There’s Something About (Intergenerational) Trauma | The New Engagement

There’s Something About (Intergenerational) Trauma

By Nicole Ferrier

Trauma means wounding experiences have attached themselves and have been made more solid in our emotional and physical bodies. It shapes our origin stories, hero and otherwise, and it bedrocks identities, however unstable of a foundation it provides. 

Whether individual or shared, all trauma is “tire damage” slowing forward movement. The degree of harm is simply a matter of how long it’s been allowed to spread through our tender places, and how deeply the initial death of peace tore through us when it first pierced.

It’s not just the shock of occurrence, it’s the breathtaking terror when we realize preventing recurrence is not in our sphere of control. And now we get to face this threat while wearing a pleasing clown mask - passing for… normal. How absurd is the prospect of hiding the aftermath of devastation? Of feeling too unsafe and shunting these profoundly hurting aspects of ourselves into a conforming presentation. But we must do this, mustn’t we? Because what’s the alternative? It’s being othered. Being distanced from any recognition of any shared humanity and driving this wounding even deeper.

So, what would it take to consider healing the generational trauma of racism in this current climate? How would children of the African Diaspora—and the beneficiaries of its perpetrators—even fathom unpacking this 400+ year legacy? Is such healing even possible, or is it now just an indelible feature of the black experience? Are black bodies just cursed to absorb pain like beautiful black skin absorbs sunlight?

If this country as a whole is ever going to heal from the trauma and legacy of violence perpetrated not only on black, but also brown, red, and yellow bodies during its nation building phases, and still today, we must consider who we would be without it. Would it be possible to even be a wealthy and advanced industrial nation if it never happened this way?

We must be willing to know whether we could separate the indescribably cruel atrocities of our shared history from its outcomes.  We must look unflinchingly at the magnitude of impact that enslavement, rape, torture, and discrimination visited upon these traumatized peoples by this country, and realize Nazi Germany was not any more sadistic or targeted in its campaign of justifying the non-humanness of the people it wanted to visit harm and control upon. They were just more upfront and less Bible-beard-wielding about it.

What if words like “safe,” “secure,” “happy,” and “peaceful,” feel like distant concepts for some, and absolutely attainable experiences for others? Like seeing a commercial for a luxury car on TV while trying to work out how you will feed yourself and cover your bus fare on $10 until your payday on Friday. Makes you wonder, who is this for?

What would decide which track of perspective and experience someone got onto? Something to do with bootstraps? Lactose intolerance? Or, something a little more structural and perpetuated, about who has the legitimate experience? About who needs nurturing, who gets to receive attention, and who gets to take up space? About who’s treated gently, and who’s given less medical attention, pain relievers in the hospital? About who is even a human being. I’m thinking the lactose intolerance is the main influencer. Yeah, it’s got to be that.

All trauma is not, in fact, created equally. The legacy of systemic oppression is compounded by minimization, if not whole cloth denial of its existence. (Meanwhile, you’ve got to love which events are reverently qualified for the “Never Forget” category, and which are given the “Get Over It, Already, It’s Not Happening Now” treatment. Seriously, that’s got to be decided by something wild like lactose intolerance, right?) It doesn’t matter whether the cause is intentional gas lighting, or a joint not-guilty trance maintained by beneficiaries who refuse to notice how they are profiting, much less consider redistribution of their power, safety, and access. The resulting trauma is exponentially more devastating here, as permission to even show grief and displeasure must be negotiated with the sympathies of a system that caused it.

This is why I care so very little about which celebrities or brands are standing with the coloreds and offering thoughts and prayers at this time. Keep your graphics, your carefully languaged, and beautifully filmed commercials that end with the centering of your corporate logo.

Until you can tell me Breonna Taylor’s killers have been charged and arrested, that it’s as safe for black youth to be in the presence of police officers as it is for white youth, and that your company is financially investing in tangible acts that will dismantle the structure, you can keep it.

I don’t need anyone to think raggedy consolation prizes are consoling in any way to my trauma. Don’t pretend like you heard anyone say making Juneteenth a national holiday will satisfy what is being demanded in justice and policy reform on law enforcement, voting protections, and fair and equal access to housing and education. 

Please don’t think it will make us stop noticing black people going missing like Chinese dissidents. Or police brazenly performing these curbside exterminations at any time, but especially in situations involving unarmed people under suspicion of minor offenses that wouldn’t, under any normal circumstances (and by normal, I mean involving a white suspect) warrant jail time, much less lethal action.

This carefully constructed campaign of really trying to convince black people we can shut up about all this protesting, go back to cooperating with a failed system—that we don’t really need justice or lasting change, and all we really need is a free tote bag with the purchase of our Metabolic X causing Kente meals—makes my psyche less collaborative, less solutions oriented, and more, well, knuck if you buck. Every man has his breaking point. Lord knows meeting it once in life is enough, but many black souls get to reach this space by their 30’s at a rate so much more than their white counterpoints will over a lifetime.

