This weekend we journeyed home to South Carolina to celebrate my grandmother’s 84th birthday. Before heading up, I spent the day in Durham with a group of friends and colleagues all working towards building a movement of black families thriving. It was refreshing to share our analysis of the struggle, as well as dream up ways to align our work to build a stronger future for the next generation of black lives. During our dreaming session, we took a detour of sorts towards a discussion around generational trauma.
There’s no way around it, if we want to move forward we have to understand our past. So we spent some time delving into the ways that trauma has manifested itself throughout our family lineage, ultimately resulting in the way we approach parenting and leadership today. Some good stuff came up for each of us, and it prompted me to have a conversation with the matriarch of my own family to better understand how I show up today in this world as a husband, father, brother, son, and leader. As it turns out, creating the space to practice this kind of self compassion even towards our generational pain, is healing work.
I’ve always been amazed at my grandmothers ability hold it together in rough times. When my grandfather died 20 years ago, her partner for decades, I saw her transform into an even more determined version of herself. I’d heard the stories of how she ran off and got pregnant young, trying make it work in Harlem as a part of the great migration in the late 50s. Neither the marriage nor the relocation worked, so with two children and no husband, she came back south and worked as an educator to provide for her family.
I knew that her own mom had died when she was only 12, but what I learned yesterday was that immediately after her passing, she was sent to an all girls boarding school to get a high school education. It was one of only two colored boarding schools in the state. I asked her about it, was it traumatic or difficult to leave your family so suddenly while still grieving your mothers death? Her response was a characteristic and surprising no. She said, I did what I had to do, and that was that.
I come from a long line of people, mostly black women who simply did what they had to do, forget about the emotional collateral. Clearly this hardness served us in some ways. For my grandmother she helped integrate schools as an educator, her children as students. She ensured that my sibling and cousins were all third generation college graduates, because each of her own kids got an education.
Yet, in other ways, what was the hidden price of our progress? In the past decade my grandma has had six bypasses, and I can’t help but wonder about the condition of her heart. Every time I talk with my grandma I can tell there’s so much she’s just had to deal with, that she’s never really processed. And it shows up in what can often appear to be a hardened and callous approach to life. My grandma isn’t for the faint of heart, she’ll tell it to you straight, with no chaser! While this sometimes is endearing, there’s a relational downside that over time wears on even the most ardent respecter of elders.
And so every chance I get, I ask my grandma to take me on a few trips down memory lane. As we travel, I think we’re both surprised at the opportunity to process where the journey has taken us. Here’s to continuing to create space to do the healing work we owe ourselves.