Generational Trauma and The Lie

Eddie Glaude Begin Again book on James Baldwin

Generational trauma. A term few of us are familiar with.

Trauma can be a buzzword and there are a few ways that it is talked about.  For most of us, we think of it as an event.  A car wreck, an accident, a break-in.  Those incidents are named acute trauma and primarily arise from a single incident.

Another way is chronic trauma that is repeated and prolonged, such as domestic violence or abuse.  And the third way we talk about trauma is complex trauma, which is varied events that happen multiple times. Complex trauma is something that we are continuing to learn about and understand how it shows up. My specialty for lack of a better word is childhood trauma that occurs in the lives of children under 18.  This kind of trauma affects brain development and shows up in kids and adults in ways that most people do not understand.  There is a tremendous amount of data on this, and I will write more about it in May when I focus on the intersections of Mental Health and Foster Care. But it is incredibly important for churches to understand this as they work with youth and families. If you don’t understand what trauma is and how it shows up in kids and adults, it is hard always to be empathetic to people’s behavior. Particularly, if it is out of the norm.

As I studied, took classes, and learned more, I began to look at and understand generational trauma. It was clear that kids with trauma are often raised in homes where the parents had come from trauma. The parents were doing the best they could. The early data that came out on the implications of childhood trauma were stunning and significant, but they did not consider several other factors. Things that occurred outside of the household, such as violence, poverty, racism, other forms of discrimination, isolation, chaotic environment, and lack of services. It didn’t consider what we now know are protective factors such as supportive relationships, community services, and skill-building opportunities. Nor did it consider individual differences (for example not all children who experience multiple ACEs or adverse childhood experiences will have poor outcomes.)

How does this all connect? At the risk of causing you traumatic flashbacks to high school science class, I need to dive into a bit of the science of trauma. It is essential to understand how science is changing the way we engage with different people. In 2015, a groundbreaking study about holocaust survivors and their children discovered that trauma is passed down from generation to generation and spring boarded critical work in this field. This study showed that trauma does not change our DNA but involves something called epigenetics, which is the science of how behaviors and the environment can cause changes that affect how our genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence but can change how your body reads a DNA sequence. These changes were passed down for several generations.

What does this have to do with Black History?

If we look back at black history, it is important to figure out where this generational trauma started.

 

Knowing where we came from is always important to understand where we want to go. Last week I wrote about the Middle Passage and slave codes. I shared about redlining, election issues, and the wealth gap. All of these things created a history of trauma that we still see play out for many today.

Warning: This is a bit of a soapbox that I will stand on. It is one of those times I mentioned earlier where you may want to argue, bristle, or stop reading. That’s ok.  If and when you feel ready, this will be here, and I am always open to an offline conversation.

One thing I continue to discover is that as I begin to learn more, I start to find how history is not just a point in time but an accumulation of things. And all these moments in time that have happened are precursors to things that I want to learn more about and how they are deeply connected. To begin, I want to share some thoughts about history that are grounded in the book Begin Again by Eddie Glaude Jr.  This book was an essential read for me; that helped me understand how we got to where we are as a country as we confront or choose not to confront our history. At some point, I may want to do book clubs on any one of the shelves of books I have on social justice and theology, but that is a topic for later. Although this book is not explicitly based on theology, it is an interesting platform to discuss issues of trauma and race and the value of human life. This book sits on that same shelf with pages that are dog-eared, highlighted, and post-it noted (which may be a verb I just made up). It is a book that forces us, as white Americans, and also forces me to look at our history. It is political in nature because politics IS a driving force in the retraumatization of Black people.

Without a synopsis of the entire book, I will share that he grounds the book and begins with the concept of what he calls “the lie.” The lie is the idea that America is fundamentally good and innocent. We are founded on the principle that “all men are created equal”. Yet…. the genocide of native people, slavery, racial apartheid, Japanese internment camps, and the subordination of women prove that those words from the Declaration of Independence were really just words that applied to European Christian men. This lie is what allows us to avoid facing the truth about how we have treated people throughout our short history. As a whole and as a country, it seems we don’t like to confront our past. We prefer to shift blame on others, either those who came before us or on the people who we have minimized. This approach will never allow us to tell the truth and repair the harm. And isn’t that what Jesus would have asked us to do? Look at the truth and then reconcile and repair relationships.  Grace and mercy.  Those words should have meaning for us all.

Glaude shared that as we moved through our history, it became necessary that the lie stayed alive to justify our actions toward others. The lie that black people are inferior (and this is where a lot of our unconscious biases show up). We even put it in the original constitution. Article one, section two of the Constitution of the United States declared that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation. 3/5th of a person!! When I write about the church and race next week, which I admit is a tremendously difficult history to look at, we see that to be a Christian and attend a lynching, you had to believe that a Black person was not entirely human.

The same Christians that stood on the principles of the Bible that opens with this. So God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them;[bmale and female he created them. Not just some humans, all humans. Imago Dei.

IN HIS IMAGE.

So, if we look at this as a whole, we can see that our history of slavery and Jim Crow, lynching, and mass incarceration are all deeply tied to the idea that we did not see certain groups as made in His image. And that this history has created generational trauma for a group of people who have never been seen as whole. We, as a nation, let alone the church, need to look at the truth of our history and figure out how we can begin to heal and reconcile this. 

Because Reconciliation is impossible without acknowledging the truth.

That is a hard word. Because I would suspect none of us would think that we are racist toward individuals. But we need to look at the topic in its entirety. We need to continue to unpackage and unwind some of how we continue to re-traumatize groups of people through systems and policies. And those systems and policies have created some pretty big equity gaps.

