Healing Racial Trauma

Below is a 6:30 video showing a segment from Lenard McKelvey’s Comedy Central show Tha God’s Honest Truth.  He’s taken the performance name Charlamagne Tha God, which explains the name of his comedy show, which sometimes takes on topics not all that funny, as in the video below. He’s shown with three guests, but the clip I’ve edited down focuses on Resmaa Menakem, author most recently of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.  Earlier in the show McKelvey had interviewed two friends, Chico Bean and Ice Wave, about processing their racial trauma, and during the process had become triggered himself. “I thought I was past all that,” he says, and the video below begins just as Menakem says, “I saw it happen,” to which McKelvey just says, “Lord, have mercy.”  “That’s why when we came out I said to you, ‘We’re holding you, brother,’” Menakem says, and then we go on to watch Menakem lead everyone through a practice to help alleviate one aspect of racial trauma.

It’s been only 43 years since the American Psychiatric Association added, in 1980, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, to its central diagnostic guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short. This was the third edition, DSM-III, and the addition was controversial.  Today PTSD is accepted virtually throughout society, though it’s also misused, as its central component, trauma, is often attributed—sometimes jokingly, but many times not—to incidents that aren’t really that severe, intense, or injurious physically or emotionally. But who can deny that soldiers in combat or victims of rape haven’t been truly traumatized?

The same goes for victims of racism, though we’re just beginning to admit this to ourselves as a society. It’s taken so long because…well, because our racism blocks our full realization of how traumatic racism has been and continues to be.  Just over a year ago I posted on this site a five-minute video distilling the main ideas behind a 2008 lecture by Joy DeGruy.  As with many things, you have to go back to W.E.B. Dubois for someone who started a discussion pertinent to race, and it’s the same with the recognition of the trauma of racism.  But Joy DeGruy has been a key figure in bringing a growing recognition of race trauma to us today.  She calls it Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.  You see your children sold off, your sister raped, your husband lynched.  You endure the absolute traumas of this with no mental health intervention whatever.  This goes on for centuries.

“Trauma in a person can appear like personality over time.  Trauma in a family can appear like family traits over time. Trauma in a people can appear like culture over time.”  This is one of Menakem’s key insights, as is the idea of “bracing.”  We walk around waiting for the next shoe to drop.  We brace for it, and this continual “bracedness” turns up the adrenaline, turns up the cortisol, and our bodies suffer because of it.  Menakem’s focus is on the bodily damage racism causes—the body which houses our instincts, our fight-flee-or-freeze reactions.  Racism not only attacks our minds, our emotions, but the very fiber of the bodies we inhabit.  And we all suffer from it, even whites, who are also profoundly damaged by the white supremacy that damages and traumatizes Blacks and other people of color all the time.  The police suffer, too, and much of the brutality they commit—no matter what color they are—comes from the culture of racial trauma that surrounds them.  It surrounds all of us.

I was recently in San Francisco.  I grew up in Hayward, California, just across the Bay.  And because our Pandemic had renewed and intensified anti-Asian hate, had caused the number of violent incidents against Asian Americans to soar across the country, but particularly in California, and particularly in San Francisco, I walked around “braced” all the time.  I felt my mind, my emotions, my body continually “braced,” continually clenched, every moment I was outside.  I was guarding against the possible blow, continually turning to watch reflections in the windows of stores I walked past so I could check who was behind me.  In that hyper-vigilant mode I realized how much of my life I’d spent being braced, though the racial trauma of my life is just barely on the scales of the traumatic.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page and to the LEAD POST for the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community, where this article and video are also listed.

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The list of sermons I put at the end of each sermon I post has gotten unwieldy, so below is a complete list of them all.  This will allow me to list just a couple of them after each sermon, then refer you to this list.  Most of them have video of my presentation, but I hope you will also read the accompanying posts.  I think a lot about what I think I should be saying, but then usually deliver the sermon fairly impromptu, with little or no notes.  In the citation accompanying the awarding of my professor emeritus status, there’s this sentence: “His students have noted that the published poet and composer had a lecture style ‘like jazz.'”  Sometimes I wish I were more scripted, as this style can open itself up to mistakes of the moment.  In the posts I attempt to correct or clarify what I said, and they also provide spaces to reflect on what I actually did say.

