The Black Family & Trauma

Lauryn Hill made this statement just days after her eldest daughter Selah went public with stories of the childhood trauma and abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley. Selah in coming forward to publicly discuss her personal struggle took a courageous step. I really appreciate her framing it as part of her personal reckoning and healing. And that her healing is part of her commitment to ending Black intergenerational trauma. This is a conversation long in coming.

Her mother, Ms. Hill added further complexity to this conversation by relating her side of the story. In doing so she made clear she was not disputing anything her daughter had said but to clarify her motives. Ms. Hill took responsibility for the unfortunate way she disciplined her daughter but not for disciplining her. In making that distinction, she brought to the fore the fraught nature of Black child-rearing. White supremacy has established a double standard in every imaginable sphere including child discipline. Black children are seen and judged on wholly different standards based on racist stereotypes. And these same racial stereotypes are used to justify violent oppression. For proof, one needs to look no further than school discipline. Black students are subject to incredibly punitive punishment from an alarmingly young age. Children as young as five years old have been arrested, handcuffed, and taken to jail. Through the lens of white supremacy, Black children are perceived as older, more dangerous, and rebellious. Just think of these words and how they were deployed during enslavement. They are the very words used to justify rape, torture, and violent oppression. Ms.Hill in trying to keep her children safe reenacted the very tortures we’d hoped to escape. Her fear for their safety led her to react from the deep well of unexamined intergenerational enslavement trauma. Dr.Joy DeGruy calls it Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. In refusing to examine the horrific legacy of enslavement and genocide the US not only retraumatizes the victims it continues to justify their continued oppression. A trauma that has been largely dismissed gets reinforced with every police or white citizen murder, every overly aggressive racist interaction.

I do not need to look to them for an opportunity to grapple with this reality. While my situation is not exactly the same the dynamics are. In the past few years, my brother and I have been unwittingly thrust into the position of being parents to our parents. They have each experienced years of great difficulty and in our efforts to help I find myself being more and more punitive with them. We can have a whole discussion on how my brother and I ended up in this situation or even if it’s a good idea for us to be taking it on the way we have. Short of that lately I have been wondering if my admittedly heavy-handed approach is helpful or causing more harm. I found myself hitting my head against the wall of their paralyzing passivity. Their stubborn refusal to react to their life-threatening circumstances. Fear, fearing for their lives may explain my harshness but it does not excuse it.

Let me back up to provide a more complete picture.

I come from a solidly middle-class family. My parents, born and raised in the soul-crushing poverty of Harlem, were successful professionals who built a very comfortable, privileged life for me and my brother. My father, while a brilliant electrical engineer, was a disaster in every other part of his life. His lifelong struggle with addiction never quite getting the best of him or our family but just. After many years my mother, the rock of our family, walked away ready to start her own life. She blossomed and grew professionally, had an active social life, and was traveling. She was finally living the life she’d always envisioned for herself. An unfortunate turn of events knocked her out. She has never recovered, in fact, over the years things have gotten more and more difficult. I am struck by how similar their attitudes have become. A sense of exacerbated helplessness, anger mixed with a curious lack of concern for their increasingly dire situations. While they are not our children, my brother and I are very aware that at the end of the day if we are not there for them no one will be.

For a child who only wishes the best for their parents, and grateful for the love and care they provided there is no other option but to keep pushing. Black lives at whatever stage of the game are in danger. This is the sobering reality we live with.

Just the other day a friend passed on a Sounds True podcast on intergenerational trauma. I was both greatly relieved to know it is real and to have a perspective from which to see it more clearly. One of the takeaways was the idea that any traumatic event is imprinted on a family for at least three generations. It was also insightful to understand that the descendants do not even have to know about the trauma to act it out. It is as if our traumatized ancestors are speaking through us, naming their truth. In fact, acting it out and any language used to characterize that behavior provides important clues to the trauma event. This is exactly why open discussion of trauma is essential. We must be able to name our trauma so that we can move forward.

Not only are we doomed to repeat the past but we will personally reenact past traumas passing them from one generation to another.

Most importantly though, knowledge of the original trauma is not necessary for healing. This information has changed my perspective on my parents' struggles; it has certainly helped me to see them in a larger context, as part of an entrenched history of oppression. But even more than that it has helped me step back to find kinder ways to support them.

Selah and Ms. Hill´s conversation has given us a huge opportunity to talk openly about our trauma. To understand Black enslavement trauma´s deep impact on Black lives. I cannot imagine that anyone´s ancestors ever intended for their descendants to be burdened by their pain. The previous generations had only the highest hopes for the preceding ones. And each new generation is a chance to not only do things better but hopefully get it right. In taking a more critical look at how we raise children and take care of loved ones we can understand how that trauma impacts us and shapes our families to stop it once and for all. This will put us a long way on the path to creating the supportive and loving communities we so desperately need for healing and transformation.

Below are some resources for further reading:

Resmaa Menakem’s Work

This On Being with Krista Tippet podcast — Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence with Resmaa Manakem

Cracking the code — Dr. Joy DeGruy

Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome — Dr. Joy DeGruy



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Nicole Pearson

Nicole Pearson

I am a Bronx born, Anchorage, Alaska raised activist, writer, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Spain. Here for all things travel and migration related.