KALALEA: Before we begin, I want to tell you that this episode goes deep into trauma, into the way America's history damages everyone. It includes graphic descriptions of violence against Black people, along with suggestions of ways to overcome its ripple effects.
FLETCHER: I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.
KALALEA: That was Ms. Viola Fletcher—she’s 107 years old. She was just a little girl at the time of the massacre. And a few weeks ago she testified in front of a U.S. House Subcommittee about what it was like.
FLETCHER: Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not.
KALALEA: Telling this story has been extremely tough. My sleep is off. I’ve been having more nightmares than usual, of being chased or trapped in a dark basement. One night, I even found myself mapping out an escape plan—in my head—in the event of a fire or an attack. Of course, it pales in comparison to what the survivors have had to live through.
I've talked with so many people in Tulsa. I wanted to understand how the experiences of their grandparents and great grandparents shaped them. But now, I have many more questions about trauma and its impact on our bodies.
So for this episode, I’m going to spend the entire time in conversation with a psychotherapist. His name is Resmaa Menakem.
MENAKEM: One of the first things that I do, especially with Black bodies, is orienting. And that is that the simple act of just looking behind you, and finding the exits, and the windows, and the doors can help you and help your body begin to understand that there's nothing behind me. And I can leave whenever I want to. So that’s what I would suggest that me and you do, and also suggest what the audience does as they’re listening. Just take a moment and use your hips when you turn around. That's the psoas muscle. The psoas muscle is the part of the body that's responsible for mobilization and immobilization. So this idea of just looking. And then just notice if there's just a lessening of something. Not a whole lot. Just a little bit. All we're trying to get to.
MENAKEM: Good breath. Good breath.
KALALEA: Yeah okay.
This is Blindspot, Tulsa Burning. The story of a community set on fire… and the scars that remain 100 years later. I’m KalaLea.
Episode 5: The Body
KALALEA: Resmaa Menakem is based in Minneapolis. He spends a lot of time working with organizations during civil unrest. He also focuses on the effects of racialized trauma for African Americans, European Americans and police officers. His work has taken him all over the world. He spent 2 years managing counseling services for 53 U.S. military bases in Southern Afghanistan.
MENAKEM: There was not necessarily a lot of me instructing them: you need to do this, or you need to do that. It was a lot of: I'm here with you. You’re not doing this by yourself. We're here together. What you're experiencing as horror is a real thing. Right? Those types of things help the body tap into communal resources when its own individual resource has been tapped.
KALALEA: So when a person calls on a trusted family member, friend, elder or therapist, and they cry, vent or yell, they are tapping into a communal resource to get through whatever they’re going through in the moment—the hurt or pressure that is far too much to handle alone. Resmaa’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, is part-narrative and part-workbook, for healing trauma in our bodies and reckoning with our ancestral past.
KALALEA: So, I really would like to start with some definitions, just so we're all on the same page here. How would you define or describe trauma?
MENAKEM: So trauma in its simplest form, right, is the way that I think about it is anything that happens to you, that's too much too fast, too soon or too long, coupled with nothing, or not enough of something reparative that should have happened. Right? Trauma is personal, and particular. And just because something bad happens to you, doesn’t mean that you're going to be traumatized, right? Trauma has a stuckness component to it.
KALALEA: And so when you talk about trauma healing.
MENAKEM: Yeah, yeah.
KALALEA: What does that mean?
MENAKEM: So when I'm talking about trauma healing, I'm talking about it both—and particularly when I'm talking about racialized trauma, right? I'm talking about a trauma that is both individual and communal, right? When our people were hung, when they hung a Black woman from a bridge, and made sure that that bridge was the one that all of the people had to walk over, that was not done for the people that they lynched and hung. That was done for the communities that were left, right? To instill terror and horror in those bodies. The Tulsa massacre was done to instill terror and horror to those people that were left, right? And so when I'm talking about trauma healing, I'm talking about a reclaiming of that resource. So the trauma energy gets metabolized in the body and used for fuel for our freedom, as opposed to fuel that burns us, fuel that makes me turn on people that look like me, as opposed to turning towards people that look like me.
