Trying to Thrive Through Trials, Tears, and Trauma: Revisiting Abolition

Trying to Thrive Through Trials, Tears and Trauma: Revisiting Abolition

Can we get to thriving?  That is a question I am reflecting on.  As Black people (and people of color), can we thrive in America?

This American journey as African-Americans is one wrought with trials, tears, and trauma.  

I have been crying what feels are never ending tears. In October, 2020, I wrote a poem/blog post called, “Last night, I watched myself cry.” In part, it says, “Last night I watched myself cry, Not some self-pitying cry, though there is plenty of space for that. For the silly little things we want to cry for…weight loss, weight gain, mean people; racist people; sexist people; insensitive people, ignorant people. It was not a self-pitying cry, though there is plenty space for that. It was another cry. A cry for the suffering of the universe. My cry startled even me.”

Tears. Buckets. Tears of Trauma. Tears from Trials. Trials, both of  justice, and the trials of surviving, of living, of trying to get to thriving.  As I wrote on the eve of the pandemic sequestration, “I’ve been reflecting on the tenuousness and precariousness of our existence as people of color in the academy of higher education.  The words tenuous and precarious came to me as I have been thinking about the academy.”

Though that post was specifically about the academy and higher education, the broader context is that our existence – as Black people in America — has been and continues to be tenuous and precarious. It has always been at the mercy of those who are White.  And so, I have been wondering, can we move away from this tenuousness, this thin line between life and death, the thin line between a freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness unfettered, and the fear of death lurking around any encounter with the police, with those with power, with those who are White? My own brother’s life has been so impacted by police.

This week, many held their breath – the breath that was taken from George Floyd — waiting for the outcome of his trial. And, sadly, we were not sure if “justice” would be served, if the police officer who held his knee on the neck of a handcuffed Black man would be convicted of killing him.   And, as many waited through the trial of George Floyd, I quietly reflected back to my conversation with Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sabrina Fulton, in January this year as part of Virginia Tech’s MLK celebration.  There was no “justice” for her son.

There has often been no justice in America in the legal system for African-Americans.  I remember the Rodney King verdict.  On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury acquitted all four officers of assault and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. The jury could not agree on a verdict for the fourth officer charged with using excessive force.  The sickness of America is that justice has become so skewed that the OJ Simpson trial and verdict represented and symbolized the psychosis of America and the impact of race and racism.

I remember seeing that Rodney King beaten and beaten and beaten and yet, the justice system did not convict the police officers of assault or excessive force.  And, so, as Black people in America, we hold our breath, hoping for justice in a country that has constructed laws that have made us less than equal to Whites. As I wrote in my most recent blog post, we are a nation in the midst of inconsistencies, radical inconsistencies, and at some point, we have to reconcile these inconsistencies.

These inconsistencies and our trials in America have resulted in tears and trauma.  I wrote about trauma in

“Trauma affects everyone differently. I believe we are all impacted and affected by the trauma. I know I have been. Because we have become so adept in surviving and coping, we often suppress our sorrow, until it bubbles up uncontrolled. Yet our coping skills and survival skills are both a blessing and a curse. Because they allow us to survive, we assume that we are fine, and we fail to realize that the trauma has become embedded in our DNA, into our very bloodlines, to be transmitted to future generations. And, when it bubbles up, we ourselves, are sometimes shocked.”

I recently learned about the work of Resmaa Menakem, a Minneapolis-based therapist and trauma specialist who activates the wisdom of elders, and very new science, about how all of us carry in our bodies the history and traumas behind everything we collapse into the word “race.” His New York Times best-selling book is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.

As part of On Being, he shared aout his work.

In that interview, he shares a powerful story about his grandmother’s hands that picked cotton and the impact and legacy of that trauma.  In my family, my mother, as a sharecropper, picked cotton. She describes in detail how she had to use her fingers to pull out cotton from bolls in “A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor:  Lessons about Race, Gender, and Class in America.”

In the article below, cotton picking is described as “hell on earth.”

