Wellness Wednesday: Resmaa Menakem, healer and therapist

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Interview: Resmaa Menakem
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Trauma is complex. It spans time, space, and generation. Healing must likewise be multifaceted. It happens in the brain, the heart, the spirit, and the body, asserts Resmaa Menakem. The New York Times bestselling author is a healer and therapist specializing in trauma, body-centered psychotherapy, and violence prevention.

Minneapolis-based Menakem joined The Current's Sean McPherson, filling in for Jill Riley, over video conference for The Morning's Show's Wellness Wednesday. In this warm conversation, they talked about Menakem's book My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Out Heart and Bodies, as well as intergenerational trauma, how to live an embodied anti-racist life, and how music serves as an access point for his work.

Listen to an edited excerpt of the interview above, and read a transcript of the complete conversation below.

I'm on page 122 of the book myself, and I am really enjoying it. Resmaa, thank you so much for your time and for your work.

Hey man, thank you for having me man, and you know what, that's good to hear that you're on page 122 because a lot of times I'm being interviewed and people haven't even, they haven't even read it. You warmed my heart, so I think it's gonna be a good interview.

Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother's Hands book cover
Resmaa Menakem's New York Times bestselling book, My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. (Central Recovery Press)

Well, you know what, I was really drawn to this book. I had the book in my collection for a while. I picked up the album Dismembered and Unarmed in 2018 and so you sent me a copy of the album as well as a book, and I said, "Oh cool, a big book I should read," and then I said, "I gotta hear what Chaka did on the record!" And I throw on the record and I get all involved in that. And then I saw you doing the Call to Mind conversation with Angela Davis, and I said, "You know what, I better go look on that bookshelf, and this is maybe the time I'm ready for the book." And let me tell you, the reason I'm on page 122 is because you ask for folks to really take their time in reading the book, and I'm doing the actual exercises. My wife even last night was like, "What are you doing just with your eyes closed and this book sitting on your chest?" and I said, "Well, I'm asked to find a safe comfortable space, and this is where I found it at the moment." So, I'm really taking your work to heart and I want to ask you, for everybody, about this work. You describe the book as "a call to action for Americans to recognize that racism is not about the head but about the body." Can you talk about that statement and what that means and how the book lines it out?

Yeah man, yeah. Some of us have been trying to look at this race thing and develop some ways of either mitigating it or some ways of...thwarting its impact, or some ways just to heal and get through it, and we've typically come up with very strategic or cognitive ways of kind of qualifying and quantifying race and its impact. And my whole approach is that, if we're gonna really deal with white body supremacy, if we're gonna deal with this concept of race, then we're gonna have to get in our bodies. And I don't mean yoga, and I don't mean going to hot yoga and stretching and doing all that different stuff and stuff. I mean literally get in our bodies and slow things down to the point to where you can actually experience what's actually happening and allow things to click and emerge to a degree that other possibilities can come about. And for me, nothing does that like in the body. That's why in the book, I tell people, "Go slow. Read the book. Do the practices. When you're done with the book, set it down for a couple months and read it again. I promise you, there will be other insights that come about after you go through it again," because this is about a lifelong journey. This is not about, you know, a performative, like, "I'm going to get to the place of ushering in a living embodied antiracist life." That is a lifelong piece. And for white folks, because the whole structure is predicated on white people being the standard of humanity, the idea of slowing down and getting at some of that energy is not something that is a prerequisite to being successful. This is not a prerequisite for white people to know anything about race or racism or white body supremacy. Your life is not dependent on you navigating or knowing that. That is not the same for me. And so really, the book was my attempt at getting people to begin to work with the real energy of race as opposed to a cognitive understanding of it.

And now when you talk about this transition being a lifelong commitment, in some ways in reading your book, I'm sensing that it's longer than a lifelong commitment. You talk a lot about intergenerational trauma and frankly about some research that wasn't even available 20 years ago about how much impact trauma from previous ancestors, from fathers, from mothers et cetera, can have an impact. Can you talk a little bit about both intergenerational trauma and then, I think I'm pronouncing the word right, metabolizing? Metabolizing that trauma. If we're on a wellness section, we should talk a little bit about, you know, how to start that journey.

