The Black body remembers our traumas even when we try to forget
My attempts to convince myself that I’ve “healed” simply overshadowed the truth hidden in my body.
By Najya A. Williams
Throughout my childhood, my mom always scheduled early morning dental appointments to accommodate the remarkably busy lives we both led. Once I was old enough to schedule my own visits, I unsurprisingly fell back into this familiar routine. I normally don’t think twice about my check-ups, especially if I’m not experiencing any issues, but one routine visit will remain permanently etched into my psyche forever.
After enjoying the morning sunrise during my relaxed commute into Downtown D.C., I found myself in the dentist office waiting area, excited to have my teeth cleaning done by another Black woman. Once called into the back, she walked into the room with a smile and we made small talk before she began laying out the necessary tools. Relaxing back in the chair, I allowed her to examine my teeth while I thought about the long to-do list I needed to tackle that day.
Pausing her examination, the hygienist interrupted my thoughts to mention that my teeth grinding seemed to be getting worse. “You should try to do some yoga or meditation,” she said. “Maybe even some thai chi, girl.” Her comment stopped me in my tracks. For a moment, I couldn’t quite find any words to say.
As much as I believed that I was relaxed and flowing through life without any worries, this was a clear example of the fact that my body knew otherwise.
Life for the Black woman is no crystal stair. Growing up, I was firmly aware of this. My maternal grandmother picked cotton in South Carolina with her siblings, toiling in the hot sun just to keep a hot meal on the table and a roof over their heads. The racism she endured in her life spanned from being branded with a hot iron and abused to being demeaned and targeted.
In spite of this horror, my grandmother was, in many ways, my first safe haven. Many grandmothers spoil their grandchildren, lavishing them with everything their parents said “no” to, but this doesn’t even begin to illustrate what she meant to me. She was love personified, with a healthy dose of patience and grace. She listened intently to my truths and never once shied away, no matter how petrifying they appeared in my young mind. She left traces of her smile and generosity in the pots she used to cook our meals and the hugs she’d always give at the perfect time.
Even in her last moments, I didn’t see my grandmother’s traumas: I only saw her strides toward the future so that she’d never have to go back. But when I heard my dental hygienist’s comments, it finally struck me what it meant that at the young age of 57 my grandmother lost a 66-day battle with Stage 4 colon cancer. It made me realize that no matter how hard we try to erase the reality of our pain from our minds, the body will never forget.
Born to a resilient Black woman who carried her family on her back and a tough father who immigrated from Guyana for a better life, I often fail to acknowledge the trials I’ve overcome because they seem insignificant compared to that of those who came before me. But it seemed like that very sentiment was slowly wearing away at my body. When I made it back home that day, I sat down and really thought about the seemingly unrelated ailments I was already dealing with at 20 years old. Teeth grinding. Pinched nerve in left shoulder. Chronic migraines. Anxiety. Weight gain. In isolation, these appear to be relatively mundane and insignificant, especially for someone so young. But was this really my body’s memory of the trauma I’ve held on to?
I was bullied, I’ve suffered loss, I’ve witnessed the consequences of generational pain, and for seven years, I’ve stood in protest of the brutality Black people have been subjected to, often with my own experiences with racism in mind.
As I grew older, I thought that I had addressed these aspects of my experience simply because I was able to function without them being a conscious thought, without crumbling under the weight of these unbearable loads. My attempts to convince myself that I’ve “healed” simply overshadowed the truth hidden in my body. As much as I tried to forget, my body has no choice but to remember.
Self-care has become a bit of a buzzword, shrouded by brands who promote a superficial understanding of what it means. Self-care can absolutely involve fun, relaxing activities that bring smiles to our faces in the tough times. However, we can’t forget that self-care also means doing the hard work of confronting our past head on so that our mind, body and soul can move into the future.
Now a year after that appointment, I’ve decided to dig into the depths of myself and do the hard work of setting boundaries, having tough conversations, letting go and taking up the space I need because I not only want to survive: I want to live, too. I want to reach my fullest potential. I want to show up for my community. I want to be the best I can be, and I want to do the work to make sure I can do it all with a body that doesn’t resent me for it.
Since turning over this new, and at times uncomfortable, leaf, my health has radically improved, and I carry a glow in my spirit that’s reflected in my body, too. I’m calling myself to do the uncomfortable work. The work that haunts, hurts and stings. The work that picks at the wounds I don’t know are there. And heal. Simply heal. So that I can be radically free to thrive, inside out, for years to come.
Born and raised in “Chocolate City,” Najya Williams is a poet, writer, and author studying Sociology at Harvard College. She has written about personal identity, intersectionality, coming of age, health and wellness, and politics in We are the 94 Percent, ForHarriet, Black Girl in Om, and several other publications. Najya looks ahead to continue making a difference in not only her community, but the nation as a whole, one word at a time.