Month: February 2020

The tears of our mothers: trauma and its transmission

My mother rarely cried.

Yet there were so many, so many reasons for her to. There was so much distress around us. Neighbours, relatives and friends came and cried on her shoulders. Many came to our house to seek refuge. To seek safety. To seek guidance. To seek nurture. I can only remember vividly one of the very few times I saw my mother’s tears. That was when her own mother died. Other tearful times have blurred in my mind but I am certain they were mainly related to the death of loved ones.

I am a crier.

It took me a while to make peace with this but, I am a crier. It is very easy to for me to tear up. It has always been. Mostly these days I do not feel too self-conscious, although I occasionally still do and when I do, I hide. Many mammals instinctively hide when ill, wounded or weak. Perhaps as humans we are equally capable of displaying this behaviour at times of vulnerability. Particularly when those around us depend on our resilience and on our silence. Perhaps this is also partly why my mother rarely cried. But not all tears are tears of sadness although, they mainly are. Very rarely they are tears of joy. Sometimes tears of anger. Sometimes they are tears of fear.

My mother rarely showed fear.

I do not have any memory of seeing her afraid. Not a single one. As I write this, I hear how both incredible and incredulous this sounds. But it is the truth. And, there is a part of me that is in complete and utter owe of her fearlessness. Her courage. She needed it for all the battles she had to take on. Can you even begin to imagine the courage and determination it takes to survive colonial violence, turbulent decolonisation, civil and genocidal war, divorce, patriarchy, brutal racism and xenophobia all in one lifetime? This evades my comprehension. It truly blows my mind. We often omit our mothers’ resistance when we think about feminism. When we think about defiance. When we think about survival.

Survival amidst sustained destruction and annihilation attempts, is the ultimate defiance. I think that I have inherited something of her fighting spirit. A humongous gift. The gift of survival, I call it. However unlike her, I have struggled with ‘anxiety’. I have for a long time. Although it took me a while to even understand this. And it’s been a journey. I rarely have panic attacks these days. But unsurprisingly, my mind does tend to wonder towards the darker side of human possibilities. I have learnt to catch it when it does. I can redirect it. Although I am not always successful.

Intergenerational and historical trauma

I think about intergenerational trauma, a lot. Something that is grossly neglected within psychological and mental health practice in the U.K. This absence makes little sense. This absence is evidence of its presence. Our standard clinical conceptualisations of trauma continue to be highly individualistic and centred on the psychological consequences of exposure to adverse events on individuals. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) refers to trauma as an ‘emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster’ and further adds that ‘longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical’.

My mum did not experience shock. She has never been troubled by flashbacks or other psychological distress related to her experience of violence. In fact, she rarely spoke of the hardship she experienced or saw. In France and before that, in Africa. Some of what I know of the harm she has experienced, I know because I have directly witnessed it occurring. Some of what I know, I have known by doing research into the political landscape she lived through. Some of what I know, I have caught in conversations with my parents within which atrocious acts were described, in passing. In the most mundane of ways.

Acts of mundane humiliation and banal degradation. Stories of death and destruction were rarely recounted but when recounted, were recounted nonchalantly. Mainly though, it is stories of everyday, normalised dehumanisation that I have heard. Stories of being required to bow one’s head to white people. Stories of being whipped within white Christian missionary schools. Stories of being spat at. One anecdote in particular has stayed with me. It was recounted by my step father as one of his formative experiences. It is the story of a white manager in Brazzaville disciplining a black employer by asking him to open his mouth, spitting in the gaping orifice then asking the black man to swallow the phlegm. A perfect allegory, I have always thought, for colonialism.

These stories of whimsical and gratuitous brutality and sadism were told without any emotion. Many remain with me. When we think about mental health and in particular about the ‘excess’ of psychological distress in people of African and Caribbean backgrounds and in people of colour more broadly, it becomes clear that it is very specifically the second and third generations of displaced groups or ‘migrants’ who tend to carry the bulk of the distress. One can’t help but wonder how much of that distress actually belongs to older generations, sometimes to generations long, long gone.

Much empirical evidence suggests that trauma may be passed down through generations. Historical trauma and intergenerational trauma conceptualisations consider the impact of trauma beyond immediate or individual exposure. Historical trauma has been defined as the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma (Brave Heart, 1999). The definition highlights the impact of trauma or mass atrocities and its transmissible if not contagious, quality.

