The Trauma of Racial Violence

A swamp

The Trauma of Racial Violence

Does the earth absorb human suffering?

Is human trauma stored in the body of Mother earth?
Do her muscles, bones, and tissues hold on to memories
that seep out over centuries
in the form of energies you can’t quite identify?

And what are we to do when these energies move through our human bodies?
Do we embrace them and ask their name, knowing they will rearrange us in unimagined ways?
Or do we let them pass, like a sieve, hoping to remain untouched?
How do we bear witness to what has gone before and not allow the pain to sap our strength?

Three times in my life I have encountered a mysterious force so potent that I felt it in every part of my body, although each time the effect was different.

South Carolina wetlands

The first time I felt it, I thought we’d driven through some kind of electrical field. It was visceral — not a shudder, although that’s the best word I can find to describe the sensation. An energy passed through me, starting in my gut and exiting through the top of my head, prickling my scalp as it left. Goosebumps rose on my arms.

Because there was no explanation or visible source, I wondered if I’d just imagined it. Then my husband asked, “What was that?” He’d felt it too. It was real.

We’d crossed into South Carolina, a state I’d never been to before. Moss-covered trees hung over the narrow road, which hovered just above the surface of vast swamps. The energy that had passed though us at the border seemed to live in the waters that stretched in all directions beneath our vehicle.

The following day, as we gathered with a small group of people who would soon become close friends, we tried to describe the feeling we’d experienced.

“Oh yes,” said one of the native South Carolinians, “thousands of slaves died there, trying to escape. Their spirits live in those swamps.”

I don’t believe that souls stay on earth when their bodies die. But I do believe that trauma can be stored in the land, where it then seeps into the water and is drawn up through the roots of trees. We can feel it just as surely as we feel the stress of unhealed trauma in our own bodies.

Charleston, SC

The second time I experience this mysterious force was in the Charleston City Market. A new friend had invited us along on a day-trip to the coast and said that our visit would not be complete without seeing the marketplace. The brick building, which was constructed in the 1790s, takes up four city blocks and houses hundreds of vendors.

I followed my husband and our four friends, squeezing our way through hordes of tourists. Inside the ancient building the heat was suffocating, without even a slight breeze to dry the sweat that dripped off my forehead into my eyes.

Despite the oppressive conditions, we were having a great time. We ate expensive delicacies, and I bought a foot-massager that I kept for nearly 25 years. But the further into the market we went, the more I felt a strange pressure leaning on me. It was like a giant, invisible hand pushing down on me from the ceiling.

It became harder to stand upright. I kept walking, because the moving stream of people made it impossible to stop, but my body was hunching over as if someone very heavy was riding on my shoulders.

I thought I might be having a reaction to the heat and humidity, although this felt different. I wasn’t light-headed, I just felt pressed down. For a moment I worried that I was experiencing claustrophobia or having my first panic attack.

Then our host, who was walking beside me, pointed up to the top of the brick wall, right below where it joined the ceiling. “See that square mark on the wall?” he asked. “This used to be the slave market. That’s where the shackles were attached to the wall. You can see them all along here.” He said it like he was pointing out an interesting architectural feature.

I didn’t understand how a Black American could speak in such a casual way about enslaved people being shackled to the wall. I felt nauseous for the remaining time we stayed there. The moment I stepped outside into the intense sunlight, the oppressive sensations disappeared.

It was only when I researched this story that I discovered it was all a myth. The City Market had always sold produce. The historical Slave Market was in a different part of the city, near the waterfront. The articles I read said that many people still believed this myth and were reluctant to let it go, even when faced with factual history.

So what was I feeling that day? One article said that enslaved people came to this market to buy food for the plantation. Had sadness and hopelessness soaked into the walls? Or were rebellions and escapes planned there? Maybe I really was affected by the heat, humidity, and crowds, and all the rest was pure imagination.

Or maybe it was something else that I’ll never understand.

Montgomery, AL

The third time I experienced the mysterious force was at the Legacy Museum in Birmingham. My friend and I went first to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where we walked among monuments to lynching victims in America. Then we made our way through the museum’s exhibits. I am not able to describe what we saw, but you can read about the exhibits here (before you watch the YouTube video, please be advised that some of the images are extremely disturbing.)

Toward the end of the tour, we came around a corner into a narrow room that houses part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project. Lining one wall were floor-to-ceiling shelves holding 800 jars of soil collected from lynching sites around the country.

This time the source of the energy was obvious, and the sensation was easy to describe. I felt paralyzed. The trauma stored in those jars of earth rooted me to the floor. My arms and neck turned to concrete. It lasted only a minute, long enough that I started to worry, then the floor released me and I was free to keep walking.

I’ve been to other places where Black and Indigenous people experienced trauma, but so far I’ve never felt anything remotely like what I described.

What can we do?

My impulse is to ramble on about what these incidents meant to me, but I’m resisting the urge. In case you haven’t noticed, we White people have a tendency to center every story around ourselves.

I want instead to pose these questions:

  • Is it possible the earth absorbs human trauma and the stored energy is perceptible? How is the resulting stress impacting our earth?
  • Is it also possible that healing energy could be absorbed and released? If healing ceremonies were held in locations with historical trauma, would the earth be healed?

As I’m writing these questions, it occurs to me that some Indigenous peoples already know the answers and are doing the healing work. Please share your thoughts.

Photo by Florian Pinkert on Unsplash

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