What does intergenerational trauma and healing look like for Black women? A conversation across generations
In “I Rise,” a series from HelloGiggles, Black women writers examine Black women’s mental health from every angle—from what it takes to access treatment, to the exchange of trauma across generations. We hope this series arms women with information and power, and opens up more space for this important conversation to take place.
Generational trauma in African-descended communities is passed down like an inheritance. A definition from Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, an essay collection edited by M. Gerard Fromm, sums it up: “What human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often onto and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency.” Scholar and activist Gloria Swain describes this as a symptom of colonization—the same type of violence perpetrated against Black women during the transatlantic slave trade still persists, and we continue to pass down its effects, and the effects of new trauma, generation to generation.
Dr. Joy Harden-Bradfield, creator of the Black Girl Therapy podcast, has an episode that discusses this idea of intergenerational trauma. In it, she describes the need for Black women to vocalize our pain to move forward in our journey and to break the cycle. Her guest, Shaketa Robinson-Bruce, a certified professional counselor in Atlanta, notes that the effects of historical trauma are passed down through the generations, with impacts including perpetual poverty, continuing cycles of abuse, and the normalization of violence.
What you’re about to read is a roundtable discussion between Trinya, a California-based woman in her 30s, Trinya’s mother, Ms. Donna, and Trinya’s 87-year-old grandmother, Ms. Vivian, the family’s no-nonsense matriarch. We spoke while the family was together in New Jersey; Trinya was helping her mother move there from Baltimore, and Granny Vivian has lived there since childhood. For me, someone who has experienced traumas similar to my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, this conversation hit close to home. My goal was to share some insights about the relevance of generational trauma. Are there patterns? Are those patterns breakable? Do we have more resources now than our mothers and grandmothers had?
In my conversation with these three generations of Black women, we explore some of the ways Black women navigate trauma and healing. With the promise of “telling the truth to people who don’t understand,” I was welcomed into their home to have a candid discussion about intergenerational trauma. More than anything, I hope this discussion inspires those of us blessed with the presence of other living generations to open (or re-open) the lines of communication.
Africa Jackson: Talk a little bit about yourselves.
Trinya (daughter): Funny that this is the first prompt as I truly feel like I can talk about myself comfortably [now]. I just am getting to a place that I can talk about myself. I am emotional, indecisive, determined, lovable, charismatic, confident, vulnerable and now, because of recent circumstances, a bit more selfish than I used to be. I’m in my mid-30s, recently single, a professional woman who moved to California to find herself. I’m a dean of a middle school with a background as a performer.
Donna (mother): I am a 65-year-old single Black woman from New Jersey. I had a cleaning business for many years.
Vivian (grandmother): I grew up in New Jersey and had 11 brothers and sisters. We were raised poor but anchored in God’s mercy so really didn’t know how poor we were.
AJ: How is trauma transmitted through generations?
T: This question makes me pause a bit. Through generations we learn everything, so trauma is just another part of the interactions, stories, situations, food, music, art, political engagement, economic development (or lack thereof), and personal narrative that are given to us. I think that when we are born, we learn from watching the souls that came before us, from how we watch our mamas grow to the way we see our Pop-Pop treat our Granny. For those souls who find themselves in traumatic spaces, whether they be political, social, economic, personal, macro, global, or self-imposed, they learn how to deal with those situations by watching the souls before them. We either do exactly what they did in the situation, did some of what they did and then realized it didn’t work so modified, or vowed and committed to having a completely different reaction.
