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Slave and Slaveholder Descendants Break Free of History's Trauma—Together

Responding to past traumas like slavery and acts of terrorism can heal us—and future generations.
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Historical Trauma photo by Jane Feldman

Historical trauma leaves wounds that can linger for generations. The nonprofit Coming to the Table (comingtothetable.org), founded by descendants of both slaveholders and enslaved people in partnership with the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, offers a framework for racial reconciliation within communities through the sharing of stories, the arts, and apology. Above, a photo from the group’s national gathering in Richmond, Va. Photo by Jane Feldman.

In Berkeley, Calif., Palestinians and Israelis in a workshop circle pass around an invisible object called “hope.” In Atlanta, Ga., healers and activists of color make a recording that celebrates local healing traditions. In the remote villages of Alaska, a native health educator creates culture-specific programs for people recovering from alcoholism and depression. All of these people are working with collective trauma to create a clearer and more compassionate paradigm of how we view ourselves, each other, and the world.

“Collective trauma” happens to large groups of people—attempted genocide, war, disease, a terrorist attack. Its effects are specific: fear, rage, depression, survivor guilt, and physical responses in the brain and body that can lead to illness and a sense of disconnection or detachment. Collective trauma can be transmitted down generations and throughout communities.

It is further described as historical, transgenerational, cultural, or ancestral. “Each of these terms has its own nuances,” says Sousan Abadian, a former fellow at the MIT Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformational Studies, who wrote her doctoral thesis on collective trauma and international development work. For example, she says the term “cultural trauma” reflects that “trauma is not just at the level of the individual, it’s at the level of culture—that culture has been damaged, meaning institutions, cultural practices, values, and beliefs.”

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Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart is one of the pioneers of applying the concept of historical trauma to native people in the Americas. For them, she writes, “Genocide, imprisonment, forced assimilation, and misguided governance have resulted in the loss of culture and identity, alcoholism, poverty, and despair.” She says she was looking at native historical photos at one point in the late 1970s when “It was almost like a light bulb went off in my head, like some kind of spiritual transformation.” She began making connections between indigenous people and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Historical trauma, she says, “is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including one’s own lifespan, because everything up to a minute ago is history.”

For historical trauma, Brave Heart identifies four necessary steps for healing: confronting trauma, understanding it, releasing the pain, and transcendence.
Ray Daw, a Navajo who currently works as a health administrator in Alaska, is one of many people using this model of historical trauma in work with Native communities.

As a result of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and mass shootings, collective trauma is something that all Americans have experienced, according to Daw. “The idea of historical trauma has really grown across the United States,” he says, “particularly among Native people.” Daw sees the Idle No More movement as bringing indigenous models of healing to the forefront and doing a lot to catalyze healing from the wounds of history.

Instead of being stuck with behaviors generated by anger or sadness, Daw says identifying the effects of trauma can help us “think of ways to not feel as angry or as sad, and connect with others who feel the same way.” And through this process, regardless of ethnicity, “We all begin to create a better world for ourselves.”

The trauma of Hurricane Katrina, and the lack of adequate government response, catalyzed the creation of the Kindred Southern Justice Healing Collective, a network of more than 100 healers and activists of color and their allies in the southern United States. They envision emergency response teams of healers, nurses, and doctors who could be ready in the face of any future disaster.
Collective member Cara Page says that Kindred roots itself within a Southern understanding of how transgenerational trauma is connected to a history of slavery, unethical medical testing, and economic displacement. “Healing generational trauma is not separate from political liberation,” she says.

Unacknowledged historical trauma can keep social activists in a cerebral, disconnected state which has the potential to tear movements apart.

Armand Volkas photo by Lisa Gale Garrigues

Psychotherapist Armand Volkas, a child of Holocaust survivors, believes that recognizing the potential perpetrator in all of us is an important part of the reframing process. His workshops use techniques of drama therapy, ritual, and storytelling. Photo by Lisa Gale Garrigues.

Collective resilience can be an antidote to collective grief. In Kindred’s recording, “Good Medicine,” Southern healers and activists of color challenge the current capitalist model of medicine and celebrate the healing traditions that kept their ancestors going: song, art, prayer, touch, and community.

America’s legacy of slavery and continuing racial injustice has led to “survival behaviors” in both blacks and whites, says Dr. Joy DeGruy, a professor of social work and author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. In whites, one such behavior is a denial of the past, which obscures the causes of current privilege. Unresolved historical trauma can render us invisible to one another. “Re-spect,” says DeGruy, is another way of saying “Look again.”

Whether the historical trauma was caused by slavery or genocide, the “looking again” that DeGruy describes—at ourselves, our history, and at one another—can lead to the last stage in Brave Heart’s four stages of healing: transcendence.

“The lesson of centuries of torture and millions of human sacrifices, including of my own people, on the altars of extremists and fanatics is not a lesson for exacting revenge,” writes Israeli author Avraham Burg in The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes. “Rather, in the name of those who went through it all and saw the inferno’s flames firsthand, we must prepare the ground for a better world.” Burg, along with other Jewish writers, has written about Israel as a nation formed from the collective trauma of the Holocaust, with fear driving it to be like the “battered boy” who becomes an abusive father. Without transcendence, or what Abadian would call “reframing the post-traumatic narrative,” collective trauma in any nation or ethnic group can play itself out on the personal and group level as paranoia or inflicting internalized trauma on others.

For Armand Volkas, a psychotherapist and child of Holocaust survivors, exploring and owning the potential perpetrator in all of us is an important part of the reframing process. Using techniques of drama therapy, ritual, and storytelling, he facilitates workshops between groups with a history of collective trauma between them: Jews and Germans, Israelis and Palestinians, Turks and Armenians, Japanese and Chinese, African Americans and European Americans. “Humanizing the enemy is one of the first steps,” he says. “Just the act of bringing people together.”

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In his workshops, individuals can reach personal catharsis and transcendence of national or ethnic conflicts that have played out over generations. In one instance, on the day a restaurant was bombed in Jerusalem, emotions in a workshop were running high as a group of Israelis and Palestinians passed around an invisible flame of hope during a warm-up exercise. When someone dropped the imaginary flame, an Israeli woman burst into tears and a Palestinian woman took her in her arms and held her.

But are compassion and empathy enough? What about justice?

Hug photo by Jamie Moffett
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“I know a lot of people say without justice, healing cannot take place. And I completely agree on one level,” says Abadian, who acknowledges the importance of changing institutions and cultures damaged by trauma. “On another level, if we wait around for justice, or think that our feelings or well-being are dependent on others changing their stance, or having our pain recognized by them, or making some sort of reparation, we are not free. … If we were to truly recognize the importance of healing collective trauma, it would reframe and transform our approach to everything, including international economic development, diplomacy, and nation-building.”

An embrace between an Israeli and a Palestinian, remembered by a roomful of people. Health workers re-envisioning a medical model that values our rich and distinct cultural traditions. People speaking out about how we hold collective memory in our bodies, our relationships, and our institutions. These may seem like small gestures when faced with the enormity of collective trauma. But for those who are working toward healing, they are the beginnings of a new social tapestry of respect, understanding, and hope.


Lisa Gale Garrigues wrote this article for Love and the Apocalypse, the Summer 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Garrigues is a writer, teacher, and healing consultant based in San Francisco. For information, go to: healingcollectivetrauma.com

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