To deal with intergenerational Black trauma, we must care for our elders
In cultivating reciprocity in care, we learn to understand our elders' histories of trauma, which in turn reveal more truths about our own.
By Amber Butts
As children, we are told to stay out of grown folk business. As adults and elders, we then continue that wheel and narrative, which doesn’t give space for us to build an intergenerational emotional intelligence. What if children were in more “grown folk” conversations? Could we better prepare for it if children knew the world was exactly how our elders told it? When we build frameworks together, we prepare ourselves and our futures for a world centered in mutual respect, accountability, reciprocity and listening. We model a new type of love language.
As a housing rights counselor/organizer, I support tenants in documenting harassment from their landlords, responding to notices and informing them of their rights as renters. My clients often experience retaliation, exposure to substandard living conditions, invalid rent increases and illegal entries. It is so exhausting/heavy to hear how tired elder Black women are. How it sits on their voices. To be one of the only people to notice/pay attention. To build a container where they do not have to be strong. Where they experience care and tenderness without judgement. Where they can be tired without worrying about their family worrying.
But despite my exhaustion, I realize how important it is to acknowledge how many times elders were safe spaces for us/other folks in their lives by building relationships that allow them to be messy. In cultivating reciprocity in care, we learn to understand our elders and their histories of trauma, which in turn reveal more truths about our own.
I think young folk are afraid they’ll catch “the thing” our elders have, and that thing will bring us closer to our mortality. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It would also mean we then have to be honest with ourselves about what’s important.
“I can’t think, Amber. I can’t,” one client revealed today. “It sucks getting old.” I tell her we are in no rush.
She keeps saying “sorry.” “Sorry my paperwork isn’t in order. Sorry I’m not being clear. Sorry I’m a little distracted.”
Her eyes are tired, alive and glossed over. She’s looking down, head in hands. Shaking.
“Sometimes I just can’t keep up with my thoughts. Strokes are terrible. I’m tired.”
I remind her that we’re together in this moment. That we have all the time in the world. We don’t.
“You don’t understand. I feel like I’m going to crack open.”
We look at each other and she says, “I don’t know if I can make it. I want to but I don’t know.”
I tell her I trust her decision either way. I trust her to say when and how she leaves this earth. When and how she stays. We talk about photographs, her dead daughter, how her family pulled out of helping pay for the funeral at the last minute. I hear the frustration in her bones, the red, green and yellow feather earrings struggling to hold on to the body of her ears. We sway together. I think about my grandma.
When elders tell stories, they are showing us trust and respect. Those stories become portals, quick snapshots and cautionary tales into their worlds. When we listen to their stories and share our own, we open up a deeper loving space that allows everyone to be their full selves, without fear of shame, judgement and conflict.
Black women develop lupus younger and at 3 times the rate of white women. Black folks have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia and their first degree relatives have a 43.7% risk of experiencing it. Pancreatic cancer is 50-90% higher in Black communities. Access to adequate and stable healthcare drastically impacts these diagnoses as well as the life expectancy rate of this population. High stroke risk, hypertension, diabetes and sickle cell anemia are other indicators of how anti-Black conditions impact Black health.
50% of my clients are Black elders. On average, they have suffered at least one stroke. Most of them are experiencing multiple health crises while navigating between taking care of family who they feel they cannot say “no” to and using their energy to exercise their rights as tenants. They have multiple surgeries and call me when they think they’re on their deathbeds, just to have someone witness that they lived. Sometimes they call their children. Sometimes I worry that their children are dead and they haven’t come to grips with it. One client’s son is always supposed to show up and never does.
Another client is a writer, senior and veteran. 30 years ago he went into a New Jersey doctor’s office for a surgery to have cataracts removed. The next day, he was blind in both eyes. During the lawsuit hearing, the doctor’s office provided falsified documents from the botched surgery. They said my client was born blind. Though he lost the case because he lacked “evidence, the doctor’s lawyer reached out and he eventually settled. He lives in a senior housing facility now. The on site managers surveil, harasses and neglect the residents. He calls this place “The Death Dungeon.”
