On July 19th, Barack Obama honored the life of Trayvon Martin by giving voice to the history of racial trauma in the African American community. “It could have been me,” Obama states in reference to Trayvon. The remark reminds me of the old proverb, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Obama’s kinship with Trayvon relates of course to their identities as African Americans.
He delivered a 17 minute off the cuff speech with unprecedented candor, provoking powerful reactions that diverged along racial, political, and personal lines.
For Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin’s death was a trauma. It set off a chain of recollections that were outside of the flow of day to day experience, revealing additional dimension of his character. His recollections pointed toward his personal past, his identity as a black man, and his connectedness to the history of African American trauma.
He noted the particularly keen pain felt among African Americans in response to Trayvon’s death. He validated the context of African American trauma and asserted how important it is not to deny that context. His attempt was to make an often misunderstood group of people more understandable.
Of course, shared racial trauma is only one manifestation of the most essential human trauma: death…the reality of our own finitude…the vulnerability from which we inevitably attempt to turn away.
“It could have been me,” could be the unspeakable horror unveiled in the common war trauma: a man watches his buddy shot and killed. After the war, his experiences are unrecognizable by his community back home. The trauma remains sequestered in his mind; unseen, frozen in time, and unwelcomed by the world. Integrating trauma means finding a relational home (Robert Stolorow: Integrating Emotional Trauma) where the experience can be recognized and welcomed. In honor of Trayvon Martin, Obama expressed concern for the welfare and future of black youth, particularly the degree to which they may feel unwelcomed by the nation. By this recognition, Obama offers a welcoming to black youth, at least in part, inviting them into a relational home where painful experiences have been validated.
Some people were disturbed that race itself was so much at the fore of Obama’s speech. After all, there is no clear evidence that George Zimmerman’s motives were racially based. If Trayvon had been white would things have turned out differently? Would he be alive today? I read Obama as having no investment in the psychological disposition of George Zimmerman. He's aware of the possibility that racism played no significant role in the case. But more importantly, he is interested in validating the context from which African American's would suspect that it did. It appears the heart of his message is the importance of recognizing and validating the context from which African Americans come to understand the world, not adjudicating any specific instance. Privileging experience--not as absolute truth--but also not negating it-- is part of the process by which traumatic alienation find its way home.
Trauma longs to be recognized in a safe environment and put into words. Whether the trauma is born in the context race or combat, it longs for a relational home. When one is listening—when one can hold the great injustice of trauma experienced by another, they affirm that it shall not go overlooked.
There will always be a portion of the population that marginalizes the importance of trauma. There will always be the “Just get over it” crowd that for whatever reason has an aversion to psychological understanding…and marginalizes those who take their psychological well being seriously—seeing them as irrational, overly dramatized, manipulative, weak, self-victimizing, and so on. Often there’s a fear and hatred of vulnerability, a fear of facing one's own pain, a fear of feeling blamed, or being asked for restitution. Some of these factors may play a part in the strong negative reactions to Obama’s address.
Obama has a fitting response to sentiments of this sort. He says African Americans are looking through a set of experiences and history that does not go away. As Stolorow’s has articulated (see above link), “trauma recovery” is an oxymoron. There is no “getting over it.” It exists. That’s it. What’s left is the possibility of establishing a new relationship with it, one that needs its context validated.
In the final analysis, Barack Obama, President of the United States and Commander in Chief, dared to make the White House a relational home for those who have experienced racial trauma.