Simone Jacobs, LCSW-C
Ly Vick Johnson, MSW
This blog post is part of an ongoing conversation about the connection between history and mental health. The enslavement of millions of Black men, women, and children was a traumatic experience and its effects are still being felt today. The work of the Slavery Inventory Database is about documenting these stories, many of which contain material that can activate a post traumatic response in the present. We believe it is just as important to tell these stories, as it is to recognize how and why the trauma of American Slavery remains relevant. Please note that nothing contained in these reflections is mental health advice, and you should seek the help of a trained counselor if you find yourself having an unwanted or difficult reaction. Conversations about trauma are hard and extremely complex, in writing short blog posts we cannot talk about every aspect of the trauma response. Instead we choose to highlight one or two themes and hope that over time the complex layers of the interconnectedness of past trauma and current mental health will reveal themselves.
“History…is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us.”
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
Last week on our monthly #fieldtripfriday, the Slavery Inventory Database (SID) team met with some amazing historians connected to the Sugarland Ethnohistory Project in Poolesville, Maryland. It was truly a privilege to listen to Gwendora Hebron Reece and Suzanne R. Johnson as they shared about their herculean efforts to collect and document information about their community that has roots dating back to the civil war. (You can read about what this group has done here and here).
Ms. Reece and Ms. Johnson shared with us their projects to find unmarked grave sites, coordinate the family reunions, and the efforts to maintain and preserve much that could be lost or forgotten. There was much of interest related to mental health in their project, but the focus of this blog are two particular snippets:
The first has to do with wanting to share the strengths of the community and the lessons that we can learn from the past. Ms. Reece said that older family members in this community never talked about slavery. Experiences of enslavement were not discussed. They just got on with surviving. Many passed down the skills they had learned whilst enslaved to survive as well as to enrich their lives, the lives of their families, and their community. But they did not talk about that experience. Like many other Black communities around the country, they were interdependent communities, taking care of each other and their neighbors.
The second was in reference to one of the historic homes we visited, you can see some photos here. This historic home still had a decent amount of their historic landscape intact, including a number of contributing historic outbuildings, one or two of which had been built as slave dwellings. This part of Maryland has few remaining or documented dwellings for enslaved peoples. The house that we visited had recently been on the market and the real estate marketing terminology described these historic outbuildings as “guest houses.” Someone wondered aloud why the real use of the properties is so rarely accurately listed. My immediate response was to point out that this is what happens with trauma, there is a need to wipe out the abuses, to sanitize them, to forget them, this way they cannot be held accountable for their actions.
When healing from trauma, remembering the past is an important part of the process on both sides of the traumatic experience.
For the wounded, remembering is important because that trauma – whether it is spoken about or not – gets passed down from one generation to the next. It is passed down in our bodies, it is in our very genetic makeup, it is passed down in our relationships, it is passed down in the ways in which we cope, it is passed down in the way we shape and make meaning of our lives.
If we don’t know our history, we are often perplexed by things we don’t understand. We are doomed to repeat behavioral patterns that were meant only to help us survive the unsurvivable. When we don’t know our past we cannot draw on the strength, perseverance, and creative ingenuity of those who survived before us.
Remembering the past helps us to make sense of our lives in the context of our lived experience. This gives us the freedom to change our automatic responses, allowing us to draw from other available resources. Having a choice about how we respond allows us to connect to the past as well as the present in healthy ways, freeing us from the burdens of the dominant white cultural narratives that suppress and subvert the past. Remembering the past allows us to begin telling our own stories in ways that nourish and uplift us.
For the perpetrators of past and current abuses, there is often a malignant investment in denial. Denying the violence, means never being held accountable for their crimes. Denying the atrocities of enslaving men, women, and children means a continuation of white supremacy and the privileges of power and financial wealth that come with that. Denying the past means denying the humanity of those they hurt and there are serious consequences to that. When people deny the humanity in the other, they deny their own humanity, and erode their capacity for connection, empathy, and love. And while power and privilege are useful distractors they become empty vessels for true fulfillment.
“I say, no man of conscious can take a lash to another human day in and day out without shredding at his own self. Takes him to a place where he either makes excuses within his mind to be unaffected or he finds some way to trample his guilty sensations.” -Armsby, (12 Years a Slave)
Accountability is necessary so that true healing can take place for all involved in the historical trauma of slavery. Two of the questions that SID is asking is who to hold accountable and how. We are involved with reparations projects with various institutions and communities that actively seek to take this responsibility.
We are also giving recognition to the importance of addressing and bringing to light how history affects our collective and individual mental health today.