From a traditional spiritual perspective, when we preach we’re supposed to be instruments conveying what God has laid on our hearts.  People have written to me afterwards thanking me for letting God use me to deliver a message that was particularly meaningful for them.  I’ve sometimes thought speaking impromptu makes us more open to the leadings of the Spirit, but upon reflection it’s obvious that the Spirit can direct us in the writing down of what we say just as powerfully as coming to us in the moment we’re speaking. In fact, at least two of the sermons below—Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet” and “It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know”—were written out completely first (there’s also no video accompanying them). The latter was my go-to Baccalaureate address I used when asked to speak at that occasion. The last time I gave it, it was just six months after my youngest son Bryan Emmanuel Guzman had died.  Afterwards several people thanked me for speaking right from the heart—which I did, even though I read it all.

Here’s the sermon list.  My wife says I’ll probably never do better than the first one listed (“Pentecost Means No Supremacies”), but my own favorite is the second one (“Sacred Doing”).

Pentecost Means No Supremacies
Sacred Doing
It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know
Searching for Prophets
Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet
Who Do You Stand With? A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
Three Things to Stop Saying
How Holy Was Jesus?
Servants Know First
Everything’s OK?
The Quiet After Easter
Theology and Race
The Lamb and the Rock

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Jazz as Art, Jazz as Cool

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 11th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  This show focuses on the transition from Bop to Cool Jazz. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


Show #11—Jazz as Art, Jazz as Cool—continued to look at Bop, especially the dissolution of the movement, though “dissolution” certainly overstates the case. The musical advances of Bop changed jazz forever.  They became staples, even cliches, of jazz playing and conceptualization even as many counter movements sprang us, sometimes borne of continuing hostility to Bop. The so-called Dixieland Revival was one of those movements, which attempted a pale throwback to the sounds of New Orleans jazz of the 1920’s and 30’s.

But Bop as a movement itself waned, in large part because of the death, at 34, of one of its principle founders, Charlie Parker.  Not only was he the most brilliant musical innovator of his time, the intense struggle and chaos of his life made him a cultural icon as well. His music and personality propelled jazz into the status of high art, something that often threatened the very survival of the music itself.  To paraphrase the great writer Ralph Ellison, no one tried harder than Charlie Parker to escape the role of entertainer. Louis Armstrong had created a kind of fake clownishness as part of his entertainer role, but in rejecting the entertainer’s role so intensely, Parker became something more primitive: a sacrificial lamb, a person who sacrificed himself on the altar of art for a higher cause.  Most probably didn’t really understand, but gravitated towards Parker’s agony anyway.

The movement that supplanted Bop was so-called Cool Jazz, but its relation to Bop and much of the jazz tradition was problematic from the start.  The eccentricities of Bop musicians—the goatees, the berets, the strange detachments—were taken up as mere style. You were a hipster now, and young musicians were accepted as artists if they wore that beret and said, “Cool, my man,” even if they could really barely play.  Parodying the artist’s withdrawal from the entertainer’s role was the hipster’s withdrawal from everything into a kind of cool vegetation. To be cool now meant to be socially uninvolved instead of stoic and calm in the face of trouble.

In many ways Bop was another attempt by Blacks to control the economic and cultural aspects of their music, but Cool Jazz, in moving away from the virtuosity and musical advances and complexities of Bop allowed more white musicians—a few of them great musicians, it must be said—to participate.  A more mainstream audience returned, but the music and that audience were much whiter.  This even though many of the leaders and inspirations for Cool Jazz were Black, in particular Miles Davis, and before him the great tenor man Lester Young.

I grew up listening to the Dave Brubeck Quarter, and still love lots of both him and Chet Baker. A good amount of great music came out of the Cool movement, but many other musicians went elsewhere. The original show ended by talking about and playing several tunes from two iconic musicians who were playing otherwise: Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown.  Cool Jazz was centered on the West Coast and was often referred to as West Coast Jazz. The type of jazz Rollins and Brown played centered on the East and produced Soul or Funk Jazz and Hard Bop.  A battle of coasts was on, a battle not just over style but over where one located the roots and central traditions of jazz. In terms of hewing more closely to the blues and embracing the importance of voice—a central theme of my book and radio series—I’d have to say East Coast Jazz stayed closest to the vibrant, traditional roots of jazz.  When I wrote a tribute to Dave Brubeck upon his death in 2012 at age 92, I titled it “Un-Blue Jazz.”

