Racial Trauma: Bearing Witness & Claiming Space
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Sawubona! We see you!
As I turn on the television or pop on NPR in the car, I am reminded of the phrase from Fred Moten’s book, ‘I ran from it but was still in it’. There is no escape.
The Chauvin Murder Trial, the vitriol of national politics, the stench of ignorance, selfishness, and death with respect to this country’s and its denizen’s response to COVID-19 is enough to drive anyone to the brink of insanity. The infliction of racial trauma can be totalizing. It all has me thinking about the value of life, the enclosure of democracy, the essence of human kindness and decency, and the effects of trauma—the intense trauma of witnessing and
After watching and listening to the Chauvin Murder Trial I can think only of George Floyd, who for eight minutes and forty-six seconds pleaded for his life, gasped for air, and called out for his deceased mother while a law enforcement officer dug his knee in to Mr. Floyd’s neck until life ceased. I think about George Floyd’s family, those who witnessed his murder in-living-color, and those of us who were foolish enough to bear witness to his murder, to Brianna Taylor’s murder (and too many others to name) and to Black death via the clips circulating social media and the internet. No matter the outcome of the trial, we know Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd; we witnessed it.
Every year for the past few years for Holy Saturday I meditate on one question. This question seems apropos today and in light of the last few years of Black murders, the public rise of white supremacist hate crimes, and the overwhelming death of Black and Brown human beings as a result of the Coronavirus. Hilton Als asked, “How do you claim space and not suffer as a Black man?” Given white supremacy is the political force that has shaped the globe, I will extend Als’ question: How do you claim space and not suffer as a Black human being, a Brown human being, an Asian human being, a non-heteronormative conforming human being, and/or a differently abled human being?
Personally, this question sums up the central question of ongoing years of therapy. In this big, Black, male body with my gifts how do I embrace the brilliance of who I am without feeling the need to shrink to fit into the small-minded imagination of who or what I am supposed to be? How does one not get tired of the constant struggle to simply be? How does one keep their strength up, their minds right, their soul’s centered on joy, and their actions fueled by radical imagination and righteous rage without the threat of combustion?
I have no real answers; I am still living the questions like most of you.
But what I do know is try as I might, the trauma of this moment; the trauma of bearing witness of the last few years coupled with the historical trauma of the last 400 years is taking its toll—on all of us.
To Bear Witness
Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas and others, Kelly Oliver assists us in understanding what it means to bear witness versus witnessing. Oliver (2003) writes,
Witnessing is defined as the action of bearing witness or giving testimony, the fact of being present and observing something; witnessing is from witness, which is defined as to bear witness, to testify, to give evidence, to be a spectator or auditor of something, to be present as an observer, to see with one’s own eyes (OED 1991, 3904). (p. 133)
To bear witness is to view that which is beyond recognition; that which cannot be seen or expressed in essence, but “opens up the possibility of a new conception of subjectivity inherently related to and yet in tension with the subject position” (p. 134). From the work of Patricia Williams (1991), we know that subject position is everything. Rather, one’s experiences of the world, in the world, and through the world can only be understood in terms of their subject positions both in culture and context through historicity, circumstance, and the present moment. I think this is what Toni Morrison means in Beloved when she proclaims, “Definitions belong to the definers not the defined.” One’s definition of the world, of people, of things, of the Other is simply a reflection of the gloriousness or the depravity of the definer; it has nothing to do with the reality or the beingness of the thing itself.
To put another way, one can only see the world at the level of their own understanding and yet, for all people, I believe we can transgress these oppressive or entitled subject positions through a new ontological understanding of what it means to be a human being. In fact, I wrote a whole book about it!
I say all of this to say, the Chauvin trial, the continued occurrences of police brutality and extrajudicial murders, and the insidiousness of the Coronavirus are all instances in which Black people are witnessing Black death, and it is stirring up for many of us not only the trauma of our living but the historical and unhealed trauma of our ancestors. While the anger rises and pain stirs, we are compelled to bear witness to what can be but is not yet; to what we know embodied but is not yet made manifest. We are called to exercise our prophetic radical imagination—forcing us to imagine a better, different future which cannot yet be perceived, but rests ready on the plane of work between imagination and intellect.
However, before we even get to the question of claiming space or imagining new space, we must ask how can we stay alive and keep our minds and spirits intact well enough to make it to a place where we can claim our space(s)?
Living in the Moment, Healing the Past and Improving the Future
What does it mean to a human being in the twenty-first century? What might it mean to let go of the failed paradigm we are living within? What might it mean to reimagine human development, social development, politics, and labor? What might the world become if each of us took the challenge of healing our own familial and communal historical trauma?
The last question is where I will focus my attention for today.
In terms of witnessing and bearing witness, psychoanalysis illuminates the need for healing and the development of the agential inner witness —the interior you that is in dialogical engagement with the self and outside world. The inner witness has a response-ability to work against oppression and domination, which seeks to annihilate the inner witness and have it concede its agential power. In Foucauldian terms, this is biopolitics and biopower. To free ourselves from these dominant and oppressive forces we must work-through these forces, develop our own sense of selfhood and agency, and then force the world to deal with us.
So, what am I trying to say? We have to heal, (re)claim ourselves, (re)claim communal histories, and fight like hell to remain free. As Toni Morrison put it, “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” This too is what the Ancestor knew; the mind and body shaped by domination and oppression once freed from it has to continue to claim and declare that freedom. This process of reclamation is a result of the nightmare of historical trauma and the hiddenness of Joy DeGruy’s post traumatic slave syndrome.