Yeah, yeah. So, I think whenever I talk about intergenerational trauma and historical trauma, people — because they genuflect to the head so much and want to go to dates and times and a menagerie of horrors — one of the things that happens is that we end up thinking about the idea of race I think in a way that limits us. So, for me, really, intergenerational trauma is simple. It's like this: so, imagine me and you were talking, right? And I asked you to describe your grandmother, and you began to describe her to me. And then I said, "Do you know of any difficulties your grandmother had?" And you said, "You know, my grandmother, when she came over here from Ireland or England or whatever it was, you know, she was brutally raped a number of times when that happened, when she was on her way. And then when she got here, something else happened, right? And this is all before I was born."

As you're telling me that story, as you would be telling me that story, something would be happening to you right at that moment. If your grandmother never got any reprieve or any repair or any help, you can think, you probably can be pretty sure, that some of those recoils and some of those constrictions and some of those thwartings probably also affected her nervous system, her reproductive system, her muscular skeletal systems, her brain architecture. It probably affected her, as I said, her reproductive system. So now imagine your grandmother dealing with all of that stuff that happened to her, no repair no reprieve, and now put your mother inside of her. And your mother is dealing with all of the cortisol and all of the norepinephrine. Before she even gets here, her body is being organized with that level. Then now put you in your mama's belly. And now all of a sudden that energy is decontextualized. So you know your mother as somebody who, when certain particular things happen, she recoils from it. You, because your little nervous system doesn't know what it is, your body has a reaction to that, but you don't have a language for it, so now it's decontextualized. So, for you, now you have these little things that show up or these big things that show up, and now it looks like quote unquote "your personality." But it might be your traumatic retention from your grandmother that never got repaired. Does that make sense?

It certainly does, and I think that's an easier part to digest than the idea frankly that there's something that can be done about it. So, you make that leap and you go, "OK, I do carry this trauma from past generations." When you talk about metabolizing it, when you're working with people, how do you see that happen?

Yeah. Beautiful, beautiful question. So, so what typically happens when we're working, when I'm working with somebody, either communally or individually, what typically happens is that people bring something to me because of something that's happening in them or in their lives. And usually when they bring it to me, they are saying things like, or comporting it in a way that suggests that something is wrong with them, as opposed to what happened to them or their people or their family line. And so, what I do is when people bring that to me is that I have them slow down enough to be able to get at that energy, and here's a question that I ask. So let me, actually, we can do it, so let me ask you a question.

I don't want you to tell me details, I just want you to just answer this question: so, has there ever been something that has kept coming up in your life that has been really kind of difficult for you to get past?

Absolutely.

OK, so now let me ask this next question. Now as you say that to me, as you say, "Absolutely," you're noticing something, like, moving and shaking or shifting, whether it's a vibration, whether it's a thought, whether it's something in your belly or in your gut, right? You're noticing something as you say that to me, right? Because remember the mind is in every cell and between every cell. It's not just a product of your brain, right? It is how, it is energy, it is electricity. And I'm not talking about "woo woo" type stuff. I'm talking about the reason we have an electrocardiogram is that it's measuring the electric activity of our hearts, right? So, we have energy. And so, when you said that something started to move and shake, now, let me ask you this: is the thing that you struggle with, is it new or old? Is it yours or somebody else's?

It's, it's old and it's mine. I did a lot of work with a therapist about a year and a half ago, and we kept on coming back to this thing, which was when I was in kindergarten, I have a weight problem, and I was already a heavy boy, and I came back from church — which my family didn't go to, I came back with another family — and my mom saw like Oreo crumbles on my face and she said, "I bet you weigh over a hundred pounds now." And she lifted me up and put me on the scale, and I did weigh over a hundred pounds, and she said, "You're never going to church again, why do you eat all of these Oreos when you go to church?" And I told it as a funny story, Resmaa, for the first 30 years or my life. Now I'm 39 years old, and I spent a fair chunk of change working it out with a therapist to start to realize it in a different way. But when you ask me the thing that I struggled with, it's been my weight, but it goes back to that moment with my mom. Like, for me that's where it goes back to.

So, the reason why I asked that question is that that oldness has a quality to it. There is a weight to them, there is a texture to them, there is a charge to them. And many times, we work on the story, but not on the charge, and the charge is where you can learn to metabolize that energy for fuel for your freedom and your future as opposed to a testimony to your failure. But it involves slowing it down, it involves literally not just working with the story, but working with the charge that comes up. That's how you metabolize.

