How to heal African-Americans’ traumatic history

How to heal African-Americans’ traumatic history

Do you smell it? That foul odor that floats in the air, when something you thought was dead is unearthed.

That’s the smell of ole man Jim Crow crawling back into our daily lives.

One of the most horrendous and abhorrent forms of Jim Crow violence – the racial caste system that operated between 1877 and the mid-1960s, primarily in Southern states – was the publicly sanctioned use of “racial terror lynchings.” These killings were perpetrated by those who enjoyed the protection of white supremacist social policies designed to maintain strict control of African-Americans through the systemic use of terror.

Documenting those lynchings is the goal of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, or NMPJ, which opened on April 26, 2018.

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.”

As psychologists, we ask the complex question: Can memorials to a dehumanizing and traumatizing history, the Jim Crow history, provide a path to restorative justice, psychologically, socially and politically?

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.”

Those traditions were called “states’ rights” and “customs,” “school choice” and “law and order.” Then there are the Jim Crow practices that disproportionately target Black Americans: mass incarceration, police brutality and the war on drugs.

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.

Christening ceremony for Noah Maasai Woodson Reed, which echoes a practice during enslavement, when black babies were held to the sky to ask for protection and blessing. Kamilah M. Woodson, Author provided

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.

We then can recognize the divine within, as well as promote our community members’ interdependence and interconnectedness – truly embodying the African proverb, “I am because we are and since we are, therefore I am.”

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.

The ConversationWe 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.

Taasogle Daryl Rowe, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University and Kamilah Marie Woodson, Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology (Clinical Psychology by Training), Howard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Django: Black Jesus Unchained

Django: Black Jesus Unchained

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’sBirth 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.

Hope in Newtown

Hope in Newtown

INNOCENCE LOST: Flowers and gifts were left at the makeshift memorial outside the high school in Newtown, Connecticut, the location of the interfaith vigil attended by President Obama following the mass shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. (Photo: Bill Shettle/Newscom)

In light of the recent tragic events in Newtown, our country has started asking questions. Could stricter gun control laws have prevented this and other tragedies? Has taking God out of school caused Him to go with the “hands off” approach, allowing evil acts to occur? What kind of impact do violent video games have on the psyche of young men and women? Is our nation appropriately dealing with issues of mental health? Where’s the national outrage when kids are killed on the south side of Chicago? All viable questions, but are we asking the right one?

How do we offer hope in a world that becomes increasingly hopeless? President Obama opened his speech in Newtown with a passage from the fourth chapter of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth:

“Scripture tells us ‘…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’”

After looking at my Twitter and Facebook feed, one thing was for sure: His words touched a great number of people who tuned in to listen. The president offered words of comfort for a hurting nation. In my Berean zeal, however, I felt like something was missing — the object of our hope. I’m not here to argue the merits of whether or not America is a Christian nation, though increased pluralism tends to suggest otherwise. I do know what hope looks like, though. Hope isn’t some abstract concept. Hope is real; it’s tangible. Hope was wrongly convicted and sentenced to an agonizing death. Hope is found in the Person of Jesus Christ. In fact, that building from God, that eternal house Paul talked about in Scripture the president quotes is built on the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. As sermonic as President Obama’s speech sounded, I don’t expect politicians to preach in these instances. But when Scripture is quoted to bring hope, especially in this season, we need to take the opportunity to remind everyone of the object of our hope.

Mr. President, I respectfully submit that a few verses earlier in the text would have helped immensely:

“… knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14, ESV).

That’s where our true hope lies: in Jesus’ death, burial, and Resurrection. The Scriptural language the president used must be contextualized, or the text loses its meaning. Paul was writing to a people who had experienced similar hurts, heartaches, and pains. As a Gentile nation, other gods the Corinthians served offered little solace. But the small community of believers at Corinth could tell another story. Those hurts and pains paled in comparison to the glory that awaited them in Christ Jesus. They had a God who had experienced the same thing. And THAT’S what brings hope. THAT’S why I don’t lose heart in tragedies like this. Regulations are fine. Dialogue on the danger of video games is probably necessary. But we can’t lose sight of this simple, yet profound truth. Jesus Christ is our only hope. He’s the hope of glory. In a season of Advent (i.e. waiting), I echo the words of John as he closes the canon of Scripture — Come, Lord Jesus!

Interrupting the Bloodshed

Interrupting the Bloodshed

A DIFFERENT PATH: Ameena Matthews, whose father is Jeff Fort, one of the Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders, was herself a drug ring enforcer. But having children and finding solace in her Muslim faith pulled her off the streets. (Photo: Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Youth violence in Chicago has reached epidemic levels, with gunfire plaguing neighborhoods across the metropolitan area. It is a disease that is responsible for claiming the lives of dozens of young people, many of whom were engaged in activities as innocent as walking to school or playing in their yards when their lives were cut short.

Each day innocent bystanders are being killed due to the incessant gunfire. In an effort to counteract the violence, a number of community activists have come together in a collaborative effort with hopes of “interrupting” the bloodshed in the city’s streets. Their stories are told in the award-winning documentary The Interrupters. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and produced by bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), The Interrupters chronicles the lives of three Chicagoans who were once participants in the destruction but who turned their lives around to become “violence interrupters.” Now they are working to restore peace to their community.

Last month, a collection of community organization, including the South Side Help Center, CeaseFire, and the University of Chicago Medicine, partnered with the filmmakers of The Interrupters to host a movie screening and panel discussion on addressing the youth violence problem. UrbanFaith attended the event and chatted with the students, community leaders, and anti-violence experts who participated in the forum.

Check out the video below for an overview of the event, and then visit TheInterrupters.com and InterruptViolence.com for more information about this important grass-roots initiative.

Dajae Coleman Had a Reason to Live

Dajae Coleman Had a Reason to Live

MODEL STUDENT AND CITIZEN: Dajae Coleman, 14, was walking home from a party with friends when he was gunned down. Police say he was not the intended target. (Family photo)

Chicago-area residents were reminded once again of the senselessness of gang violence when 14-year-old high-school freshman Dajae Coleman was shot and killed as he walked home from a party with friends on Saturday night in Evanston, Illinois. It’s an all-too-familiar story: a “model citizen” and “well-mannered” young man’s life needlessly taken. (Police say he was not the shooter’s intended target.)

Making the story even more poignant was news today that Coleman’s school and family released an essay that he had written two days before his murder. Titled “My Belief Statement,” it’s a heartfelt expression of his love for his family and community. “My mom pushes me to do better, she always tells me to never settle,” Coleman wrote. “I think the kids that are on the street not doing anything with their lives don’t get the type of support they need from their family. They probably don’t have anyone to look up to.”

The tragic irony is that Coleman did have positive influences and a bright future. But in a culture of ever-increasing violence and disregard for life, that didn’t matter.

Still, people are finding hope in the life-affirming message that Dajae Coleman left behind. In a Chicago Tribune video, a visitor to the makeshift memorial site for Coleman described the young man’s essay as “prophetic, profound, and part of [Dajae’s] legacy.”

We can only hope that other young people — and adults — will read the essay and be inspired to pursue a more positive direction in life. Just like Dajae.

You can read Dajae’s essay here.