Intergenerational trauma overlaps with historical trauma. But while historical trauma is centred on mass violence and group level atrocities, intergenerational trauma need not involve mass or group violence to be in effect (although the complication is that in practice it often does…) it simply refers to the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, usually within the same family contexts. While we do know that trauma transcends those directly affected and that it moves across time and space, our understanding of how exactly this occurs is still limited.

The collective and social unconscious

Jung’s collective unconscious is posited to be a structure of the psyche distinct from Freud’s so called ‘personal’ unconscious. Whilst our personal unconscious is posited to be a repository for unacceptable sexual or destructive fantasies/wishes or impulses, the collective unconscious encapsulates group level cultural inheritance which is acquired independently from personal experience and which is instead, the product of collective experiences, knowledge and symbols/archetypes thought to be biologically inherited. The social unconscious is the group analytic/Foulksian extension of Jung’s initial concept. It designates the co-constructed and shared unconscious of members of a particular social system such as communities, societies, nations or cultures. Although the operation of the social unconscious evades our conscious awareness, it provides meaning to all our communications and relationships and seeks to reproduce in the present, past arrangements and relationships.

Proposing that a part of our unconscious mind is collective and transmitted via genetic or epigenetic pathways means that individual consciousness is at least in part, predetermined and shaped by events that took place before our existence. By our collective past. For both Jung and Foulkes this includes the experience of our ancestors as well as their wounds and trauma. This historical material exerts a powerful influence. It shapes how we behave, how we see the world, how we relate and quite fundamentally again, it continually strives to reproduce itself. That is to say, the primary function of group unconscious mechanisms is to ensure the survival of ancestral modes of being, feeling and thinking as well as the reproduction of past social and political configurations.

Very few scholars have interrogated the mass trauma of colonialism and it’s correlate with contemporaneous geo-political violence. I have long hypothesised that there likely is a direct link between 1) historical levels of colonial violence and contemporary political conflicts within former colonies and 2) the very type of past violence and current manifestations of violence within the same zones. The social and collective unconscious are helpful tools to think about the contemporary reproduction of colonial violence within former colonies since they posit that part of our unconscious aims to structure the present in line with past social arrangements.

I do not believe it is coincidental that the parts of Africa which were turned into rape and torture camps and human butcheries sanctioned and/or orchestrated by European colonial powers, continue to experience some of bloodiest conflicts on earth. Any basic group analytic or analytic formulation of these traumatic events would see on-going mass violence and political turmoil as related to past atrocities. Evidence of a collective memory. The continuing psychic legacy of colonial violence and its re-enactment in the present.

The reproduction of trauma

Although social and collective unconscious conceptualisations partly allow us to understand the transmission and reproduction of trauma, there are other mechanisms at play, particularly when we’re entering the domestic or family domain. Psychoanalytic investigations of intergenerational trauma in Holocaust survivors, found that projective identification was a core mechanism by which trauma was transmitted. Anxious parents who projected Holocaust-related feelings and anxieties into children often had children who introjected them and would as a result, behave as though they had directly themselves experienced concentration camps and other Nazi atrocities.

When we think about intergenerational trauma things can get very abstract and very conceptual very quickly, making it difficult to recognise the everyday psychological legacies of historical trauma, particularly if we do not have analytic tools. This is arguably unhelpful and provides fuel for further skepticism and resistance. However, if we break things down and move away from formal analytic formulations, the manifestations of intergenerational and historical trauma and their transmission can become more obvious, for more of us to recognise in our life, for example;

– We may feel compelled to seek retribution or revenge for the harm or, injustice that has been inflicted onto our ancestors

– We may feel compelled to repair or undo humiliation or degradation inflicted upon our parents perhaps by overachieving

– We may reproduce cycles of harm and abuse in our life so that we experience the pain, hurt or suffering our ancestors or parents experienced

– We may harm and abuse our loved ones or those closer to us identifying with historical perpetrators/aggressors

– We may stop ourselves from experiencing joy or happiness or engage in self-destructiveness out of loyalty for those who have suffered or indeed been destroyed

– We may seek to protect those who have been harmed and become compelled to overlook or forgive their mistakes, contribution or complicity

– We may feel compelled (or indeed be designated) to experience feelings or emotions which were too dangerous to express or experience by those who came before us, mourning on their behalf

– We may become hypersensitive to or triggered by events or incidents which harmed our ancestors even if we were not personally exposed to them

– We may deny, minimise or dissociate from the violence which our parents or forebearers experienced and/or blame them for the same