KALALEA: Mm hmm. And so you, you talked about your work focuses a lot on the body and our body's reaction to trauma. So like, for example, you use the phrase white body supremacy instead of just white supremacy. So why ground things in the body?
MENAKEM: Well, the idea of just white supremacy, people end up doing kind of like a head gymnastics with it, right? The moment you say white supremacy, everybody nods their head. Oh, yeah, I really know what that means. Yes. You know people just start, you know, like, it's really an intellectual thing that they're talking about. And so for me, white body supremacy is visceral, right? It breaks bones. It thwarts people's movement, it rapes, it steals land, it genocides people, it enslaves, you understand what I mean? There is a visceral component to it. It was not just a moniker: you know, white people and whiteness. It is actually a philosophy and structure that's ensconced in law, right?
KALALEA: Right. I want to play a particular piece of tape. There’s this local activist, a man named Chief Amusan. We talked to him in Episode One, and he’s a descendent. You know he has a moment where we are talking about the impact of the 1921 Race Massacre had on survivors as well as descendents.
KALALEA: For him and his community, the community of North Tulsa, which is predominantly Black, there's been high rates of crime, high rates of drug abuse, and health disparities far greater and different than South Tulsa, the white part of town. And what happens to you when you're trying not to internalize this racism. So let’s listen.
AMUSAN: Sick people throw up right? You know, because you’ve got to get rid of whatever this infection is. So you find ways to purge, you find ways to excrete something that's evil inside yourself. It doesn't make you evil, it means you're trying to excrete something to eliminate something that is actually evil. Right? We're trying to prevent ourselves from totally internalizing racism, internalizing white supremacy.
MENAKEM: Mmm...you know, um.
KALALEA: What are you thinking?
MENAKEM: You know, the piece around, um, ingesting white body supremacy, we already have. We ingested it in our mama's womb, through epigenetics, right? And even though you don't know what it is, you have notions of it.
KALALEA: Resmaa borrows an analogy. If you picture the world we live in as a big vast ocean, you might imagine that white supremacy is a shark. But actually, the culture of white supremacy is the water. The water that surrounds us … the ocean itself. And we are drowning in it.
MENAKEM: White body supremacy weathers my brain architecture. It weathers my muscular skeletal system. This is why that Black women die most often in childbirth and why their babies die, is because we don't account for the weathering and corrosive effects of dealing in the system that sees me as species, as lower primate.
And so for me, the crime and the health disparities and all that stuff, if we don't ask the question, I'm wondering how the Tulsa massacre of my people affected my cortisol levels. And not only that, but then the continued red-lining and the continued not having access to economics, all of those pieces, that if we don't ask questions, like, what are the effects of the total race or the Tulsa massacre on its descendants? What might they pass down to their children that their children now only have notions of it because they don't have the context or the healing that should have been done, so the trauma keeps getting passed down.
KALALEA: Yeah. So please explain that—how my ancestors, how their trauma is passed down to me—how I inherited that trauma. How does that happen?
MENAKEM: So when my mama is raising me, right, and she tells me not to do something, right? That's one way I learned when my mama says, “Boy, let me tell you, something. When we get into the store, don't ask for nothing.”
Right? Then she’s looking at me and she goes, You understand what I'm saying? and I'm looking at it and she goes, you understand what I'm saying? I understand what you're saying, ma'am. Yeah, that's instruction. I’m telling you, I’ll embarrass your butt up in here. That’s instruction. That's one way I learned from my mom. Another way I learned from my mom is about what my mama recoils from. And what she leans into the things that she takes on and the things that she goes around. Right. And when I’m watching my mama doing that, because her mama, and then her mama and her mama. So time decontextualizes trauma, listen to what I'm saying. So trauma, in a person across time, can look like personality. Trauma, in a family across time, can look like family traits. Trauma in a people, decontextualized across time, can look like culture, can look like health disparities, can look like crime, you understand what I mean?