Some of us experienced a different type of trauma but manifested the same outcomes, some of us manifested the desire to experience the same trauma while being well equipped to avoid the same outcomes (I identify most with this group), and most of us are dealing with trauma we internalized from the generations before us. One concrete example of this is my relationship with food, and one that I feel defined me so much that it went from being a chapter note in my autobiography to its center focus. Without meaning to, my granny helped me develop a really poor relationship with food from a young age, passing down the fat-laden, high cholesterol-causing, and equally amazing, delicious soul food recipes that came from the post-slavery, Great Depression [era] meals of my ancestors. It was not until my 30s that I fully learned to love my body and to maintain a certain level of physical health with a balanced diet and exercise—still don’t do this enough—but lost nearly 100 pounds once I dealt with some of the trauma that I gathered. Granny only wanted what was best for me, while also only knowing the recipes she learned from her mom.
AJ: How do you define trauma?
T: I define trauma as the residue left from experiences that harm, hurt, or damage our physical, mental, or emotional beings. The residue can be internalized as self-pity, stagnation in life goals and moves, lack of confidence, and self-destructive thoughts. Or externalized as drug abuse, mistreatment of others, or self-degrading behaviors.
D: I just don’t see a point to going into it. It is something that happens and God gets you through.
V: But it is something we at least should share and pray on.
AJ: What are some traumatic things you’ve experienced?
T: I have experienced physical and sexual traumas, domestic violence, witnessing the death of a 14-year old boy as he bled out on the school parking lot after being stabbed by another scared eighth grader. I have witnessed a family of eight, including three children under 10, living in a home with no water or electricity. I’ve been searched and harassed by cops because I was teaching kids in the hood. I had to watch my kids be harassed and attacked by cops just because they lived in the hood. I have seen my mom be in abusive relationships. I have seen my little brother experience self-harm. I have heard the screams of my grandmother as my grandfather used his hands instead of his words to express his anger. I have been choked and told that I would die because I wanted to leave a man that was 12 years my senior that had abused and held me for eight years previous to that. I have lived in a car after losing a business and having a dear friend turn their back on me. I have seen girls as young as 12 pregnant and alone act out in anger, only to be called the antagonist. I live in America, I am a Black woman, that alone is traumatic.
V: I wouldn’t call it trauma. We lived during the Great Depression but we didn’t have anything to compare it to so didn’t consider ourselves traumatized. We played games, marbles, did chores, built what we needed, made the food we had. A lot of young people complain, but [we] just felt blessed back then. It’s simple, yet people like my granddaughter make a big deal out of something small. Well let me tell you, more prayer would be less complaining.
AJ: Do any of your traumas mirror those your grandmother or mother experienced?
T: Many of my traumas are closely tied to my mother and grandmother’s experiences or stories or insight that they shared with me over the years. Yes is the short answer, but because of the generational time difference, the traumas have different dimensions. It’s like watching one of those really well-done movies where the stories are mirrored, running alongside each other in different time and space dimensions.
V: I didn’t know some of the things that Mama went through. My mama was 16 when she got married, but that was really the same story as a lot of young girls so it wasn’t traumatic. There are lots of us [siblings] close in age, but my parents worked hard and made sure we understood how to respect what you had. We grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey and there were stores that we couldn’t go to, and we went to an all-Black school (with all white teachers) until I had kids, but my mom instilled in us that we needed to do our best. We lived across the railroad tracks.
T: But isn’t that part of the problem, that things were so normalized? Didn’t you feel like you deserved better? Didn’t you want to fight for something better?
V: Fight or survive.
T: Was it really that cut and dry? I feel like—
V: That’s the problem. Too many feelings and not enough focus on getting your work done.
[A lot of silence and head shakes]
AJ: This leads into my next question. How have you felt supported by the women in your family?
V: People in general need to learn a little more self-sufficiency. There has to be some personal accountability.
T: Look, no matter the situation or circumstance presented in my life, the women in my family have been my foundation. I have always heard words of affirmation about my ability to dictate my life. I had strong role models of determination and perseverance, and honest, true advice. My grandmother had five daughters, I wasn’t raised with my dad, and my mom was the only sister that never got married. I have spent my entire life with strong Black women, and value that privilege.
D: Not everyone is in a position to help someone else when they have their own struggles. Having the time to even talk about this is a privilege.