– We may become suspicious, distrustful or aversive to groups or individuals who have historically belonged to perpetrator groups, groups who carried out violence against our forbearers

Concluding thoughts

What I hope to have started to illustrate by sharing a little bit of my mother is that so many of our tears, so many of our fears are not ours alone. Sometimes we cry for those who could not or were not allowed to cry. Sometimes we feel fears that do not only belong to us. It is clear that harm, abuse and trauma which came ‘before’ us and affected ‘older’ generations, that of our parents, our grandparents, our ancestors is not beyond us. Despite not/not fully belonging to us, this can have long lasting consequences for us not only in terms of psychological functioning, but also in terms of social and geo-political configurations. In the case of projective transmission of trauma, unprocessed affective states may be passed on through fearful and terror filled gazes. Trauma can also be transmitted biologically and through stories, and sometimes through silences. In any case, and even though this challenges so much of what we have been taught and are socialised to believe, an individualistic lens to conceptualise trauma seriously limits our understanding of human harm and of the consequences of violence.

Thank you for reading

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The music of black souls

With music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me’ Freud (1914)

‘I am black. I am the incarnation of a complete fusion with the world, an intuitive understanding of the earth, an abandonment of my ego in the heart of the cosmos and no white man no matter how intelligent he may be can ever understand Louis Armstrong and the music of the Congo’ Fanon (1952)

Music and the self

I have been thinking about music and about writing about music for a long time. I am not entirely sure where I am going with the present piece, I have not written in a little while but I have been thinking. About African music in particular and, my attachment to it. But also about music and love. Music and sex. Music and intimacy. Music and roots. Music and liberation. Music and connection.

I am not a musicologist but it’s no secret that I am a music lover. I listen to all genres although I do have a sweet spot for African music particularly for Congolese music.

It is a strange experience. Each time I try to write about music, I struggle. I usually find things that are deeply meaningful, can be the hardest to ascribe intellectual meaning to and so I wonder about the depth of the issues, about the root of this thesis which may make vocalisation hard. Perhaps this is because this vocalisation is attempting to translate into conceptual language what is best spoken through the language of the body and the senses. Still, I want to give words a chance.

I have been wondering why black people and white people at group level at least, dance so differently. Why we differ in how we move. I think it speaks something of our relationship to our body. Our relationship to the world. With the erotic. With intimacy. I continue to be curious about how we’re socialised to occupy space so differently. How we learn to move, respond and hear different rhythms and how this in part, says something about domination and power.

I think our relationship to the musical holds important cues about how we inhabit the world and how we relate to it that can be difficult to speak meaningfully to, outside of the embodied. That it speaks of our connection to others and, our connection to our self but also to the past and, to the universe and, our place within the same.

Splitting, fear and mastery

The quotes above capture something of this tension. For Freud, music is clearly evocative of fear, of danger. Fear of losing control of the self, of relating to or being in the world outside of a rational frame of understanding. The fear of being thrown into a dark abyss and entering a realm where the self is experienced as out of bound, ultimately unknown, verbally indescribable and intellectually ungraspable. A fear perhaps of the preverbal, perhaps even of the unconscious, of the repressed. A fear of losing self-mastery thus mastery of the so-called ‘primitive’ Other that exists within.

Engaging with African music at soul level necessarily takes us to a different realm of communication, a different world of sense making, a dimension which fundamentally challenges linear and dualist engagement with the world and separatist worldviews. The opposite of Cartesian mind-body dualism. An engagement that connects rather than splits and separates thus consequently something that calls for unity, integration and interconnectedness.

Music has long been associated with spirituality and transcendence of the self. In the West, this relationship was lessened during the so called enlightenment. As I have previously noted, individualism or disconnection from the sensory realm, the spiritual and natural world, make it easier to rape, murder, dominate and destroy the planet and to rationalise the same away.

And so we can see that sensory mastery and control of the unconscious, betray a colonial relationship with the self and the world and the reproduction of capitalist socio-economic configurations. Music, particularly African rhythms invite us to re-connect to the natural world, to ourselves and to others in an intimate manner. This intersection of multiple subjectivities, across generations and history is a rich source of life and meaning.

Music and heritage

When I was a child the nostalgia filled stories and memories of my parents were recounted to the sound of Congolese drumming (sebene) in the background. African parents are not culturally the most routinely demonstrative when it comes to love or affection. Particularly when it comes to romantic feelings. Not those of my parents’ generation anyway. But they danced rumba. And rumba dances are pretty much the only occasions I remember my parents showing each other affection and staring lovingly at each other’ eyes in public.