Historical trauma is multigenerational pain inflicted on the body and the psyche under the constant pressure of oppression. Epigenetics illuminated for us that pain and trauma can be passed down through the genes; our ancestral legacy of slavery on top of all of the shit we are made to suffer in our time can be passed down through our genes and impact how we live, move, and have our being today. Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD author of The Body Keeps Score, explains the emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during a trauma are experienced not as memories, but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.
Black people in America are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder instigated by our lived experiences and the remnant, haunting historical experiences of our ancestors. For example, we largely experience PTSD as hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, outbursts of anger, foreshortened future, and a heightened stress level that restricts the body’s ability to regulate its immune system.
From a public health perspective, the implications of historical and racial trauma, and post-traumatic stress syndrome are wide ranging and it begins at birth.
Think about that; think about the horrors of the slave trade, the nightmare of the plantation, the terror of Jim Crow, the inequity of the labor market and redlining, and the ever-present fear of murder for simply existing as a Black person in this country. It’s enough to make you holler!
Historical Resilience, Ancestral Power
Then I think about the resilience of my first ancestor captured and sold into the institution of slavery; I think about their survival; the love of bearing and raising children without the guarantee of a lasting relationship; the cleverness of out maneuvering white domination; the pain, but so too the joy of hoping in better day to come but that they may not ever see. I think about the courage it took to dream me and you into being—we are their faith made flesh. Yes, we have inherited ancestral pain but, in greater measure, we have inherited deep, untouched reservoirs of ancestral power.
I want to heal the pain and tap into the power.
So, how do we heal centuries of suffering? This is what I have discovered from my own journey:
First, we acknowledge the trauma. We have been victimized, but we do not need to take up the subject position of victims.
Second, we (re)claim the brilliance of Blackness. We are the people of humanity’s birth; the narrative that has been circulated by whiteness about Blackness is false. Mother Africa has given this world everything and so too have we.
Third, we can feel the fear, but we must do it anyway. Structural racism operates within and creates to perpetuate fear expressed through acts of violence—physical, psychological, epistemological and ontological.
Fourth, therapy. We must be willing to interrogate and develop our inner witness. We have to consciously touch the pain in order to heal it.
Fifth, somatic therapy or getting back into the body coupled with mindfulness. This is can be done through yoga or other physical practices.
Sixth, meditation and prayer. I tap into the power of the Ancestors and whatever Gods may be for strength, protection, health, and to keep my mind right and my spirit enflamed. You have to protect your peace at all costs; listen to your body and turn off anything and/or leave any situation that elicits a negative bodily response.
Seventh, resist and (re)imagine. While being mindful of my body and health, I work to dismantle systems, resist, oppression, and (re)imagine the possibilities of what can be. Then, I get my ass to work doing what I can resisting the need to John Henry myself to death.
Eighth, I celebrate. Joy shared is double joy. I revel in the joy of f^@king things up in the best way possible, in the joy of chipping away at systems or structures of oppression. I celebrate the power of righteous rage and stand ready to rage at any moment.
Audre Lorde and I are of the same mind, when it comes to the uses of anger. Lorde (1981) wrote in “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Anger”:
But anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies.
Anger is loaded with information and energy.
I am learning to get in touch with my anger, to feel it. I am learning to express my anger in ways that a Black man who stands six feet and four inches tall can without being a threat or feeling threatened.
Ninth, when necessary I weep and allow myself to feel the sorrow of the moment. Tears cleanse: they reconnect us with our first home, the sea.
Lastly, I continue to learn and teach. I know, in the words of Bob Marley, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds” Or as I like to say, “If you free your mind, your ass will follow.” Then, you work to help free others.
Each generation makes its own history, is responsible for its own making, and each generation is judged and defined by the history it makes, as Paul Robeson once said. The psychic prediction of Gil Scott Heron has come to fullness: the revolution is televised!
I believe we are making our history. We are dismantling systems that no longer serve us and transforming others. I believe we are (re)imagining survival of the species and of the planet. We are working to set right and create life affirming relationships where the bedrock of our understanding is that we are in this together.
Following Hilton Als’ question, as a human being living, breathing, and having your being on this third rock from the sun; how will you claim space — communal space — and transform individual and collective suffering?
How are/how will you reimagine yourself and us into what we are not yet, but must become if we are to heal our way to communal wholeness?
BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER. BLACK QUEER LIVES MATTER.
We see you and you matter.
We are you and we matter.
Be well. Be still. Trust in the Infinite. Remember our shared humanity. Be community. Be of good courage.
Justice for George Floyd. Justice for Brianna Taylor.
Protect your peace.
Please take care of yourselves and each other,
David W. Robinson-Morris, Ph.D. is a reimaginelutionary.
David currently serves as the Regional Director of Diversity and Inclusion of the Bayou Region for Ochsner Health. He is the Founding Director of The Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit at Xavier University of Louisiana, where he also served as an Assistant Professor in the Division of Education and Counseling, and as the university’s Assistant Vice President of Development.
Influenced by his understanding of Ubuntu—a South African philosophical notion of communalism and shared humanity—Dr. Robinson-Morris’ work promotes deep dialogical engagement as an approach to achieving racial, gender, and health equity when communities come to understand that our humanity is shared and is a quality we owe another. True equity and systemic transformation, in our communities and in our institutions, can only be realized when come to understand difference as generative and the collective mandates systems to align policy and practice toward inclusion, which leads to a sense of belonging and mattering for every individual. His understanding of Ubuntu coupled with that of Eastern (Buddhist) philosophy informs his ongoing understanding of our shared, collective humanity.
As a scholar, David’s primary research centers on a single question: What does it mean to be a human being? This question continuously informs his approaches to management, teaching, and community involvement.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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