If Trauma Kills, Black People Are Dying A Little Bit Every Day
There are real life effects of trauma on health and life span.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ”— James Baldwin
We were 15, maybe 16. It was an early fall day’s after school stop before we headed to our part-time jobs at the nursing home. We had made this trek many a day; our high school was on the opposite end of Brooklyn from home and work was solidly in the middle.
Every day, we had to take the train from school to the bus and then an approximately two-hour ride home or forty-five minutes to an hour to the nursing home. This day, this stop — like many others — met us arguing as many of our teenage days did. Sharing a face, a room, sometimes clothes, but not much in the way of personality traits was a recipe for an incessant bickering that we had honed over the years.
On this particular day, we were arguing over a cognac-colored leather jacket that one of us was wearing and the other wanted. We were standing in the middle of a Hallmark card store trying to pick out a birthday card for our granny and bickering about this jacket.
We were so engrossed in our argument that we didn’t even notice the short brunette woman following us from aisle to aisle. It wasn’t until we finally decided to put the disputed jacket in a backpack — so that no one would have it and I was shoving it in — that I noticed her creep up behind me.
“I wouldn’t try it, there are cameras everywhere! Take it out of your bag!”
We looked at each other in horror and a bit of shock. I was clearly putting a jacket in that bag. This was a card and stationery store. How would anyone even begin to think that we were stealing?
We had been so enthralled in the great jacket debate that we hadn’t even picked up a card yet. We were eyeballing them from afar.
We looked around and noticed we were the only Black people in the shop. My sister launched into a tirade about what they could do with their cards. I, however, just pulled her out of the store and we headed to work — birthday- card-less.
We worked every day, volunteered at numerous non-profits and were pretty good students, but this was not the first time we’d been followed. It was not the first time we were acutely aware that we were Black in a non-Black space. Every incident stays with you. They live in your bones.
When we were about four, we had a White friend that lived down the street from us. The neighborhood was experiencing White flight at the time. We never really went into their home. We always played in the yard. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary; most kids on the block played outside.
One day out of the blue, she attempted to run us over with her bike. Her mother came outside and saw our bruised legs. We had barely made it out of the way. There were small cuts on each of us — trickles of blood on our shins. She looked at us and took her child inside. I don’t remember the girl’s name. I remember my sister’s face — the heat rising off of her little self. I remember hot tears and running home. It was there where granny cleaned us up and told us to never go back to those people’s yard.
That was about 30 years ago. I remember.
I didn’t learn the term micro-aggressions until I was well into my twenties but the feeling they left me with, it lives in me. It makes me hypervigilant and alert in mainstream spaces.
Expanding the definition of trauma
A February 2019 Harvard Women’s Health Watch article entitled past trauma may haunt your future health asserts that:
A child’s perception of events is as important as what actually occurred. “While a child’s life may not have actually been in danger, the child may have seen it as life-threatening,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School.
I first learned of this idea whilst recently watching Nadine Burke Harris’ 2014 TEDMED talk entitled How Childhood Trauma Effects Health Across A Lifetime
Harris’ talk was riveting and made me think deeply about the links between childhood trauma and chronic health diseases. She outlines, quite convincingly, how childhood trauma triggers a child’s flight or fight response in ways that can irreparably damage their neurological and physiological development.
Over the span of a lifetime, this damage results in stress and anxiety living in the body as a response to everyday life. As the person grows older, they can develop conditions that range from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)to heart disease, cancer, and premature death. People with exposure to childhood trauma and/or adversity have triple the risk of acquiring the above mentioned health conditions and much more.
I was fascinated. However, as she described very real examples of trauma, I was struck by the fact that she made no mention of racial trauma. Perhaps, it was simply not a part of her research. The more I listened to her descriptions of trauma, the more I thought:
“If trauma kills, Black people are dying a little bit everyday.”
Surely there had been some research about the links between discrimination/ race based trauma and health, right?
I’d seen the term ‘racial trauma’ bandying about my social media timelines as part and parcel of the never ending stream of race-based, violent videos flooding the internet.
I googled it.
Is racial trauma a thing?
I found an article published on the American Psychological Association’s website entitled Uncovering the Trauma of Racism. According to the article published in February 2019, racial trauma is simply traumatization due to experiences of racism. It can be brought about in two ways:
Racial trauma can result from major experiences of racism such as workplace discrimination or hate crimes, or it can be the result of an accumulation of many small occurrences, such as everyday discrimination and microaggressions.
I think how individual Black (and other minority) people experience racism and as a result racial trauma is a mixed bag of both major and consistent reoccurring minor incidents.
Death by a thousand cuts
In the beginning of this piece, I mentioned some very personal incidents that happened to my sister and I. However, microaggressions run the gamut. People noticeably holding their purses tighter as you walk by. Comments about how articulate you are at work. Complete strangers feeling empowered to stick their hands in your “exotic” hair without permission. All microaggressions. I have experienced all of these plus a thousand other things, over and over again.
The part we don’t often explore in our community is that trauma can, and often, does live in our environments. Trauma is sometimes passed down and around neighborhoods as we witness the demise of other Black people. It happens to all of us, but can be particularly jarring for children. I need to look no further than back to me and my sister’s childhood for an example.
When we were eight years old, a 12 year-old boy from our street was caught joy-riding with some older boys in a stolen car. I’m picturing him now, a precocious and mischievous little boy. He wanted to be bigger than he was. He had the bravado of a 15 or 16 year-old trapped in the scrawny, underweight body of a preteen whose adolescence had not quite taken hold. He was scrappy and a little ashy. I always had the urge to offer him a bit of lotion.
He had severe asthma. You never saw him without an inhaler. He was arrested and put in a holding cell with grown men. He had an asthma attack. The other boys said that police refused to administer his inhaler. He died that same day in that same cell with them. He was just twelve. He was alive one minute and dead the next. The message was that the adults — the white police officers — did not think enough of him to let him live. This was just one year after the Rodney King beating. The Rodney King incident took place 3,000 miles away, but we all saw the footage on the news with our parents.
Back then, there were hardly recordings of these incidents of police brutality, but they certainly were happening. They live(d)in our bones like the stories of lynchings that would travel back through towns and Black neighborhoods in times gone by— warnings to stay in line.
Whilst we — my sister and me — were busy getting run over by our White “friend” in a Brooklyn back yard, the Exonerated Five were busy being tuned up, coerced and falsely convicted Uptown. The news of the day in tandem with the hurt of constant microaggressions — a thousand paper cuts — reverberate in our bones. We carry it all.
How does one heal scars that are continually inflicted?
The terrible thing is that it continues. We don’t/didn’t get to leave those traumatic events in our childhoods. It’s all still happening. The countless state-sanctioned murders of Black bodies that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement continue. These incidents also continue to be filmed and circulated for us all to see, process and experience in addition to whatever personal racial trauma battles we’ve been fighting.
“A little black child fighting in her sleep against an opponent she couldn’t name come morning because in the light that opponent just looked like the world around her. Intangible evil. Unspeakable unfairness. Beulah ran in her sleep, ran like she’d stolen something, when really she had done nothing other than expect the peace, the clarity, that came with dreaming. Yes, Jo thought, this was where it started, but when, where, did it end?”
― Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
If trauma kills, aren’t Black people dying a little bit every day?
Melissa tells stories, asks questions, laments on life, parenting, food, and navigating the world as a Black Woman. Follow her for more…