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.