My Grandmother’s Hands

The Book Brigade talks to family therapist Resmaa Menakem

Posted Sep 21, 2017

used with permission of author Resmaa Menakem
Source: used with permission of author Resmaa Menakem

America has been dealing with race issues for a long time. Perhaps making more headway requires a different approach—one that’s less conceptual, more body-focused.

What is the book title a reference to? 

The title refers to my maternal grandmother and to how both trauma and resilience were expressed through her body. She was a small woman, but she had very thick, stubby fingers. They were the result of picking cotton as a sharecropper’s daughter, beginning when she was four years old.

Cotton plants have burrs in them that will cut you wide open. Eventually, her hands adapted to the repeated trauma in a way that protected her. But her hands looked odd, almost deformed, as a result.

My grandmother loved us with her whole heart. But, like so many Americans, she had a lot of trauma stored in her body, and she passed on some of that trauma—as well as her love and resilience—to her children and grandchildren.

My Grandmother’s Hands is about our human bodies; about how trauma affects them; about how that trauma is passed down through the generations; and about how resilience and trauma interact. The same bodily forces that make us resilient can also encourage us to harm one another.

What’s unusual about how your book addresses racism?

I don’t use the word racism very often. Instead, I write about white-skin privilege and white-body supremacy. So many of our efforts to address inequities, and violence, and hatred, and dead and broken bodies in our streets, have been conceptual—and they have failed. If we’re going to make any progress, we need to start with the body.

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle...” That’s where my book begins—with the human body.

And not just with the black body. If you study the history of Europe during the Middle Ages, you’ll see that the same cruelty—dislodging brains, blocking airways, and so forth—was what powerful white bodies did to less powerful white bodies for many hundreds of years. This created deep trauma in many, many white bodies.

When some of those bodies came to the New World, they brought that trauma—and those cruel practices—with them. Today, we Americans, whatever the hue of our skins, have great resilience—but we also continue to carry that trauma in our bodies.

How does your view differ from the views of others on the topic, and how did you come to your current perspective?

I studied with psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote the seminal book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, as well as with psychologist David Schnarch, who wrote several books on human connection, intimacy, and desire. Much of My Grandmother’s Hands is built on what I learned from them, as well as on the groundbreaking research of neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda, who has shown how trauma gets passed on from generation to generation in the very expression of our genes. So My Grandmother’s Hands is based on solid research rather than new or old “views.”

What I did was put together pieces—especially in terms of race, trauma, and biology—that are already widely accepted but that others hadn’t put together before. What’s new are some of the practical strategies that individuals and groups can use to address their trauma, day by day.

And many other practices in the book aren’t new at all. Some are practices that people have been doing intuitively for thousands of years. In offering these, I drew on the collective wisdom of my teachers, elders, colleagues, and fellow activists.

My book brings together multiple paths cut by many other highly respected people.

What pathways does your book open up for healing or surmounting the racial divide in America?

“The racial divide” is not like a time zone or the Mason-Dixon line. We can’t heal white-body supremacy and white-skin privilege without addressing and healing trauma.

And you can’t heal trauma without understanding how the human body processes and experiences it. That’s why I have an entire chapter on the vagal nerve—what I call the soul nerve—which is where we feel hope, dread, fear, empathy, anxiety, disgust, despair, and at least a dozen other emotions. It’s why I have a whole chapter on settling and safeguarding your body. And why I have chapters on reaching out to other bodies and harmonizing with them.

These are where the opportunities for healing lie. You’re not going to heal the Mason-Dixon line, but real, breathing, flesh-and-blood bodies can heal. My book helps to begin that healing.

We don’t put on our mountain climbing gear and surmount a racial divide. Instead, individually and collectively, we need to address our trauma, and heal our bodies and hearts. What you call “the racial divide” is not an obstacle to be conquered; it’s a wound that lives inside our bodies—a wound we can heal.

Who would most benefit by reading your book?

Almost everyone can benefit, because almost all of us have trauma—including race-related trauma—embedded in our bodies. If we are to make the most of our lives, and make the world more bearable for other human beings—then we all need to address that trauma. My book shows us how to begin.

That said, I wrote several chapters specifically for white Americans, several primarily for African Americans and other people of color, and several for law enforcement professionals. While I hope that everyone will read the entire book, these chapters contain a variety of simple, body-centered practices that will help people from each group address their trauma.

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My Grandmother's Hands

used with permission of author Resmaa Menakem
Source: used with permission of author Resmaa Menakem