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page, and to a list of these radio show excerpts.

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Cecil, Monk, and New Thing Jazz

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 15th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  This show focuses on one of jazz’s most controversial figures: the pianist Cecil Taylor. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


The 15th show of Voices and Freedoms focused on pianist Cecil Taylor, with a nod back to one of his great predecessors, Thelonius Monk, also a pianist and one of jazz’s greatest figures. This focus on Taylor, like perhaps my focus on Fats Waller earlier, might seem an odd choice to some, but I consider Taylor the third of the big three musicians of what became known as “New Thing Jazz.” The other two were John Coltrane (the focus of show #13) and Ornette Coleman (show #14).

New Thing Jazz sought to move jazz beyond what had become its standard form and sound, and for that reason it often produced music that was hard to understand and even harder to listen to.  In this 15th show of the series, I’m once again joined by the great jazz critic and scholar Martin Williams, who explains that the standard form for jazz was a theme and variations approach where a song’s main theme is presented, usually by the ensemble, and then, backed by a standard rhythm section of piano (or guitar, or both), bass and drums, the horn soloists take turns improvising on the melody and chord structure of that theme. The piano or guitar usually goes last, then there’s a bass and drum solo, then various standard ways of the horns interacting to bring the solos to a close before returning to a restatement of the opening theme.  I love that form, as do most musicians and listeners.  But practiced over and over again even I grow a little weary, and we look for something to break the mold, perhaps a particularly beautiful or energetic solo performance somewhere.

Each of the main proponents of New Thing Jazz explored deeper ways of breaking the mold. Coltrane explored alternatives to standard Western music and chordal structures, and often sought to break chords apart into “sheets of sound” and cadenzas of furious melodies.  Ornette Coleman questioned the business of soloists taking their turns playing while being backed by the rhythm section. In essence, he questioned why anybody had to play a subsidiary backup role. Couldn’t the group all be soloists playing together, with nobody subsidiary to anyone else.  This often produced a music where bass and drums and, if there was one, the pianist were pursuing solo lines at the same time all the horn soloists were playing their own solo lines.  Everything seemed to be happening at once:  the bass and drums and piano were going off on their own while the horn soloists were going their separate ways all at once themselves.  It often seemed a cacophony of sound. But Coleman’s notion could also produce a  wholeness and artistic convergence of purpose that was thrilling beyond belief. Cecil Taylor, a conservatory-trained musician, brought a deep understanding of modernist concert music by Bartok, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and others to his concept of jazz playing and composition.

Bartok, for example, showed Taylor different ways of handling folk melodies, and many thought that in Cecil Taylor they had found that long-sought link between jazz and European concert music.  This was especially the case in so-called “aleatoric” music, where, as people like Werner Meyer-Eppler began to teach in the early 1950’s, a part of a composition is left to “chance” as the performer performs an otherwise composed piece of music.  Often, pianistically, this resulted in free and furious cascades of notes, a feature in a considerable amount of Taylor’s music.  The link between “aleatory” and “improvised” is easy to make, and takes us back even further into European music when Beethoven and many others improvised long variations on the pieces they had written.  But perhaps one of his major influences was the great jazz pianist Thelonius Monk (pictured above) who has made many appearances throughout this radio series.  This episode explores their relationship.

Still, it’s undeniable that some of Cecil Taylor’s music, especially one of his major works, Unit Structures, bears a striking resemblance to modern concert music using tone rows, seriality, and aleatory elements. But Cecil, like Monk, also adds to this a deep feeling for the blues and the vocal qualities of his playing are strong.  This episode on Taylor comes near the end of the Voices and Freedoms radio series, and here, more than ever, I was anxious to say that if people can see both that grasping after freer and freer forms of expression, plus that holding onto the importance of the human voice, they can understand the widest variety of jazz music and see how it emboldens us to resist dehumanization and uplift the freedom-seeking, voice-affirming humanity in us all.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page, and to a list of these radio show excerpts.

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