Your Suffering, I Mean Your Slip (of the tongue), is Showing

Do we have some unspoken, unwritten contract with society about it being impolite to bleed to death and/or be immolated in public? Yes, trauma, cute, sure, but can’t you do all that whooping and hollering inside? Preferably inside of yourself where we don’t have to witness the destruction and death inside – like a covered mouse trap? Can you stop ruining fun things like football and NASCAR?

If the demon dueling banjo pandemics of racial injustice and COVID-19 have taught us nothing else, it’s that: 1) DJ D-Nice, Sarah Cooper, and Tabitha Brown deserve large sums of cash for keeping many of us from setting our sofas on fire in despair (It’s me, I’m “many”); and 2) sometimes, you have got to compartmentalize shit to survive.

Curating a lifestyle comprised exclusively of HGTV, Instagram posts devoted to baby animals, baby humans, and yoga, is cute and anodyne for a while, but let’s be clear, it’s not an effective long-term strategy – if you want to stay sane or in integrity with yourself.  

But when your eyes are accumulating sights that your mind, unbeknownst to you, has begun refusing to process, you need a port-in-the storm respite from– 

Black and brown bodies being sent out to work en masse and unprotected from a horrific virus that will especially target them because of health conditions. Because:

Not traditionally having access to quality healthcare, or having reasons to mistrust providers (shout out to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment and the HeLa cancer cell lines still in prolific use today), and almost every black person I know, including myself, being disregarded in some bizarre way while receiving health care, that we know our white counterparts would not have been subjected to.

Many of them living in areas that have serious and unregulated environmental pollutants which exacerbate the health conditions for which they are already not receiving treatment.

These risks so very often align with minimum wage positions that provide services to people who are lucky enough to be able to work from home. Now these service providers and their families are exposed daily to COVID, basically signaling them as disposable, expendable all while states continue on not protecting them even as surges reoccur from states prioritizing the economy over lives.

A perfectly healthy and alive human is not alive anymore because a fellow human being felt pretty sure he could act to murder him, with smirking impunity, on camera, because, you know, history. (I’m looking at you, qualified immunity.)

Back to our friend, compartmentalization.  The trouble is, much like the junk drawers in our homes, we cram them full of clutter and content until it starts bursting out, no longer able to properly close, and now showing because of this breakdown. Survival based shells propped up like joyful lives will eventually give up the ghost.

So much suppression cluttering our personal, national, and global compartments: individual and collective levels of rage, despair, fear, defeat, and with not nearly enough clearing of small pockets of hope to keep us going.  Instead of cleaning, we just keep compartmentalizing, keep denying until something snaps, and forces us to clean up at least to the point of restoration of a cheerful façade. 

So, is it possible to build a peaceful result from this foundation of blood and suffering?  The final stage metastasization of racism is upon us.  White Supremacy is doubling down on its manufactured trauma identity. Whether we call their block consciousness the Confederacy, Dixie, the Tea Party, or the Alt Right, it’s all the same. These folks just keep re-drawing Venn diagrams to define themselves in a butt-hurt angst of pretending their beef is about self-determination, when really, they just want to make a lifestyle of pretending to be attacked by the very people they are attacking. Poor and working-class white people have so much more in common with poor and working-class black people than they do with the wealthy white 1%. This aspiration shit kills me. They will literally vote against their best interests in order to feel closer in identify to a wealthy white person - who sees them as just as expendable as their black counterpart, bless them. 

Toni Morrison was asked how she responds to everyday racist encounters:

“Let me tell you, that’s the wrong question. Don’t you understand, that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft? There is something distorted about the psyche. If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. My feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.” (

There is a profound epiphany that comes from understanding everyone’s freedom rests in dismantling this myth of white superiority, and white people feel it, too. It may play out in fear-based ways (fear of reparation, revenge), but it nonetheless acknowledges this deep-seated desire to avoid conscious reckoning and go wherever it takes this country. They damage their own souls and contaminate the futures of their own children each time a new generation denies or superficially addresses the sentinel racial traumas of their times.

Will we get it right this time?

In some ways I have hope, as I’ve seen more white friends and allies, known and unknown, showing up to march, speak up, and get involved than I ever have before. I’m seeing the dawning comprehension of shared responsibility take hold. I’ve also gratefully noticed many white fiends and social media connections educating and empowering themselves on what they need to do, instead of looking to me and their other black friends for answers. So, let’s talk about being an ally, done right…

Becky: A Basic Meditation

Can you please be more convenient for me with your suffering? A skootch less urban, less nappy, less angry in your presentation?  Less of this emoting. And why are you always so loud and garish? Could you be more relatable to me? For me? If I could just you see you as a fellow human being. I have trauma too, you know, and it’s all intersectional, as long as it intersects me. It makes me uncomfortable to be out of focus…

I know, I know, when you are talking about who matters and you say Black Lives, Queer lives, Black Queer Lives, and Trans Lives, you’re not excluding me, just calling out acuity of need. But, here’s the thing, I’m far more likely to be on board with all this if I can fetishize and distill the black experience into something that fits into a small overnight bag. How do we work on getting ME re-centered? 