Rumba is a sensual and fluid dance. It is quite erotically charged too, like so much Congolese music, yet it has a tenderness and intimacy at its core which makes it bonding and connecting.

My parents and migrant and displaced parents generally do not consciously seek to pass on their love of music or the traditions and stories carried within the music they listen and dance to. All the same, music carries through time and space personal and group histories. Passing on music is thus also passing on heritage, culture and again, connection. With this transmission, collective knowledge, worldviews, healing and resistance practices are shared and thus, survive.

The musical experience transmits implicit and explicit messages such as freedom, trust and, an attitude of openness to what comes, the celebration of the body or of the erotic, harmonious union. I do not speak the language of my ancestors but I can dance to the same drums and my heart vibrates to the same rhythms and so somehow we can still be at one. I find this incredibly vital to my wellness in this world. I have previously argued that one of the reasons that there is so much psychological distress among the second or third generation of so called migrants within the African diaspora and those even further removed, is in part because of this disconnection. Disconnection from ancestral lands, cultures, ways of knowing and being.

This disconnection is amplified in contexts of exclusion and marginalisation. This cultural homelessness that so many of us have to learn to be at home with, is constantly triggered by everyday micro aggression and subtle othering messages within white supremacy. It is within this sense of homelessness that so much intergenerational trauma resonates and that it is carried through, beyond individualised coping and resistance strategies, there must therefore be community-level healing which nurtures the soul and strengthens our bonds, music has always had this potential.

The politics of African music

When I started individual psychotherapy, a few years back I shared in an early session that I loved African Music with my then psychotherapist. I will never forget her response. She looked intensely at me after I spoke these words. I observed her carefully. We remained silent for a minute or two, she eventually remarked, ‘I can better understand why you would be experiencing some of difficulties within structures’.

A part of me was puzzled by her response. Another must have thought it understood since I did not seek any clarification or asked her for an explanation. Something about my affinity with African rhythms caused her to pause and to think. Something which perhaps spoke to a structural mismatch, my dancing to different drums. Perhaps it was evidencing some kind of cultural if not epistemic clash, perhaps a rebelliousness. Perhaps a defiance. An irreverence. Certainly this is how I now make sense of it all.

There may be more than a kernel of truth in this swift assessment. It is clear that my love of Congolese music is deliberate. In a context of anti-blackness and anti-African hatred or contempt, we are all socialised to both despise so called ‘primitive’ African artistic and intellectual productions and to exploit them, in the same breath. This is how the Master operates, remember?

So, there are many of us who miss out on African art and creations to their own prejudices and the decolonisation they’re still to engage in within themselves. I do not believe it is possible to love and revere all music inspired and rooted in African beats, rhythms and traditions and truly dislike the source or original, it does not make much sensory or intellectual sense, unless you factor in whiteness.

African drums are good for the soul. They ground and heal. And my love once more, is political. In the same way one may choose to wear an Afro not only because they’re beautiful but also out of defiant conviction, we can choose to remember the culture of our ancestors or heritage rather than assimilate it away within white supremacy. By embracing that heritage, we choose to resist. We choose to trace the traces of our being through time and space and we honour those who came before us.

Concluding thoughts

Drumming has been repeatedly found to have positive effects on trauma related distress. It seems to me we could all learn from this ancient healing practice used to build community, restore wellness and seek liberation. A remedy that comes free with African music…Evidence also suggests building racial or ethnic identity strength may be a powerful buffer against racial trauma and racism related distress. Another reason for us to engage with ancestral or parental culture. But that is not all, for Fanon, being and indeed being black, represents living in this rhythm, in fusion, connected to the world in a way that allows access to deep meaning and truth through means that are not necessarily dependent on rationality. It is trusting the self enough to let go, to abandon it to the forces of the universe. Without wanting to essentialise whiteness or blackness or even magnify racial binary constructions or contrasts, I think there is something in this perspective that is dancing around what I am grappling with. A connection that is deeply spiritual. An ancestral truth. An experience that transcends words and which is a source of wellness and power. Perhaps a song that can only be danced rather than written.


For a few of my favourite Congolese tunes, click here.

References (not hyperlinked)

Fanon F (1952) Black Skin White Masks. London: Paladin.

Freud S (1914) The Moses of Michelangelo”. Standard Edition, Vol. XIII, p. 211.

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.