KALALEA: Mhm Mhm.
KALALEA: In his work, Resmaa often tells stories—based on historical events—to get us to truly experience the impact of our behavior—now and in the past. I was hoping he could help me understand what’s going on in white bodies when they are confronted by race and racial violence. He told me a story that starts out innocently.
MENAKEM: There's a little boy and a little girl. And they're in their living room. And they're playing. And mom is there cooking. And then you hear a door open in the front, and standing there is a man. And soon as the kids look up and see him, they jump up and run to him and they jump in daddy's arms and daddy's laughing. Mom comes out the kitchen. And she walks up and she's hugging him. He's looking at everybody, he’s like “Hey, let's go to a park.’” And so they all load up the station wagon and they get in, mom fixed some food and they're driving and they get to the park. And the little boy looks up and he sees that the parking lot of the park is filled with cars. And he's happy because as he's seeing the cars, he's also seeing a couple cars that he recognizes and these are cars of parents of friends of his. So soon as their dad parks, they jump out and they run to the park and they see their friends and they're jumping around and little boy is playing with one of his friends. And he notices the smell of barbecue. And he's like man, that smells good. But there's something else in the air. I'm not quite sure what it is. But he keeps playing. About a half hour later dad comes grabs his son and his daughter. And he says I want to show y'all something. And they’re like yeah. So they start walking in a walk through this crowd and it’s a big crowd, a lot of people right? People that little boy recognize and little girl recognize when they look up, they see the owner of the baker, they see the town deputy, they see the sheriff, they see all of these things. And they're walking and it gives them a sense of community. They get to the opening and as the opening opens up, the little girl and little boy are on the side of their father holding their hand, and what they're watching and what they see in front of them is a lynching. And a barbecue and the smell are Black bodies. And the little boy and a little girl are looking. They’re watching this horror. Part of them may want to lean in and give aid and part of them wants to recoil. But they can't. Because daddy is leaning into it. I'm learning from what daddy is leaning into. I'm learning what's right and what's wrong by what daddy and Mama lean into, and recoil from. Now, take that little boy, where that thing that happened inside of him, was never addressed. And now he has children. And they have children. And this notion of what's right and what's wrong, and what's true, and not true is now embedded in them. Decontextualized, unspoken, and now looks like culture.
KALALEA: Hmm, hmm. Yes. That's what we... that's what we are a part of.
MENAKEM: That’s it, that’s the water.
KALALEA: That story is drawn from the 1920 lynchings of three young Black circus workers in Duluth, Minnesota. I’m talking with psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem. His book is My Grandmother’s Hands.
Coming up… we’ll talk about the impact of living in a culture built on the lie of white superiority.
That’s next. This is Blindspot.
KALALEA: This is Blind Spot: Tulsa Burning. I’m KalaLea. For this episode, I’m talking with Resmaa Menakem, a therapist who focuses on racial trauma and healing.
KALALEA: So this podcast series is about the legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. And, you know, many people have asked us this question: You know, why? Why do we continue to rehash these stories? Something so very painful that happened so long ago?
MENAKEM: Think about this. We have a whole system, a whole legal system that's based on what we call precedent. Right? What precedence is, is something that happened in the past that you are using to make decisions around what's happening now. Correct? And why is it that Black people are never afforded precedence? We're never afforded the opportunity to say, look, this thing that happened to me and my people, has done something. And we're asking for redress when it comes to that something that has been done. Don't think that the past is the past. The past is prologue, the past is instructive.
The white body has been conditioned around their comfort trumps Black liberation, that their comfort trumps Black people living, their comfort trumps everything. When white folks get uncomfortable, Black people lose jobs, lose lives, lose towns, lose employment, right?