Resmaa Menakem portrait
Resmaa Menakem is a leading voice in today's conversation on racialized trauma. (photo courtesy the author)

Well, that is some powerful words, and as a person who is reading this book right now, I'm starting to digest a lot of what you're talking about. Now, I have a question for you. As you sort of moved a lot of your focus onto how to heal the body as sort of the start of healing our entrenched racial divide, did you have a moment where you had to make a leap of faith? Did you start your career or your life thinking about race much more cerebrally, and then you had to take this dive and go, "actually, there's something bodily about this?"

Yeah. I, my mom said I came on the planet as a healer, she's always said that. My momma said I've always leaned into people, and she knew that I was gonna either be a healer or an artist or a dancer or something. So, something with regard to, you know, working with people and the body. I think I've always had this sense that more had to be in the equation of healing than just being smart or just knowing Maslow's theory or just knowing, you know, Erik Erikson. Like, there had to be something more, and I think some of it had to do with my cultural mooring. And I think what really bought — not "I think," I know what really brought everything home for me is the two years that I did in Afghanistan. I did two years in Afghanistan as a therapist working with people who were traumatized, but I worked with military contractors. So, these were people who were on 63 bases in southern Afghanistan. These were people who were experiencing some of the same things as some of the military was, but they didn't necessarily have an infrastructure like the military has to deal with some of that stuff, and so my job was to work with those people. In the course of that, the two years that I did that, I had to override a lot of the stuff that I also experienced there. I had to override all of the experiences that I had with other nervous systems who had been traumatized and experienced stuff. So, I did those two years and then once I got back, I didn't realize I didn't allow myself to really deal with the trauma that I had experienced while I was over there. So, once I got back, I started dealing with it. And that really brought home to me - plus I was being trained as a SEP, a somatic experiencing practitioner, who is a therapist that works with the body more, a body practitioner that works with body and stuff that shows up, and through a person, a doctor by the name of Peter Levine. And so, one of the things that happened is that through some suicide stuff and all that different kind of stuff, I had to come to grips that my cognitive pieces weren't gonna work, weren't gonna get me out of this. I am an intelligent person, and that wasn't gonna be enough. And people's regard for me and people taking care of me or people pitying me or people telling me how much they appreciated me or loved me, that wasn't gonna get me out of that stuff. It wasn't until I started actually deepening my understanding of what is showing up in terms of energy and charge, weight and speed and texture, and then slowing down enough to be able to work with it without trying to override it and just get through it or try techniques that would give me relief, right? I kept trying to find something that would quote unquote "cure" it, right? And that didn't work.

And so that got me working a little bit more with my body, and then as I started doing that, the stuff around, well, the questions around, "Well, if I'm experiencing this just in my own experience here, I wonder what it was like for my ancestors to deal with enslavement or deal with genocide or deal with colonialism." And that's how, so as I started to get healthier, these questions... I started to develop more room or more resources, and these questions started to land differently, and that's how it all came together.

Well, come together it has because the book is really compelling. Again, it's My Grandmother's Hands and the subtitle is Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. Now Resmaa, if I understand, nowadays a lot of your work also involves leading trainings, and in fact I think that's what you were doing earlier today, is that the case?

Yep. Yep, yep, yep, yep and I'm doing a lot of stuff — I didn't believe that I could do this kind of stuff online for a while, so I was flying around doing a lot of stuff and doing this all over the country, but then COVID hit and so I was like, "damn, what am I gonna do?" So, I ended up doing a workshop online with an agency called Education for Racial Equity, and I did it with, I think my first one I did was Robin Diangelo. And it was like, you know, 1000 people showed up to it, 12 hundred people showed, and I was like "holy smokes!" There's no way I could get this many people in just a workshop that I did. And so, I'm kinda doing a lot of stuff online now, helping people develop some ways of doing the practices online.

What do you find is a common struggle for people as they start to do this work and try to, you know, heal through some of your teachings?