Picking cotton is hot, dirty, back-breaking, monotonous work.  That work chewed up millions of lives from Ely Whitney’s invention of the modern mechanical cotton gin in 1793 well into the 20th century. Typically, cotton is harvested in late August or in the fall.  In the deep south, temperatures are still very hot.  Mississippi’s average high in August is 92; in September, it’s 86; and in October, it’s 76, but temperatures frequently rise to the 80s and 90s.  Often slaves, and later sharecroppers, would pick cotton from sunrise to sunset.  In August, this would result in a 13 hour workday spent in the hot sun. To pick the cotton, a worker would pull the white, fluffy lint from the boll, trying to not cut his hands on the sharp ends of the boll.  The average cotton plant is less than three feet high, so many workers had to stoop to pick the cotton.  As they picked, they would place the lint in burlap sacks carried on their backs.  So, not only would the worker have to pick the cotton, he would have to drag the bag along with him as well.  In a typical day, a good worker could pick 300 pounds of cotton or more, meaning that, in any given day, a typical picker would carry a substantial amount of weight, even if he emptied his sack several times.  Here’s a great video of an interviewer with a farmer who picked cotton by hand:”

It is not only the back breaking work of picking cotton that has impacted our bodies, it was also the harvesting of other crops on plantations:

“Most slave labor, however, was used in planting, cultivating, and harvesting cotton, hemp, rice, tobacco, or sugar cane. On a typical plantation, slaves worked ten or more hours a day, “from day clean to first dark,” six days a week, with only the Sabbath off. At planting or harvesting time, planters required slaves to stay in the fields 15 or 16 hours a day. When they were not raising a cash crop, slaves grew other crops, such as corn or potatoes; cared for livestock; and cleared fields, cut wood, repaired buildings and fences. On cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations, slaves worked together in gangs under the supervision of a supervisor or a driver.”

What was the impact, the trauma inflicted?

“Slaveholders throughout the New World regularly sought to break new arrivals into submission by stripping them of their African identities. Along with limiting independence and mobility, slaveholders employed oppressive strategies that included removing African names, assigning physically demanding labor, and minimizing food and clothing rations. Further submission methods were developed over time, such as legally forbidding African spiritual practices, drumming, and speaking in African languages.”

Let’s be clear, it wasn’t just that we picked cotton, harvested rice and tobacco, and worked in the fields and homes are weren’t paid for the labor.  It was that our humanity, our dignity, our identity was stripped from us and we were treated like animals, sometimes worse than animals.  We were forbidden from learning to read and from developing our minds; we were forbidden from worshipping from developing our spirits; we were forbidden from marrying and raising children; we were forbidden from moving and travelling freely. We were killed at will as a disposable and replaceable “part.” My mom remembers, even as a sharecropper, eating from a trough like a pig.

It is inevitable that there have to be consequences and implications for a society that authorized, legitimized and legalized the inhumanity of one people by another for over 200 years. We don’t talk enough about the legacy of slavery, enslavement, on both White and Black bodies. We don’t talk about what it was like to experience hell on earth. We don’t want to talk about the conflicting emotions and experiences of White women in the plantation homes knowing that their husbands were fathering slaves, having sex with Black women. We don’t talk about the cruelty of many White women towards the Black women in their homes raising their White children, who milked the Black women’s breast milk, while the Black woman’s children were sold away. We don’t talk about the White women who beat and killed Black women. It was not only White men who were cruel and killed Black people.

Yet, we are living only 150 years from the formal end to slavery from the Civil War, but only about 50 years since more legalized constitutional equality of the Civil Rights Movement. 

My great grandmother was enslaved in Alabama.  Her name was Rosa Hubbard and she married my great-grandfather, George Thirkill or Threkild, Threlkeld, Threlkild, Thirkle, or Thirlkile. One terrible consequence of enslavement is this removal of identity or name.  We, as Black people, were given other names, and at that, new names that we can’t even spell. Yet, for my own family, in the Lawrence County Alabama Historical Society Archives, there is a reference  to a “Bankhead area” and a “Captain Threlkeld” who “had slaves who were forced to hold window panes in the house during the storms.” (A Black Woman’s Journey, p. 51)   The archives also reference a Dave Hubbard plantation in the same Bankhead area which must have been the plantation where my great grandmother – Rosa Hubbard – was born in 1863. 

My great grandparents.  That is recent history. Oh my goodness…..holding up the window panes in a storm?  But, that, that is what we are still expected to do as Black people in America. Hold up window panes for White America.  Bear the brunt of the storm of White America’s guilt.  Protect White America from herself.  Be the shield.  Our bodies have and are continuing to be used and perceived as weapons, as tools, as non-human.  And so, in that perception of inhumanity, we live. America lives and kills.

We have to ask, we must ask, we should ask: What is the ongoing impact of these perceptions and beliefs and ways of being?

Trauma.  Trauma, not just for Black people, but also White people.

As the interview with Krista Tippett in On Being illustrates, the whole field of epigenetics is about how trauma can cross generations, perhaps as long as 14 generations, over 400 years.