Again, knowing where we came from is the only way to address where we want to go. How so?

Black Mental Health 

Mental health is finally starting to become less of a taboo topic in general, which is encouraging, but let me share some facts.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. Shares that Black folk are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress.

The National Alliance on Mental illness notes “Across a recent 15-year span, suicide rates increased 233 percent among African Americans aged 10-14, compared to 120 percent among Caucasian Americans in the same age group across the same span of time,” Read that again.  Aged 10 -14. 

The reality of black mental health boils down to many things, not the least which is the stigma.  Mental health already has a stigma attached to it.  Add being a male.  Add being African American.  Add social determinants of health.  Add childhood trauma.  Add generational trauma.  Add racism.  Add racial trauma.  Add disparity of access.  Add lack of cultural competence in treatment. Add disproportionate loss from covid.  

And without sharing the personal details, parenting a child who struggled with all of this was and is hard and scary and exhausting in a way that is hard to explain. The mental health hole can be dark and deep. and the data shows that often it is darker and deeper for people of color.

Black Maternal Health

Simply put, we are failing black mothers.

I will let the statistics speak for themselves.

Black women are THREE times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women. This data point spans all income and education levels.

Black babies are twice as likely to die within their 1st year as white babies (Heckler).

Black women are more likely to experience preventable maternal death compared with white women.

Black women are 3 x more likely to have fibroids than white women, and the fibroids occur at younger ages and grow more quickly for Black women.

Black women display signs of preeclampsia earlier in pregnancy than white women. This condition can lead to severe complications, including death, if improperly treated.

Black women experience physical “weathering,” meaning their bodies age faster than white women due to exposure to chronic stress linked to socioeconomic disadvantage and discrimination over the life course, thus making pregnancy riskier at an earlier age.

75% percent of Black women give birth at hospitals that serve predominantly Black populations. Black-serving hospitals have higher rates of maternal complications than other hospitals. They also perform worse on 12 of 15 birth outcomes, including elective deliveries, non-elective cesarean births and maternal mortality.

Black women experience higher rates of unintended pregnancies than all other racial groups, in part because of disparities in access to quality contraceptive care and counseling.

Friends, we need to do better for our sisters! This data is incomprehensible and unacceptable.  What judgments do we make after hearing these statistics? How can you work to eliminate these disparities? What more do you need to learn?

p.s. Connect with my friend Dr. Quantrilla Ard @quannyboo for a deeper understanding of this topic.  She wrote her dissertation on “Maternal Discrimination Stress and Negative Birth Outcomes Among Black Women” and continues to work in this field today.

Bonus Coverage

So, being as it is Super Bowl week (and full confession, I am a die-hard 49er fan), you get this.

Before this weekend’s game, you may hear the Black National Anthem played beforehand in addition to the national anthem. If so, you most likely will also hear people complaining about it. Not just complaining but up in arms about it.

So I ask, what do you know about the “Black National Anthem”? 

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a hymn. It was first written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson and was set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1899. First publicly performed in Jacksonville, FL (Johnson’s hometown) on Feb. 12, 1900, it was part of the celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday, sung by a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where Johnson was Principal.

The song is a prayer of faithfulness and freedom. A prayer of liberation and affirmation.

Today “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is one of the most beloved songs of the Civil Rights Movement and is gaining popularity as the Black National Anthem. Yet, we continue to question its purpose. A question to ask yourself. Why is that? Why do we want to minimize something that has deep significance for a part of our population that has historically been seen as less than human?

With that, I want to wrap up with a bit of hope. I want to loop back to the beginning and talk about Trauma and resilience. I may have mentioned earlier that I consult for churches and non-profits on childhood trauma.  The work is personal for me because of the experience of raising my younger boys.  The outcome data for childhood trauma can be very discouraging, and the first few hours of the training are often really hard for people. But, in the 2nd half, we move into resiliency – the ability to thrive, adapt, and cope despite tough and stressful times – we talk about the science of hope.

As I learn, read, research, and listen, I find myself awed by the resiliency of African Americans.  Generation after generation of trauma from slavery to the day-to-day of raising black men in this racialized climate affects not only physical health but dramatically changes how one interacts in the world.  

But…..for resilience.  James Cone, a Methodist minister, author, and advocate of black theology, talks about just this.  He says that no matter how bad things were, they believed that a change would come.  A way of life that was built from praising in the storm and the refusal to be defeated by tragedy. 

 

Dr Yolanda Pierce, a scholar, writer, and theologian, talks about it too. She states that this racialized society is not new, but how she inherited a sense of hope, knowing that her God was always on the side of the oppressed.  In fact, that is His specialty-that is where He shows up. A faith that never gave up and lived, not theoretically, but alive in day-to-day survival. 

For most, they found this resilience in the church.  Maybe they resonated with the early followers of Jesus, who were a minority group fighting against an oppressive empire. When talking about the era of lynching, James Cone writes, “Just as Jesus did not deserve to suffer, they knew they did not deserve it, yet faith was the one thing white people could not control or take away.”  They found resilience in the worst of circumstances and still do today. 

I think of this when I reflect on the role of the church in addressing childhood or generational trauma. Begin to consider how the modern church has contributed to or hindered healing and resilience. What can we learn from our brothers and sisters who have mastered resiliency despite the worst of traumas? What more do you want to learn?

Because learning creates empathy, change, and healing.

Episode 2: Apple podcasts

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