Elders are all around us. We treat them like they’re worlds only matter in relation to ours. At best, we normalize their presence and at worst, we treat them as if they are disposable. We put them in homes with their best interests. We sit on trains and do not get up for them. Sometimes we put them in homes as protection and sometimes we put them in homes because we do not want to deal with the inconvenience of watching them deteriorate.
Our elders are in churches, in welfare lines, in libraries, on streets and corners. Some of them are praying. Some sleep in their cars. Some cry in grocery stores when they their families are out of sight. Some grab me at parties and tell me things they haven’t told anyone. They clean folks’ plates and no one asks, “How is your heart? Have you eaten? When was the last time you sat down? Do you need water?”
Black elders are expected to hold everything and pressured to be ashamed if they cannot when it all bubbles to the surface.
Aphasia is a cognitive impairment that impacts folks’ ability to speak, understand, and/or read and write. Individuals who suffer from strokes often go to voice therapy. My clients come in for appointments and find that they cannot speak. They apologize because their voices don’t work the way they’d like. Some angrily grab their faces, willing their mouths to work. I walk up to one Black woman and wipe the dribble from her chin. She grabs my hand quickly and I’m surprised by how cold she is. How cold the spittle from her mouth is. I give her a notebook and we breathe together. We cry. She nods a thanks but our eyes don’t meet.
The work I get paid to do as a housing rights counselor does not stop and didn’t begin here. When I was 24, I started doing more intentional work around building in person spaces to identify how intergenerational trauma has impacted the ways we communicate and connect. As a child, I began to pick up on things: Which food PaPa liked when he was drinking, which drinks activated Bubbie’s acid reflux, what kind of chicken Nana wanted when she was visiting. I learned to read their bodies before I ever heard their mouths. I loved anticipating what they wanted and providing it if possible.
When I was 13, I began to realize that I’d always been a place of witnessing for Black elders. I’d rub their feet, listen to their stories and cook for them. The relationship my grandparents and I had were the first indication of this. They’d tell me stories and I’d ask questions. They’d tell me things they hadn’t spoken out loud before. Nana was born in Greenwood, Louisiana. When she was a child, she’d have to travel the backroads with her siblings. It was a requirement in their town to witness Black bodies marbleize on ropes. The Klan, their wives and children would inspect Nana and her siblings to make sure they maintained eye contact with the bodies and not show anger. I am both the first of her great-grandchildren and the first she told this history to.
For 3 years Nana lived in the convalescent/rehabilitation center across the street from my job. Months before she died, she revealed that she was finally moving back in with my great aunt. She was tired of the orderlies stealing her belongings, talking to her like they were her mama and ignoring her requests to cook her food a specific way.
She smiled wide, skipped with her one remaining leg and gave me a hug. I told her I would help her pack and she headed to her room. Another aunt witnessed this conversation, waited for nana to leave and told me, “You should know better. She’s not going anywhere. That conversation about moving in with your great aunt never happened.” So I went into Nana’s room reluctantly, helped her pack and knew that she would not go anywhere. Twenty minutes later, she forgot about the whole thing.
Months before Bubbie (my grandmother) passed away, she tried to bring up her death in conversation. She said she wanted me to have her car. She spoke about the friends she missed, how much loss she held and how tired she was. I told her she had at least 20 years left and her car would be old by then. She sighed and moved on to another topic.
October 4th marked the second year of not having her here. After Bubbie died, I spent a year being angry with myself for not letting her know she could leave this world. For not reminding her that she did not owe us her life. For holding everything and not knowing what to do when it all bubbled to the surface. I’m still learning what to do. Bubbie and nana help me. I see them in all the elders I encounter. And now I take breaks. I remember that I honor them by creating the space they so often wanted.
*These stories are told with permission from those who experienced it.*
Amber Butts is a writer, educator and tenants rights organizer from Oakland, CA. Her work has appeared in Blaqueerflow, KPFA’s Women’s Magazine Radio and 6×8 Press. She is currently at work on an afro-futurist novel focused on themes of intergenerational trauma, imagination, Black survival and environmental racism. Amber’s writing challenges multiple systems of oppression through the use of queer and womanist frameworks. She works to amplify the stories of poor Black folks, with an emphasis on mamas, children and elders. She believes in asking big and small questions that lead to tangible expressions of freedom and liberation.
Amber likes cheese and comic books and sings louder than she needs to.