What does this mean? Resmaa suggests that as Americans, we have trauma embedded in our bodies, in our bones, and in our spirits.  The trauma from our removal and enslavement has become embedded in our DNA, not just Black people, but White people, too. Like a virus, the inhumanity seeped into our genetic make up , into our physical being, into our bodies and spirits and souls:

From Resmaa in On Being interview:

“And one of the things that I talk to people about is that there is this nerve that comes out of the brain stem, and it’s called the wandering nerve. And it hits in the face, it hits in the pharynx, it hits in the chest, it hits in the gut — it wanders the whole body. And it, I believe, is one of the things why we have “gut” reactions, because most of that nerve actually ends up in the gut. And when we’re stressed, that gut constricts or opens. And so one of the things that happens is that if I’m with you long enough, like if me and you become friends, over time I will start to hear things in your throat because the vagal nerve is either open or constricted.There’s the vagal nerve — I call that the soul nerve — and then there’s a muscle, the psoas muscle. That psoas is a beast, because the psoas, what it does is, it connects the top part of the body with the bottom part of the body. It also — if you’re braced, it also manages whether or not you mobilize or immobilize. And if you’re born to people who are already braced, you pick up in your psoas this kind of locking down, this kind of bracing, decontextualized”.

What he suggests and encourages us to consider is how to recognize and address this trauma through the practice of somatic abolitionism.   This concept of abolition continues to become part of my consciousness in the past few weeks.

Resmaa says, Somatic Abolitionism is living, embodied anti-racist practice and cultural building —a way of being in the world. It is a return to the age-old wisdom of human bodies respecting, honoring, and resonating with other human bodies. Somatic Abolitionism is an emergent process.

I recently had the deep honor and privilege of listening to Bettina Love, a profound and thoughtful scholar, who we hosted at Virginia Tech as part of the 9th Annual Faculty Women of Color in the Academy Conference #FWCA2021; #FWCA21.

Learn more about this conference that I founded 9 years ago at:

Bettina’s scholarship is about abolitionist teaching. An important reality in her work is this quote: “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”
― Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom

“The oppressor planted deep within us.”  That is what we have to abolish. That hell on earth.

As I listened to the amazing Prof. Beronda Montgomery talk about lessons from plants

and as I watch my very first garden grow, I’m intrigued by the concept of plant biology and what grows from a little seed. 

Life!  What we water, care for, provide light to, grows.  And quickly.  The little seeds that I was so astonished to see the tiniest of them, have begun to do their thing, to become that which they were destined, if only I can continue to water, if only there can be enough sun, if only I can protect from the frost. 

The good seed can grow. Heaven on earth

But, I have to acknowledge that we can also be sowing bad seeds – weeds, as an metaphor.  Weeds of hate, weeds of racism; weeds of White supremacy, Weeds of sexism; weeds of homophobia; weeds of radical ideologies of religion.  And, we have to abolish the weeds. 

We have to begin to pluck them out at the root.  And so it is a removal and a replacement.  I am then led back to my reflection on an alternative curriculum.

An Alternative Curriculum: A Revised Syllabus

This alternative curriculum involves deep spiritual work, deep soul work; where we might just have a chance, to not only change race relations, but the relations with the universe, with the water, with the air, with the plants, with the trees.

Abolition:  an act to end a system, practice. As my amazing colleague Prof. Brandy Faulkner reminded us, “it takes another system to defeat a system.” What will that new system be? Heaven on earth?

I’m not hopeful that White supremacy will end in my life time.  I am hopeful that violent practices rooted in White supremacy will moderate and that the violence that has defined American culture will be able to begin to shift to a gentler, and kinder, and more compassionate community so that we can all move from trials, tears, and trauma to thriving in community with one another. As Bettina reminds us:

“Abolitionist teaching is not just about tearing down and building up but also about the joy necessary to be in solidarity with others, knowing that your struggle for freedom is constant but that there is beauty in the camaraderie of creating a just world.”
― Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom

Let us become abolitionists, together, in the spirit of Frederick Douglass, Dred Scott, Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubmna, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, for there must be a few of us who are courageous enough to stand against, trusting that our courage will empower others to also seek their freedom and liberation, knowing a movement begins the courageous acts of a few. Often, the one and only, the lonely only, as our first Black student at Virginia Tech, who has paved the path for almost 10,000 Black students.

May more of us be willing to start as the only, knowing that we are never really alone, but that our courageous acts can create a trail upon which others can trod to their own destiny of greatness.