Yeah, well, for white bodies, the first thing that pops up is the "what abouts," right? Well, you know, you start talking about this stuff and talking about race because communally white people have never had to deal with race in a communal way. They're, white folks'... very life is not dependent on them understanding and negotiating race, right? So there's an organizing structure — you got to page 122, you read this in the book — one of the organizing structures that I talk about is the basic definition that the white body is the supreme standard by which all bodies' humanity shall be measured, structurally and philosophically. So, in this world now, the white body is the standard of what it means to be human. And everything else is a deviance from that standard, and it's purely based on pigmentation. And so, white folks really struggle, and I'm doing quotation marks, "good white people" really struggle with that concept. They want to make it be, kind of, the moment I say stuff like that, they want to take it to this like kumbaya thing. You know, "we're all human" and stuff like that. And what I say is that's true in an innate and intrinsic way, but I'm talking about the structural manifestation of white body supremacy. And so, the race question in this country, in this world, is really not a race question. It is a species question. Is Resmaa a monkey or not? That ethos and that idea is woven in through every institution, that question is woven through every institution: is Resmaa human? It was woven through the science, it was woven into the economics, it was woven into the medical, is Resmaa human? Is Resmaa's mother human? And the answer has been, "No, he's not. No, they're not," and the structures have been organized around that. And white people really really have a difficult time with holding that, not individually, not just individually, but communally, and then creating practices to bring about a more living, embodied antiracist culture and container and practices. And so, that's what shows up a lot.

As we come to the close of this conversation, I'm curious how you feel — you know, it's not every book that come with an album with, you know, the cream of the crop of Twin Cities hip hop and R&B.

And a good album! Not just a wackass album, but a good album!

You are exactly right, well, when we do wrap up this conversation, I'll be pressing play on the vinyl of that tune, "Breathe," that features Proper-T and Nate Collis.

They killed that.

It is a really powerful piece of music, and it really is — now I'm reading the book — it really works hand in hand with a lot of messages. So, I'd love to know a little bit about the album and then also more in general about how you feel music can be a part of this healing process.

Yeah, yeah, great question, brother, great question. So, it wasn't just the album, though. So when I sat down with like 50 artists, some of these musicians went away, but Chaka, who, without Chaka this album never would have — the sonic sounds and the way and the lushness of that album, and the way that he put that together? That's all Chaka, right? Chaka and then all of musicians and everybody. But he had a very nurturing hand in guiding that. But there were also artists, we also had an art exhibit. So there were, so, so many artists actually did a whole, we did a whole art exhibit of about I believe it was like 17 artists, because what I did was, when I finished the book, I did a number of workshops for just artists and explained like some of the same things I'm talking with you and your listeners about, explained this stuff to them. And then for that whole year, we just, I kept coming back and we kept talking and they would call me and ask me questions, and then they just started putting this together, man. They just started putting the songs together, they started putting all the art pieces together. And so, at Public Functionary, we had a whole art exhibit for about, I think it was about two months that our art exhibit was there, so this was a whole Twin Cities artists thing. And the reason why we wanted to do that is, me, both me and Chaka, we wanted people to have access to this and be able to kinda go through a bunch of different doors in order to get access to this, to the work, right? And so, early on, he had said to me, he said "man, we need to do this big," because I had given him some pieces to my book and let him read it, and he said, "yeah, we gotta, we gotta bring everybody into this." So that's how the music came about was me and him kinda chopping it up and saying "look, there's a way to make" — and so all of my books from now on, I'm writing a children's book right now with T. Mychael Rambo, I'm writing my next book. And so, all of them will have music and art as a part of it. Not an addendum but an integral part to giving people access to the work. So, that's how it came around.

Well, that is welcome news because honestly it was probably for a lot of folks, myself included, the reason I ended up having access also to the text was because I was drawn in by the music, and like you said it is a really powerful work. The gentleman we're mentioning, Chaka, we should identify also as I Self Devine, which might be how you hear his name more often as a listener on The Current. And like I said, we're gonna play this track that features Proper T, formerly of Astralblack, on vocals, produced by Mike of Astralblak. Probably, you know, I'm sure we all have our favorites, but for me "Breathe" is a really relaxing tune, and as I'm working through your book and asking myself to slow down, sometimes music can be really helpful in that, and a song like "Breathe" certainly fits in that.

That's it, that's it. And that's why the music was put the way that it is on the album. If you noticed, if you listen to the album straight through, notice it starts you off and then it activates you and then settles you, activates you and then settles you, activates — that's by design.

External Link

Resmaa Menakem - official site

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  • Resmaa Menakem press photo
    Resmaa Menakem, New York Times bestselling author of 'My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies,' is a visionary Justice Leadership coach, organizational strategist and master trainer. Resmaa is a leading voice in today's conversation on racialized trauma. (courtesy the author)

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