AJ: How have you felt misunderstood of judged by the women in your family?
T: My grandmother raised me until I was 14 and even to this day—
D: Really? [Donna cuts off her daughter here, seeming to chastise her for sharing the family’s business]
T: Yes, mother. [Scoffs] And I sometimes feel that you judge me for turning out the way I did.
D: I don’t know why you think that.
T: [Back to AJ] Sometimes it feels like she doesn’t understand me and holds it against me that I developed a stronger relationship with my grandmother, even though I had nothing to do with the decision as a young girl. When my mom had a stroke when I was 13 and I just so happened to miss curfew that night, I got blamed. When I was working at McDonald’s at 16 and bringing my paychecks home to help with bills, I felt pressure from my mom about the portion of the bill that wasn’t going to get paid. Though it wasn’t intentional, I think the fact that we didn’t spend a lot of my foundational years together affected our overall relationship. As I near my mid-30s as a more mature person, I am able to express myself with my mom more.
V: We all have our cross to bear.
T: Granny I know, I just feel like there can be some middle ground.
AJ: You talked about having Black women who you admire. Within your family, who is your go-to person for support?
T: Granny Vivian. She helped me develop a strong foundation for a powerful existence. “If it’s for you…it’s for you.” This is the phrase that constantly rings in my head, said to me when I quit my salaried teacher job to open my own vintage shop named Vivian’s Locker and when I applied for an executive-level position in my early 30s (that I ultimately didn’t get). For whatever reason, she knew enough to support my mom in raising me, even though she had already raised five, went back to college after that, and then took me on for 10 years. She taught fifth grade for the entire time I was in elementary school, leading young souls to better days, was a staple in the church I was at four times a week (to my dismay at the time), and matched her outfit, shoes, purse, and lipstick every day when we left the house. She cooked me a meal every morning and night and made sure I knew how to code switch.
“Just checking” is another phrase we share. When I was from about the ages of 7 to 11, I would always check to see if my granny was still downstairs. And no matter how late it was, she would reply. I bet I can do it now, watch.
[Clears throat] “Grraaannnnyyyy!!!!”
V: Yes, Trinya, why are you screaming in my house?
T: JUST CHECKING! She warms my heart every time I hear it.
AJ: Have you ever cried in front of your mother/daughter?
T: All the time, I am a total crybaby. I like crying. I haven’t in front of my mom in a while, but cried like a baby leaving Granny’s house after my three-week holiday stay this past Christmas.
V: One day I remember my mama sitting at the wash basins crying, and I didn’t know why but I can remember thinking, “She must be going through so much.”
D: I didn’t cry in front of my mother. I was an aunt at 8 years old and I remember her saying to me, “Yeah you an aunt, but you ain’t grown.”
AJ: What advice would you give your younger self?
T: Do what you did the first time, but learn from your mistakes sooner. Don’t be hard on yourself unless it’s about your goals. Set goals. Keep them. Love yourself fully and unapologetically. Drinking water during the teen years will avoid the acne scars in college. Don’t let others pull you into the chain of misery. Make a list of movie moments you want to live out and do them. Listen to your elders. Set your own limits.
V: Only thing I would say, my only regret, was the first year I went to college, I got pregnant. I took a civil service test to become a librarian after I raised my kids. But I would say, no matter what, don’t give up. You can do anything, even if you think you can’t.
D: I would tell myself to not trust any and every body.
T: You think trust is really that bad?
D: I said what I said.
AJ: Let’s switch gears. What do you admire most about your mother/daughter?
D: I feel like I admire the same thing in all of us. We still here.
AJ: Can you elaborate on that a little more?
