On Becoming a Somatic Abolitionist
Resmaa Menakem intersperses political commentary and predictions about American democracy with explanations of how racialized trauma presents in our bodies, and offers body-focused exercises to deal with it.
I started somatic experiencing—an alternative therapy that remediates trauma through bodywork—at the recommendation of a friend who, like me, is a Black woman. Meds and talk therapy effectively treated my depression but did little to ease my increasingly frequent and severe anxiety symptoms of chest tightness, dissociation, and panic attacks.
My new therapist guided me in embodying trauma and anxiety by helping me ascertain where I felt it in my body, expand the sensation in a controlled manner, and then, using visualization and movement, to release it.
A year later, I can down-regulate my emotions before I spiral into panic through tapping, self-massage, and grounding through my feet. We are still working on embodying positive emotions to access them later. Evolution gave humans a negativity bias to keep us from danger, and mine is exceptionally strong.
Based on my experience of somatics, I was intrigued by psychotherapist and author Resmaa Menakem’s new book, The Quaking of America: An Embodied Guide to Navigating Our Nation’s Upheaval and Racial Reckoning. The project is a manifesto and manual for “Somatic Abolitionism,” which the author defines as “an individual and communal effort to free our bodies—and our country—from their long enslavement to white body supremacy and racialized trauma.” Menakem, who authored 2017’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, intersperses political commentary and predictions about American democracy with explanations of how racialized trauma presents in our bodies, and offers body-focused exercises to deal with it.
I thought I’d be great at Somatic Abolitionism, given my familiarity and success with somatic therapy. Oh, how wrong I was.
This is not a book to binge. There is a lot of new vocabulary. Each of the book’s 50 chapters ends with at least one body practice to try. Body practices are one kind of “rep,” anti-racist actions and behaviors we need to repeat continually to “develop the essential grit of Somatic Abolitionism.” Reps help reduce White fragility around race and condition “bodies of culture”—a term the author prefers to “people of color”—to cope with “white body supremacy,” or WBS. Menakem prescribes doing reps constantly and, ideally, following them with “soul scribing,” a sort of journaling practice to track your progress.
Over time, these combined efforts will condition our bodies to remain “settled” and respond calmly to emerging threats—the most immediate of which is the civil war Menakem predicts is going to pop off sometime between now and 2025. The Quaking of America is a lot to metabolize.
Still, there are moments of genius in the book. Menakem structured Quaking to resemble the “social and political double helix” of racial reckoning and potential civil war. Despite this complexity, he writes with real clarity of thought, always coming back to his initial thesis that Somatic Abolitionism is vital to dismantling White supremacy in America.
While his visceral descriptions of predicted street-level warfare felt inflammatory to me when I started the book in April, they seem eerily prophetic in the wake of multiple mass shootings since then. The section on how bodies of culture can arm and protect themselves may fall flat amid the current conversation on gun control, but his recounting of gun control’s racist past is illuminating.
I also found Menakem’s thoughts on how individual trauma can morph into collective experience and even national identity particularly revelatory.
“The longer that trauma goes unacknowledged and its energies go unmetabolized, the more likely it is for its origins to be forgotten,” he writes. “Over months, years, or generations, trauma tends to become decontextualized from its precipitating event or events. In an individual, decontextualized trauma can start to look like personality; in a family, like family traits; and in a people, like culture.”
Menakem’s insights into Republican strategy are spot on—if they aren’t, well, I truly hope no Republican ever reads this book and picks up ideas—and he has the Democrats pegged. In fact, everything he writes about White progressives resonated to my core.
To Democrats: “Stop your feckless handwringing. End your calls for cordiality and bipartisanship. They are no substitutes for justice and liberation.” The way he admonishes White progressives for performing woke résumés made me belly laugh. “If you have a white body and say to a body of culture, ‘Hi! I’m your ally and a Somatic Abolitionist,’ they will immediately know that you are neither. And they will be right.” He also wisely tells them straight-up not to put “Somatic Abolitionist” on sweatshirts or bumper stickers.
I most appreciated later sections of the book that united body practices, such as grounding and orienting (the latter includes visiting public spaces and looking for exits), with applicable wartime tips. Buy a burner phone (and keep it charged!); memorize in-case-of-emergency numbers; bring bug spray; consider wearing a body cam that uploads to the cloud to prevent violence and document it when it occurs.
Ironically, I didn’t get as much from the somatic experiencing parts of the book. The early chapters’ charged descriptions of the seemingly inevitable path from right-wing rhetoric to hyperlocal violence triggered a panic attack for me—and I don’t even live in the U.S. anymore. I felt somewhat manipulated that Menakem whipped up my anxiety just so he could tell me to “pause”—that word, italicized, peppers the book—and then curl in and out of the fetal position to deal with the aftershock. (By the way, if you have a large body or mobility issues, many of the body practices may be hard to do.)
And there’s no way I’m opening myself up to the titular experience of “quaking,” which sounds like a glorified panic attack, without the presence of my therapist. Limiting my exposure to violent images, particularly of the WBS variety, is actually part of my own somatics practice, so I won’t be taking Menakem up on rewatching Jan. 6 footage either. When Menakem gave me permission to skip body practices that didn’t work for me, I basically skipped them all.
I don’t understand why Menakem waited until the second half of the book to explain the body as “resource”—which my therapist covered in our first session—and offer practices to help readers more fully embody positive emotions. For me, Chapter 47’s body practice, recalling times when I was “particularly strong, resilient, or resourceful—or all three” and reminding myself that “strength, resilience, and/or resourcefulness” remain in my body would have been a way better opener. By the time we finally got there, I had already moved from overwhelm to resentment to resignation that I will never be a Somatic Abolitionist. I’m OK with it.
I also would have liked to see a bit more discussion of the cognitive role in anxiety, particularly what traditional and social media do to our brains. Menakem hardly mentions social media’s undue influence on Americans’ political identities, or how online communities and messaging platforms played prominent roles in the 2016 election, the Jan. 6 riot, and mass shootings. I’m not convinced that, even in the best of times, a critical mass of Americans would have the will, the time, and the emotional bandwidth to take on Somatic Abolitionism for the nine generations Menakem estimates it will take to truly dismantle racism in America. It seems all but impossible in the era of deep fakes, disinformation, and mainstreamed conspiracy thinking.
Ultimately, I ended my read with respect and admiration for the author, and agreement on the fundamental importance of using our bodies as a resource to deal with past trauma and future challenges. “Cultivating resource isn’t just an emergency measure—something to turn to when life becomes stressful and painful,” Menakem writes. “The practice of cultivating resource can benefit you at all times—not just when the chips are down. Whatever your situation, it can add meaning, wisdom, compassion, insight, and stability to your life.”