Generational Community Healing

Posted on September 23, 2016

As I finished up last week’s post on the importance of addressing and healing intergenerational trauma, I realized that healing goes way beyond just what we pass on to our children and future generations. Intergenerational trauma impacts how we treat each other in our communities. Beyond families, can intergenerational trauma be contributing to the issues facing our communities and our country?

I will use the trauma of slavery as an example in this post. However, it could as easily be the treatment of Native Americans, internment of Japanese Americans, bigotry against immigrants, impact of anti-Semitism, or the high rates of generational poverty that exists in many areas and populations.

No one would ar2gue that slavery was not traumatizing in countless ways for those impacted by its evils. When slavery ended, there existed a traumatized population without the economic, social, or governmental power to receive retribution for the sins committed against it. There was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as in South Africa, or Nuremberg Trials, as happened after World War II.

Instead, you had a “freed” population that had to live as a minority among its oppressors, who were far from recognizing the evil in their past actions. Many of the oppressors were also traumatized by a devastating war that saw many aspects of their society crumble, and many family and friends killed. When there is no healing, there is often an attempt to gain as much control over a situation as possible, and this is exactly what many whites did after the Civil War – and what is still happening today in many areas of the country.

Amazingly, Blacks still found their voice and power. The heroes of the Civil Rights Movement learned how to build compassion and momentum for their cause through nonviolent civil disobedience. Let’s marvel at this for a moment, and appreciate the level of courage behind this Movement. First, you had an actively traumatized population due to the Klan, Jim Crow, and the violence and murder resulting from both. Second, this population bore the deep scars of intergenerational trauma that the present reality continued to open up. Third, the Black population had little or no systematic power to make their situation better, or economic ability to flee it.

If you were to try to create a better atmosphere for the amygdala’s fight response, I’m not sure how you would do it. Yet amidst all this trauma and pain rose a movement that embodied Daniel Siegel’s characteristic for pre-frontal cortex activity: Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable. The movement was continuously smarter, more resilient, and more adaptive than their oppressors, who became more and more ridged in response.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The victories of the Civil Rights Movement should be forever remembered, studied, and celebrated; while still the struggle continues. Several state flags still display the Confederate flag, police shootings of Black men, deplorable violations of voting rights, and continued economic struggles show that the work is still not done. We are not done (and the problems will remain) until we heal the intergenerational trauma that still separates people by race and ethnicity.

The Civil Rights Movement has done an amazing job confronting discrimination and injustice. Unfortunately, the country as a whole has not gotten to a place of healing. Confronting, and truly healing, the impact of racism, oppression, and violence is the work of both the victims and perpetrators of these injustices. Shame and fear can be passed down just like trauma, and if we don’t work to release these feelings, the present generation can repeat these devastating behaviors, without realizing they are just falling back into ingrained patterns of thinking and behaviors.

Reparations are overdue. While I think there is a justification for economic reparation, I’m advocating more for a process of recognition, apology, and forgiveness. A process to formally state that slavery was evil, and that this evil did not stop with the official end of the practice 150 years ago. A recognition that symbols of this past re-traumatize those oppressed by it. We need an honest evaluation of the current reality of Blacks in America, so that social injustices, at a systematic level, can be addressed and rectified.

Trauma can be transformed into wisdom and resiliency. We have traveled a long way on King’s Moral Arc but I feel we have hit a critical juncture in our collective journey. How many more steps can be taken without a process of healing? Unconscious bias will remain as long as the ghosts of past traumas haunt our collective experience. We have come far, but have the opportunity to become so much greater if we can find the courage for the journey.

My question this week is, where do you see the impact of intergenerational trauma in your communities?

4 responses to “Generational Community Healing”

  1. Sara Carrillo says:

    I think it all has to begin with being willing to step outside your comfort zone. I come from a family of ‘happy hicks’ who live in small towns and have never truly interacted with anyone not of their ethnicity. We clash a lot! Until you are willing to open up and make yourself vulnerable to people of different races and cultures, you never truly begin to understand the trauma they’ve endured. I see it in large things, but more importantly, I see it in the dozens of small hurts they endure daily. I think you can fight the big injustices, but that the daily paper slices of indignity can really wear you down. Our country is at a crossroads and if we don’t come together against bigotry, misogyny, and prejudice, I think the US will start down the same path as Italy, Germany, and Japan did after WWI.

  2. Matt Bennett says:

    Great point! The small hurts can add up so quickly especially when it happens on top of larger generational wounds. My hope is that our ability to rise up against power by taking to the streets and the polls will prevent us from sliding too far down as a country but we must all keep speaking truth to power or these rights can also disappear.

  3. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    A young man in the French Colony, Saint-Domingue, which became Haiti, lost his African mother in a raid. She was killed. His French father was on the high seas. So, the man fled to New Orleans, for fear of capture, and found that he had to hide from bounty hunters looking for escaped slaves–or free Blacks that they could enslave. The man traded up the Mississippi River, founded a trading post on a big lake, and that became Chicago. The trauma of the loss of a mother became the founding of a great city. This is how greatness after loss is in the bloodlines of Africans in the Americas. Furthermore, we should remember that evil works in factions: not all Whites are guilty; and not all Blacks are innocent in this story of horror. Light may come from unexpected places, as may darkness.

  4. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    We should remember the women who are the subject of the front page piece in the New York Times, today, the Women of Atenco, Mexican women victims of torture. They remind me that White women are likely victims of the plantations, too, as Black women were. White history writers wouldn’t consider that history as widely as expected. Those who claim to defend the womanhood of Whites may have been violators of it.

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