A meditation on intergenerational trauma and how we raise Black children
Intergenerational trauma is visceral and all-consuming.
This essay contains discussion of suicide.
by Donnie Moreland
On the other side of her beautiful and hardened, bulging belly, I can feel them. My baby navigating the uterus of the woman I love, curious to the pressure of my palm on the soft brown flesh between them and I. I imagine their curiosity, or agitation, with the imposing sensations of my infatuation with them.
Their mother looks at me and her smile is infectious. I am in love with this gorgeous Black woman. This Nigerian woman of might and mind. We settled ourselves into a kinship of relational intimacy, trust, and reciprocal appreciation. And it is beneath the heft of that bond that our child was conceived.
Our child’s genealogical fabric is stitched with the hands of Black folk, both known and unknown, who’ve let their feet bathe in the warmth of coastal West African sands and bleed across the grisled plantation grounds of the cotton fields of the American South. They are woven by history, but more importantly they are woven by love.
When I say love, I am not waxing poetic about an aesthetic, but communicating a practice. A practice in protecting the sovereignty of their touch and their interior. A Black child, more than many, deserves that paternal preservation of their person because a shared history of private, and very public, atrocity serves as memory of its pertinence to their survival.
Reading bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, I find myself meditating on a passage in the chapter, “Moved by Passion”, in which hooks recalls observing a Black child being berated by their mother for attempting to touch an item in a store and the mother’s need to keep eyes, assumedly white eyes, from her child.
hooks uses this social observation to begin a discussion with us about touch. She asserts, “Taught not to reach out and touch objects in the world that invite interest and brings pleasures, many black children are socialized to think that this desire is bad and brings punishment. They learn to repress the desire to touch and need to be touched.”
There is very little research qualifying the implications of, what I call, reductive intimacies. Reductive intimacies being behaviors, or mores, which interrupt the development of healthy platonic, romantic, and sexual expression, often contingent on one’s relationship to physical touch. However, all we must do is look to the critical reception of the film, Moonlight (2018), and the Broadway play, Choir Boy (2019), both written by MacArthur Genius Award recipient,Tarell Alvin McCraney, to see disturbing implications of how an improper social pedagogy related to rearing children around the subject of touch, the body and bodily pleasure inform how Black children, especially boys, dehumanize themselves and castrate their innocence, for fear of a desire to feel.
But the body is a vessel for sensation that the mind orients and protecting the sanctity of mind is as pertinent for our children as sheltering the flesh. It’s when I read Walter Johnson’s, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market that the truth of the aforementioned sentiment is reaffirmed through the crude depiction of suicide. The book documents and contextualizes the memory of terror imbedded firmly in the auction houses of the Antebellum slave markets. The text rarely unsettled me more than the sixth image, mid-book, of a crudely painted Black woman suspended in the stillness of the night’s air while plummeting to the empty street below after leaping from the third story window of an unidentifiable nineteenth century auction house.
The image is entitled, “But I do not want to go…..”, illustrated by Alexander Rider for Jesse Torrey’s 1817 A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery in the United States. The woman portrayed, Anna, survived claiming that she “did not want to go”, did not want to be migrated to another plantation, as her reason for committing such an action against her body. And therein lies crux of my discomfort. How brutally and atrociously frightening must an institution of forced labor be to encourage such self injurious behavior? And what are the effects of such violence on the children of the enslaved?
Intergenerational Trauma is visceral and all-consuming. As descendants, we must inquire the torture of the mind undergone by ancestors who were stricken with disease, castrated, raped, forcefully migrated, and made to labor while malnourished until death, all while watching their wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, lovers, friends, and confidants endure the same. As Dr. Amber Thornton details, “In 2015, researchers released data showing that there were more suicides among African American children ages 5 to 11 than among Caucasian children. This was the first national study to observe higher suicide rates for African Americans than for Caucasians in any age group.”
I myself have attempted suicide three times. My father and his estranged biological father have both known haunting traumas of the mind. I can imagine how much the most grotesque period of human tyranny, whose victims’ blood I bear, colors my own mental illness. Knowing the propensity of my own child to share in such an inheritance wears on my ego. I’d give all to not know the horror of hearing, “I’m ready to die”, as my father did on the other end of the line when I called him during the Summer of 2018, prepared to erase that which he most adored—my life.
Wrestling with such disease, both unseen and historical, is a monstrous affair and many Black folk suffering undiagnosed are without the medical proficiencies, resources, and vernacular, to undertake such a task. It’s of little surprise that when Black children present with mental health symptoms, their suffering is too often susceptible to both the ire and neglect when those charged with their care have endured the very same trauma and know, more than not, ineffectual refuge.
Black children have known great pain—the adoption of the Pickaninny as part of the cultural lexicon, the Atlanta Child Murders, the advocacy of the molestation of Black girls beneath the draw of celebrity fetishism. Yet, it is in the efforts to protect Black children, from that pain, that the necessity of nurture can be neglected.
Hardening children is a method to embolden the survivability of children, but at the cost, often, of their humanity. Their ability to ascertain a knowledge of identity, curiosity, and health is undercut by behaviors which dwarf self for survivability.
But life is neer predicated on survivability, solely. We do wish for our children, as we wish for ourselves, to know joy. I yearn to know the smile of my child as much as their brawn, but this is an impossibility, as for all children of Africa, if I can’t serve to honor, and heal, every morsel of their body and soul.
Donnie Moreland is a Minnesota based mental health advocate, writer and filmmaker.