And if you could just let me have the mic during your rallies, so I can talk about how down I am and then hijack the narrative…

For black women like me who are simultaneously the decedents of the enslaved Africans that survived, the witches that couldn’t be burned, and patriarchy actors who did it all, identity confusion, if not self-hatred, sometimes just seems like good common sense.

I know how I see and present myself, but when it comes to how the world experiences me, I wish I had the luxury of not having to consider whether I’m playing into safe negro/respectability politics or being in my authentic expression – at all times. All. The. Time. Whether today is the day that someone is getting cussed out, or whether, yet again, I’ll let myself be the “spokesnegro” in white spaces. I am tired of my life being a performative one. So tired of not being accepted as a non-monolith in my personhood. So tired of finding out things like a white colleague I cared about knowingly dated a white supremacist – and then thought it was acceptable to message test that shit on me for my reaction.

Compartmentalization of each micro-aggression du jour give way daily to the urge to get to the sanctuary of my home where I am, once again, a whole and unquestioned person. I can be inside of myself, living in my natural expression instead of trying to stay 3 chess moves ahead of people who aren’t consciously aware of why they are treating me differently. The education system failed them, and they can’t critically think, so they are just loyal to what their family passed down, like general wealth building, but for bigots. Don’t pull at that thread or look too hard at why we have what we do and why others don’t. It works better if everything is their fault. 

I crave for a space where I can be authentic in my expression without being told I am intimidating, too direct, not soft enough. I sometimes hate the empathy in my welling, marshmallow heart that senses and prioritizes the feelings of others to make them feel better. To make them more comfortable with me,like I’m the tough and unworthy sell to their already established validity of existence.

Pictures document times from a not so bygone era where white babies were nursed at the breasts of black mothers while the black mother’s own children were off at an uncentered distance going neglected and denied the milk produced specifically to support them. (Metaphor for wealth building stolen from black people, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)

As whites express the desire to be a good allies, I say thank you, I so appreciate all the sincerely outpouring courageousness of protesting I am witnessing during this turning of the tide. But also, black people are reckoning with our own critical mass of trauma bursting out of our memories and lives, and we are working to find new and honoring ways to be in our lives while trying to love ourselves and feel like we belong in this country, too. So, we cannot nurse you and comfort you at this time. Our needs, our collective and individual pockets of trauma are presently drowning us in tears never cried, or breasts we were not comforted at. We must look to our own nurturing and comfort now, our own validation and acknowledgment. We are trying to function in a new way ourselves, and we need you to do the same. We have not the strength or inclination to support or convince.

Stop waiting for specific and granular direction from black people on how to help. Certainly, educate yourself on what black leaders are saying, and act accordingly from there. See where the train is headed, stop waiting on consensus from others in the white community, especially the most unconscious amongst us, to do what you know is right. Not for any other reason but the air will be cleaner, kinder, more whole, and holier for every one of us. 

If what I believe deeply is true, that we are all parts of an ever-expanding and singular body of sacred consciousness, and people and events we experience as painful are nothing more than reflections, perception distortions of the true light and love inside of an indivisible Creation, then we, as a whole – and more than the victim identify holders—have some deep work to do to bring this all into resolution for the sake of us all.  This is not elective, not charity outreach helping out the lesser; this is soul repair for all of us in this one body.

Nicole Ferrier is a native New Orleanian living in the Twin Cities, MN, area and working at a nonprofit. She holds an MA in Human Development from St. Mary's of Minnesota. Her writings deal with matters of spirituality and empowerment.

Read more from Digital Issue No. 18

Join Us!

Mercy, ingenuity, nuance, complex truths, guts and honor still matter! Join us in proclaiming so by purchasing, or giving the gift of, The New Engagement in print.

Order Today!

Follow Us

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."
~ James Baldwin

Help us spread the ethos of compassion and understanding by joining our social media networks and sharing generously!

Contests & Prizes

Flash Fiction Contest
On May 1st, we announced the winners of our Flash Fiction Contest: Thomas Garcia (1st), Rick Krizman (2nd), and Rios de la Luz (3rd). Read more.

The James Baldwin Literature Prize
It is with great pleasure that we announce the winner of The James Baldwin Literature Prize of $1,000 to Hafsa Musa. Read more.

The New Engagement

The New Engagement endeavors a novel approach to discovering, introducing, and showcasing writers, artists, and filmmakers, by providing them digital and print platforms, while encouraging and supporting their social-consciousness.