And what you have is in terms of Tulsa, you have Black people who are doing well, right? You have Black people who are trading with each other. You have Black people who are trading with white folk. You have Black people who are doing things and making moves right? And so what happens in the white body collective is that the white body collective gets uncomfortable. And uncomfortable to the white body collective means dangerous, means not safe. So all it takes was something that was not really real to happen. And it sparked the imagination of terror and horror in white bodies.
And here's what I want to say. White people have been victimized, but it ain't been by us. It's been by other white folks. So until white bodies begin to take to task the elite white bodies that are breaking their backs in this structure, and directing that on us— until white bodies begin to develop a culture around that, don't tell me what you can't do, because you don't have the courage and you haven't dealt with your own moral injury enough to heal from it.
KALALEA: In his book, Resmaa has chapters for white Americans, he writes: “Your white body was not something you chose. But the imaginary construct of whiteness is something you can change.”
After reading that, I felt both hopeful and concerned, because it often feels that very little has changed.
MENAKEM: White folks really do not have a collective agility or efficacy when it comes to race. None. Because they have not had to, collectively, right? This is why when you go into a discussion with most white bodies around race, there are only a number of different strategies that they have to go through the discussion. It’s either anger, it’s either pseudo-fragility, it’s either pushback, it’s either tears, it’s either rage, right? It's prescribed, that when you start to have a discussion around race, all of these things are going to happen. And that’s, because they have no practice with it. Everybody else has been erased, and they have been standardized. And that's why white folks got a whole lot of stuff to do with regard to their own healing, and this is the other reason why when white folks come up to me, and they're talking to me, and they say stuff, like, you know, I'm an ally. I've been an ally for a lot. I'm here with you. My first question is this. Who are your people? Don't tell me you're an individual ally, because your individual kindness and your individual niceness is inadequate to deal with the level of carnage and terror and horror that Black people have to face and indigenous people have to face and brown bodies and bodies of culture have to face every day.
I don't want you to spit in my food, right? I want you to be nice to me. But that is not a redress for white body supremacy. And so if you are not developing culture around a living, embodied anti racist culture, then your declarations—white folks love declaring themselves apart and different from other white bodies and other white folks, right? What I asked white folks is, how are you going to name your children? Are you naming your children in the context of a living embodied anti racist culture and practice building? Are you doing that? If you're not, it is inadequate, because all you have to do is get uncomfortable enough and stop and cut your blonde dreadlocks and start eating your kale again and move out to the suburbs. And nobody ever knows you was in the mix with this. Right? And so this is really not about your own individual proclivities, and so, this is really about, are you going to take the time in white culture, among white people to build a living embodied anti-racist practice and culture building.
KALALEA: Yes. And so I wanted to just touch on something you just said, if they don't name their children? Can you just expound on that a little bit? First, I was like, do you mean named them like Lucretia?
I know you didn't mean that. But that's the first thing that popped in my mind.
MENAKEM: I would look. [laughs] No, I don't mean name little white girls Lucretia, what is this, I'm committed to doing this work for the rest of my life. I can't do nothing else but just work for the rest of my life. If you tell me you're down with me, you are committed to doing this work for the rest of your life. That means how your children are born is in a particular way. How you name your children are in a particular way. Are you naming your children within white culture after the Grimke sisters? Are you naming your children—your boys—after John Brown? You see what I mean?
KALALEA: And how are you raising them?
MENAKEM: How are you raising them? How are you raising them with an understanding that they are advantaged differently than my children? How are you doing that? That's what I mean. And that is not, that's a culture that is not a strategy. They want a name they babies Lucretia, Go right ahead. But [laughs] that I'm talking about something much deeper, something more of essence and something more tied to creation than just strategy.