D: No thank you. [Silence, then laughter]
T: My mom is completely stubborn. I know that is usually misinterpreted as negative, but truly I admire her for it. I have never been able to fully be selfish and just do what I want for me. I don’t think my mom has ever done anything different from that. In Granny, I admired her groundedness and love. There was nothing that she couldn’t seem to solve, fix, prevent, or just let you cry when things go wrong. Always knowing when to make a warm grilled cheese or an ice cream sandwich, she loved and wanted the best for everyone in her life.
V: My mother’s mother died when she was 3 so she didn’t say a lot about her trauma, but my mother was a great mother to us. Instilled in us that whatever you had, you take care of it. We were poor but we didn’t realize it, there were 11 of us so only two of us went to college. No matter what, she was the best mom ever, even if there wasn’t the resources to get it done. We take so much for granted today. I always remember the food that she cooked for us, the biscuits and yummiest stuff.
AJ: What is the worst piece of advice you’ve given/received?
T: Worst piece of advice I’ve given: When I told myself something wasn’t going to go badly, when I knew full well it was going to be horrific in some way.
Worst piece of advice I received: Stay in an abusive relationship for “security.”
D: She is probably talking about me.
V: Both of y’all stop. That’s the advice I will give right now, Ms. Newslady. Everybody needs to stop. Be in prayer for a little bit and just stop. That is the best way to go.
AJ: Is there a TV mother/daughter relationship you’d compare yours to?
T: I feel like ours is more like the mother-in-law vs. daughter relationships presented in TV and media. Loving each other, at each other’s throats.
V: Yes, the Cosbys.
D: All in the Family without the racism. Or maybe The Jeffersons.
AJ: What is your favorite memory growing up?
T: My grandparents taking me to the Indian Springs to pick blackberries in summer, eating sandwiches by the river, and smooshing berries back at home that turned into delicious pies.
V: I remember that we would steal apples and Mama would make apple pie. Daddy had a cash register were he would save quarters to buy gifts for Mama. We didn’t have a lot but we had the best of what we did have
AJ: How do you define healing?
T: Healing is first recognizing that trauma exists. Then finding ways to dig out the hurt, whether it be a physical outlet, healing memories and triggers through therapeutic strategies and developing good routines to cope with future stressors or circumstances.
V: God. God heals all. We have to pray and rest on God.
AJ: What are some ways you have started the healing process?
T: Sharing my experiences with others, spending time with myself doing things that make me feel happy, working with mental health specialists to learn and develop strategies to “dig out” my own traumas and fears. Finding a strong support system to share the weight of healing. Talking to my mom about the way I felt over the years and what I would want to do differently.
G: Talking about what was wrong and figure out how to make it better. And praying.
AJ: What is something that has sparked joy for you?
T: That despite our tensions over the years, I truly feel like the relationship with my mom is stronger than ever. We talk more and don’t argue as much. I also have enjoyed my new journey living on the other side of the country (maybe this is why we get along and I guess that’s not great). I feel like I am learning more and more about myself daily.
V: The relationship I had with my mother. She was amazing, she instilled in us responsibility, love, and hard work. I thank God for her every day.
D: I am grateful that I can say I did the best with what I had. I still do my best. I have a son too. With him and her [Trinya] I can say I did my best. When I feel judged, I can still at least stand on that. I can say, “I did that.”
For me, this was a good place to stop and break bread. Beyond the quickly wiped tears and side eyes, this was an experience I couldn’t have envisioned. This piece started out as a way for me to talk about the benefits of therapy in healing from my own generational trauma, but it felt like so much more by the time we sat down to eat. After the session, Ms. Donna shared something else: she wanted her daughter to know she was proud of her. Similarly, Trinya confided in me during a follow-up email that she just wanted her mother to respect her. These mutual silences are fascinating to me and they reflect my own tendency to not speak up when I am experiencing pain.
I set out to have this conversation because it matters. While Ms. Vivian and Ms. Donna seemed a little skeptical of me at the start, I think they understood the value of this sort of work. They agreed to this for the same reason they persist—the love they have for Trinya. I am immensely grateful to each for their time and wisdom.