscape merit such criticism. Of particular note, however, I have been mulling over the relationship between violence and religion in the film.
The portrayal of white men in American action films speaks to cultural religious beliefs within American culture. White males in the role of the “action hero” embody a messianic persona – one that is roughly consistent with conservative evangelical beliefs in a raptured white Jesus, returning to save believers while exacting vengeful punishment on fallen sinners.
Django challenges this imagery more by locating its protagonist, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, in the role of messianic deliverer. Django functions as a black Messiah in the most explosive period in American history, exacting punishment on a white supremacist culture that has neither come to terms with its sins or acknowledged them but instead misappropriated them on the very people and person (in the form of Django) who has come back to punish them. In this way, Django recalls the theologian Karl Barth’s notion of Jesus as the Judge who was judged in our place.
This inversion of conventional character development is unheard of in American cinematic history. It can also be interpreted as a response to the mythology and utter fabrication of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth Of A Nation”, which casts the “Christian” Klansmen as the heroic protagonists saving “innocent whites” from the dark evil of the American Negro. Arguably, every narrative since the screening of that movie in the White House in 1915 has been a sort of archetype for American cinematic hero narratives.
As a black Messiah, Django challenges long held socio-religious notions of good and evil that are reinforced by the pervasive imagery of avenging white heroes in American cinema. He challenges the very existence of a white Jesus used to justify slavery by inverting the “avenging white Jesus narrative” onto the very culture that has always externalised that evil in the face of the black or brown alien “Other“.
White supremacist culture is confronted with itself and with the idea that their deliverer may not look like them; that the one they have reviled is in fact their ultimate judge, jury and executioner. In the context of the movie, Django functions as a black Messiah in the vein of Ezekiel 25:17: “I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them”.
The “white savior” narrative – so central to American culture – was used to establish, reinforce, and maintain American chattel slavery. Tarantino’s film counters that narrative by creating cognitive dissonance: it unearths the racist dynamics of a society that simultaneously cheers for and yet remains uncomfortable with Django’s violence. Race-neutral critiques concerning Django’s violence abound, but few social commentaries explore what it means to see a black messianic figure in the antebellum era. We avoid the latter task at our own peril – to grapple with the artistic portrayal of Django as a black messiah is to understand something of the social and religious vision that motivated Nat Turner to ignite a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.