KALAEA: Yeah, I get it. I get it. Yeah, but I mean, going back to 1921, the massacre. This woman talked to a journalist, and she was living in Greenwood. And her house was set on fire. She was, like, close enough to watch her home being burned. And, you know, she says, I sat watching my modern 10 room and basement burn to ashes. And this old white man came by, and he addressed me as auntie. And he says, It's awful, ain't it? And he offered me a dollar to buy dinner with.
What's going on there? What do we need to understand about that interaction?
MENAKEM: First thing we need to understand is what I said earlier: white folks, kindness and white folks’ niceness is inadequate. I mean, that's such a clear example, right? That this woman has lost everything, probably even people she loved, she done lost everything. And this nice old white man gave her a dollar, right? That may be nice, that may be kind, but it is woefully inadequate. Right? What would have been nicer if you would have taken that dollar and bought some ice cream? Or did something with other white folks so they can develop a living embodied anti-racist culture. So that didn't happen? Right? That's the work. The work is not the dollar, but he could give a dollar and be like, I did a nice thing for Auntie. Right? He didn't do anything. What he did was alleviate his own moral complicity. That's what he did. And so, for me, this stuff is very clear. White folks’ niceness and kindness is a poor substitute for creating a culture that abolishes white body supremacy, and until white folks start doing that is just performance, it’s performative and I don't care to participate in it.
KALALEA: Yeah yeah.
MENAKEM: Because what has happened to us and our people is brutal and continues to be brutal. And so I don’t believe that Black people, that we are the way we are is because we are trying to fit in better with white folks. I think we are the way we are is because that’s how we came here.
KALALEA: And if that trauma response is as deep as our unconscious being, ourselves, if it’s there before we come into this world, then how can we fix it?
MENAKEM: We fix it by doing what our people have done. Right? For 250 years, the white body had full and unfettered access to the Black body. Think about this. It is relatively new that me and you can be talking the way that we're talking on this thing, and be somewhat sure that there's probably not a lynch party out here waiting for us. Right? That's new sis. That’s really new that we could be doing this.
KALALEA: No ... true.
MENAKEM: For most of our lives, the white body has had full and unfettered access to every part of our bodies. And I think that that is a problem for them. Because when they don't get that deference, something happens to them. And they have not examined that as a collective—when Black people have their own agency, when Black people have their own sense of being.
And so for me, it really is about as Black people, how do we begin to turn towards each other more, and reclaim those pieces and metabolize that energy for our freedom, as opposed to using that same energy to burn each other up.
KALALEA: So you're saying it is possible?
MENAKEM: It is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s being done. If it wasn't being done, there would be no reason why you would reach out to me and want to talk to me,
KALALEA: Resmaa, it’s been a pleasure. I appreciate your time, your energy, your dedication.
MENAKEM: I appreciate you.
KALALEA: Thank you so much for being here.
MENAKEM: Thank you.
KALALEA: Resmaa Menakem. He’s the author of three books. His latest is “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.” You can learn more about his work at his website: Resmaa—thats R E S M A A—dot com.
Our next episode is the last in the series. Now that we’ve heard what led up to the massacre, what do we do—all of us—with that knowledge?
HILL: If you care about the history of America's Black victims of racial violence, you live in the world differently than if you are indifferent or simply ignorant about it.
KALALEA: That’s next time, on Blindspot.
Blindspot: Tulsa Burning is a co-production of The History Channel and WNYC Studios, in collaboration with KOSU and Focus Black Oklahoma. Our team includes Caroline Lester, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Joe Plourde, Emily Mann, Jenny Lawton, Emily Botein, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Bracken Klar, Rachel Hubbard, Anakwa Dwamena, Jami Floyd, and Cheryl Devall. The music is by Hannis Brown, Am’re Ford, and Isaac Jones.
Our executive producers at The History Channel are Eli Lehrer and Jessie Katz. Raven Majia Williams is a consulting producer. Special thanks to Zainab Mohamed, Jennifer Lazo, Andrew Golis, and Celia Muller.
I’m KalaLea, thanks for listening.