Resmaa Menakem stalked tables of people — Black, White, and other — all dressed up and gathered to eat baked chicken and think about Blackness at a fundraising gala for the Racial Justice Network (RJN) in St. Paul.
Dressed in a casual blue and off-white plaid shirt, the sure-footed trauma specialist and author weaved around the room at the event hosted by the newly formed grassroots organization created to build bridges across racial, social and economic lines to address racial justice issues.
Following speakers and singers appealing to intellect, spirit and aesthetics, Menakem engaged the room in his physical, body-centric approach to dealing with race. He has worked in trauma and healing for 30 years, garnering such awards as the National Alliance on Mental Illness 2018 Professional of the Year.
“I know I look good,” Menakem joked to the crowd during his keynote.
His latest book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, is about how the physical nature of trauma — like a slave woman’s lifelong trappings — impacts not just our minds but our bodies as well and is inherited by the following generations.
It hasn’t been that many generations for most descendants of American slaves. “My great-grandmother was born on a plantation,” an earlier speaker noted. Recognizing that the pain of a lynching lasts generations recognizes the simple point of a lynching: unconscionable terrorism.
In the same simple yet radical way, Menakem asked the assembled group to stand up and look around, to use their “necks and hips,” he said. He had everyone spot the exits and look at the floor, the terrain they stood on.
With the event themed around reparations for Black and indigenous communities, Menakem said, “I am going to try and help you have an experience around reparations rather than me talking to you about reparations… What are the subtle and substantial costs of what happened to us?”
In one exercise, Menakem had attendees form groups of four by looking around and gravitating toward whomever you made eye contact with. He then had everyone line up.
“The caboose is a Black woman who is 300 years old,” said Menakem, calling attention to each person in the back of the line. Menakem recounts her life as a slave, her cattle-like state of shuttling through trade to other plantations and perpetual rape. “She was bred.”
The next person in line was then directed to turn around and look at that representation of the 300-year-old slave woman — even if it was the face of some good-hearted, elderly White liberal.
Both Menakem’s approach and his latest book came out of dealing with his own trauma, but not from a racial standpoint. It was military trauma Menakem had to move through. That was when he realized he also had all of this racial baggage and no way to deal with it.
In his case, and for all Black people, the pain is that of the trauma of slavery, rape and violence with impunity. His viscera-focused approach, though, is for everyone involved, including White people.
This way, Menakem believes, a collective healing might be achieved. In order to be a self-possessed African American, one is left with no choice but to read up on Black history and the contemporary manifestations of racism.
For Blacks, Menakem’s exercises are about reprieve. For Whites, his work is about the pain of denial and betrayal.
“White people have to build stamina,” Menakem said in an interview with the MSR following his presentation. Built into American culture are protections that allow White people to dodge dealing with race.
“Being super intellectual, the cry for help, collapsing, fragility — all communal, cultural dodges,” Menakem said. Those dodges allow Whites to avoid talking about Blackness or Whiteness. Race is a creation. White people, he said, need to know they lose themselves and an honest culture, too.
“White ancestors, they betrayed you by giving up who they were in order to be White,” said Menakem of the proverbial American White, adding that Whites confuse race and Whiteness for culture.
Take Minnesota Nice’s passive aggression. People miss the aggressive part. “It’s like having an iron fist in a velvet glove,” said Menakem. “You’re gonna bleed out, but the impact may seem softer.”
Menakem is after buttressing a stronger, more connected Minnesota and a greater American culture. He is after communal, not individual healing; not one person going to a shrink, but a collective American reckoning and “whoosah.”
Without general institutional or economic resources, Black people in particular need to believe in and rely on the resources that carried Blacks through the worst of slavery and Jim Crow.
“Remember that last dude that was singing and you heard the Black woman go ‘Oooh, go on, boy’? You could hear the Black people being safe. You could hear the safety,” said Menakem, adding that such things are an actual resource to be mined and tapped into.
“We don’t articulate it as that. We blow it off,” he said. There is a degree of resource in a moment of time, said Menakem. In the pit of racial despair, there is always the sound of grandma moaning, of the call and response.
“It’s real. It’s how we were able to survive,” said Menakem. “Small, reprieve moments that would help me get through the next day.”
My Grandmother’s Hands is available at Amazon. For more information on Resmaa Menakem, visit resmaa.com.
For more information on the Racial Justice Network, visit bit.ly/2OUBH41.
Solomon Gustavo was a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.