Holocaust Memorial Day and Historical and Generational Trauma (Race Relations US-Midwest Newsletter)

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I’ve been learning so much recently that it was a challenge to decide what to share with you this time. I’ve been reading and studying a lot about Historical and Generational Trauma, and I thought this would be a good subject to discuss in this newsletter. Difficult, painful, horrible but very important to know about.

As I was doing dishes the other day, I thought, “What’s the connection between Historical and Generational Trauma and Internalized Racism?” Obviously a lot you may say, and yes, you would be right.

But what is Historical and Generational Trauma? And what is Internalized Racial Oppression and Internalized Racial Superiority? Maybe you’ve already heard these terms and maybe you are already familiar with them. In my December newsletter, I briefly talked about the Indian Boarding School and what life was like, both for those children who survived the schools and for generations after.

Some of the first studies about Historical and Generational Trauma were about the Holocaust in Germany during WWII. Children of survivors showed manifestations of trauma. They were not in the concentration camps, but their parents had been. Lots of scientific studies have shown evidence that Holocaust trauma was not limited to the survivors, but was passed on to the next generation born after the Holocaust. The generations after the Holocaust’s survivors are and were “trauma carriers.”

But…what is this trauma? Dr. Maria Yellowhorse-Braveheart defines Historical and Generational Trauma as “The collective emotional and psychological injury both over the lifespan and across generations, resulting from a cataclysmic history of genocide, relocation, boarding schools….It’s the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma.”

If we read this definition and we carefully think about it, it is a very dramatic and terrible thing. I’m sure most of us have seen movies, documentaries and books about the concentration, or extermination camps. The most well-known are Auschwitz and Treblinka, probably because of the movies. But they were created, intentionally created, to deal with the “Jewish problem.”

Unfortunately, the United States also has a history of creating intentional laws and acts to dehumanize, exterminate, and keep certain groups of people in a lower status, because they are considered inferior.

Last year I read the book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave which begins with the story of the “last cargo” in the slave ship Clotilda to the coast of Mobile Bay. Like Cudjo Lewis (his American name), many many others before him were brought from Africa to America as slaves.

Once they were captured in Africa and chained in groups, they often needed to walk for days and weeks before arriving at the “slave castles,” also called “factories.” They could stay there for weeks and months before they were shipped to America. There were men, women, children, elders, and pregnant women. Hundreds died at the ports, Elmina being the most known.  

The European slaver would examine the slaves, pick those they wanted, and bring them onto the ships by canoes, their hands tied with willow twigs. Those who were not selected were usually beaten, and sometimes immediately murdered by their owners.

The slaves who were bought were shackled and often branded by the Europeans and stuffed into the ships as tightly as possible. If you survived up to that point, your ordeal was only just beginning. Around 2.2 million Africans died during these voyages, where they were packed too tightly into unsanitary spaces and chained with leg irons. Some committed suicide by jumping overboard.

Among the measures that were taken to stem the onboard mortality was forced “dancing,” which was a painful “exercise” because of the manacles and shackles and the practice of force-feeding, with the help of the speculum oris, a scissors-shaped instrument that, with the help of a thumbscrew, forced the jaws open.

The trauma of being in constant terror, not knowing what they were going, what would happen, separated from family, friends, and community, victims of terrible punishments and sexual exploitation was just beginning. There was much more to come once they arrived on the coast of America.

As the number of slaves was growing in America, the white settlers were afraid that a violent rebellion could occur. This fear of rebellion led each colony to pass a series of laws called the Slave Codes.

The legal dehumanization of people of color continued. There were also the Anti-Miscegenation Laws, which forbade interracial marriages from 1691 to 1967. The Naturalization Act of 1790 denied naturalization (ie. citizenship) to anyone who was not a free white person – slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants, and Asians.

After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Black people were still not treated as free. There was no plan for them after the Emancipation and hundreds of thousands died from diseases and hunger after being liberated.

Later came the Black Codes, voter intimidation and suppression, Jim Crow laws, lynching, the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, mass incarceration….and so on...

When we talk about Historical and Generational Trauma we are talking about these tremendous events that marked people in ways that are hard for us to understand. In the same way as the second and third generations of Holocausts survivors showed effects of trauma, African Americans are showing the effects of the Historical and Generational Trauma of their ancestors. How can they not?

If one of your ancestors was born in slavery, had children in slavery, suffered what we don’t even imagine and know, how can we expect for the present generation not to show manifestations of trauma? It is always much easier to fall in denial and not deal with it. It is easier to repeat easy stereotypes…“lazy people, drug addicts, always angry, they live in welfare, they are this, they are that…”

African American communities are living the “the collective emotional and psychological injury both over the life span and across generations, resulting from a cataclysmic history of genocide,” slavery, Jim Crow, lynching “…It’s the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma.”

This week marked the end of Black History Month. How will you commit to continuing to learn about Black history and un-learn anti-Black racism? 

This is a portion of Viviana's most recent newsletter. Sign up to receive your full Race Relations regional newsletter, including upcoming events in your area and recommended resources, at bit.ly/racerelationsnews. 

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