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Fourteen generations: "I’m trying to reclaim the idea that I’m actually a human."

Resmaa Menakem gives us some of the most human and contextualized introductions I have ever come across--into the vagal nerve and psoas, into the need for practice, and into what black and white people can do to change. Menakem: ... this idea of being able to land this race question in a way where white people are uncomfortable is a fallacy. It’s performance art.

Tippett: So you really do say, let the bracing begin, and then start healing it there.

More excerpts from the interview:

Krista Tippett: ...You’re working with realities that are as old as the human brain and body, but very new science. So I’m curious about — so it’s the science of trauma. PTSD, everybody knows that now, but it’s just a couple decades old. The whole field of epigenetics, about how trauma and resilience can cross generations —

Menakem: I just read somewhere, it says 14 generations.

Tippett: So this is all new. As you say, it’s new information that lands like “Oh, of course; we knew that all along.”

Menakem: It’s always been there; there’s always been this kind of resonant knowing that something’s there. Because it’s been decontextualized and handed down from my mom, my grandmother, my grandfather, blah blah blah, all the way down, I didn’t have a language for it; but there was a knowing that “This ain’t right.”

Tippett: That they’d lived through a lot of trauma.

Menakem: Not just that they lived through trauma, but that the angst and the anguish was decontextualized.

Menakem: Listen. Let me say this. The Middle and the Dark Ages set the table for poor white people, because they had been brutalized by powerful white people.... the 13 colonies were filled with colonized white people.

... After all of that brutality, white people said, “You mean, all I gotta do is be white, and my babies may not have to go through that? Yeah, I’ll take that. Let’s take that.” And that’s what sewed it in. So now they saw their allegiance more with white landowners than the enslaved Africans that they were rebelling with.

Tippett: You’re also saying that it was actually a way of co-opting poor white people into their further traumatization.

Menakem: That’s exactly right. That’s why what you see now is like the flower of the seed of that. That’s what you’re seeing right now.


Menakem: 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.” 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, 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.

Tippett: It’s that constriction you heard in your grandmother’s voice when she told you about picking cotton.

Menakem: Exactly right. I needed to pay attention to that, even if I didn’t know what it was. And so it shows up in the eyes, it shows up in the mouth... ... Menakem: ...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. And so what I’ve been talking to people about is, how do we begin to get the reps in with those pieces?

So you’re gonna need time to condition your body to be able to deal with the aches, deal with the doubt, deal with all of that difficulty. You’re gonna have to get up against your own suffering’s edge before the transformation happens. And a link to one of the practices in Menakem's book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.

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