“We Shall Overcome”: Black History and Historical Trauma

Martin Luther King leads marchers at the 1963 March on Washington

Sometimes it feels like every February we talk about Black history and historical trauma as though they are forever synonymous. While we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and a host of other freedom fighters during Black History Month, we can’t help but acknowledge that the reason we elevate them is because of the pain and suffering they and so many others endured.

Martin and Malcolm died for their beliefs and for the color of their skin, like many before and since. They were attacked and despised by their White neighbors, targeted by their local and federal government alike, mourned by generations of Black families and communities. The Black freedom struggle in America has continued for more than four centuries now. From the historical terrors of slavery and Jim Crow to the staggering contemporary inequalities in mass incarceration and numerous measures of well-being, full liberation for Black and African Americans has been elusive at best.

We know that the racism experienced by racial minorities in the U.S. can negatively and profoundly impact mental health. Likewise, we know from studying epigenetics that past horrors can carve themselves deep into families and communities. It’s imperative, therefore, to understand both Black history and historical trauma. This especially is true for our mission and we who provide mental health services. Without this knowledge, we simply cannot treat trauma to the best of our abilities. And thus we do a disservice to our clients.

How We Can Treat Black Historical Trauma

Black father with his arm around shoulder of teen son

But to do this right, we must be willing to listen and learn. First, we must acknowledge history, trauma, and their long-lasting, generational effects. Even people considered “successful” may struggle due to consequences of trauma their parents and grandparents suffered. We may not know family members’ individual stories. But if we don’t know the history of our Black communities, that’s our own failing.

We also must study the data. From health and wealth to schools and homes, Black Americans experience inexcusable disparities. You can slice it up however you like, but modest gains in outcomes for African Americans over the last few decades have not erased the chasm that exists between Black and White America.

Then we have to examine carefully the policies that affect these outcomes. While politics complicates the landscape, organizations like ours can adjust our own modalities to best serve our clients and their communities. How can we determine what works best? One way is by listening. Input from the stakeholders themselves — in this case, Black families and communities — is not only absolutely necessary, it’s incredibly valuable.

Another step in this journey is overcoming barriers. Some barriers are practical, such as the transportation limitations of many of the clients we serve. But others are cultural. We must make ongoing, lifelong efforts to improve our cultural awareness and sensitivity if we hope to provide good services.

It’s also important for health providers of all stripes to recognize that it’s the privileged, not the marginalized, that construct these cultural barriers. Too often we use treatments and training designed to serve a default demographic. This is an opportunity for our own growth, including in research, innovation, and evidence-based practices. We should embrace this potential.

Overcoming the History of Trauma in Black Communities

Screenshot from TV show Watchmen which explored historical trauma through characters Angela and her grandfather Will
Watchmen (2019). Copyright © Home Box Office. All rights reserved.

Historical trauma is not something new to Black communities and those who study Black history. But it may be more visible than ever before, including in pop culture. One recent example is HBO’s celebrated superhero TV show, Watchmen. Anti-Black racism and historical trauma are central themes of the series. In particular, at one point in the story, a Black protagonist literally experiences her grandfather’s traumatic past. This fantastical, fictional metaphor helps highlight the real emotional pain of historical trauma.

But (spoiler alert!) the show also is about overcoming that intergenerational trauma. Not by erasing history, but by honoring it and empowering those who have suffered historical trauma. For 400 years, Black history in America has been about overcoming suffering more than the suffering itself. You can hear the cries for liberation if you listen. From the freedom spirituals of people enslaved to the chants of “We Shall Overcome” during the March on Washington, Black voices throughout history have elevated healing in the midst of adversity.

We can’t truly observe Black History Month without seeing trauma — or seeing trauma overcome. In addition, we can’t fully serve our clients and communities without listening to their stories. We may be just one rung on the ladder to liberation. But we can be a firm hand to hold while each individual takes another step up.

Further Reading and Resources

Administration for Children and Families. (2017). What is Historical Trauma? Resource Guide to Trauma-Informed Human Services.
DeAngelis, T. (February 2019). The legacy of trauma. Monitor on Psychology, 50(2), 36.
Williams‐Washington, K.N., & Mills, C.P. (2018). African American Historical Trauma: Creating an Inclusive Measure. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 46(4), 246–263. doi.org/10.1002/jmcd.12113

The Institute of Family & Community Impact is an initiative of OhioGuidestone, Ohio’s largest nonprofit social services provider.

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