“…Afro-Americans have never had any kind of a chance to recover from the traumatic wounds of slavery…”
- Michele Wallace, The Culture War within the Culture Wars
“Mamma, did you ever love us?” Hannah Peace asks her mother, Eva Peace, in ‘Sula’, Toni Morrison’s second novel. When Eva whirls into an uproar in response to the question, Hannah attempts to clarify, “I was talkn’ ‘bout something else… Like. Playn’ with us. Did you ever, you know, play with us?”. Eva, however, is still furious; “Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895… 1895 was a killer, girl. Things was bad. Niggers was dying like flies.”.
From this snippet of the novel, it would be extraordinarily easy to identify Eva as a callously utilitarian parent as our society claims increasing interest in children’s needs for parental affection. An inattentiveness to context may even encourage some to condemn Eva for her reaction to Hannah’s curiosity. However, only by examining Eva’s past can we acquire insight into her temperament.
Abandoned by her wayward husband, Eva was left with very few resources and three children to raise single-handedly. After weeks of staving off starvation, Eva entrusts her children to a neighbor and leaves town in search of work. Eighteen months after her departure, Eva returns—missing a leg and possessing enough money to build a house of her own. While Eva’s neighbors relentlessly gossip about how Eva lost her leg and obtained presumed wealth, I am more concerned with what Eva’s lost leg symbolizes.
Eva’s lost leg symbolically represents the sacrifices Black single mothers have made, and continue to make, to ensure that they’re able to provide their children with sustenance and shelter. As the word implies, all sacrifices, even those that make survival possible, come at a cost. In Eva’s case, being without two legs leaves her homestuck, living in a wagon on her home’s third floor until her granddaughter, Sula, enters adulthood. And, even before venturing off, Eva is unable to deal with her anger at Boyboy, her ex-husband, for deserting her, “…the demands of feeding her three children so acute she had to postpone her anger for two years until she had both the time and energy for it.”.
While I believe that Black single mothers have experiences which most parallel Eva’s, I also believe that aspects of Eva’s experience are shared by Black people collectively, regardless of parenting status and gender. Due to the sheer viciousness of white supremacy, from enslavement to displacement to racial apartheid, Black people have survived for centuries in a society dependent upon our mental, emotional, and physical brokenness to sustain itself.
Recent research in genetics suggests that trauma alters DNA and that genetic trauma is passed on to offspring, negatively influencing the mental and physical health of future generations. Centering the experiences of Indigenous people, Mary Annette Pember writes, “According to researchers, high rates of addiction, suicide, mental illness, sexual violence and other ills among Native peoples might be, at least in part, influenced by historical trauma.”. Therefore, it makes sense to assume that the same may be true for African-Americans as well. Alongside the damage done to our DNA, Dr. Joy DeGruy wrote an entire book on the subject of chattel slavery’s residual impact upon African-American’s psyches.
Alongside the impact chattel slavery has had upon our genetic makeup and psyches, disregard for Black people’s mental health is a tool of white supremacy that has long been in use. Writing about Black people’s relationship to suicide, Steven W. Thrasher writes, “A potent form of white supremacy is to convince black people that we have no agency in anything and that our lives don’t matter, that our mental lives don’t matter, and our emotional health is irrelevant.” And, sadly, due to the internalization of white supremacy, Black people often repeat these types of messages to ourselves. Partially due to shame associated with seeking treatment for mental health problems, many Black people endure mental health challenges they experience without services from mental health professionals.
Of course, Black people are justified in any misgivings they may have about the United State’s medical industry; however, refusing to see a medical practitioner for a prolonged period of time can be extremely detrimental to one’s health.
Interpreted through a certain lens, the realities mentioned above could potentially be used to justify racist eugenicists ideals and practices; viewed differently, these realities speak to the tragic resiliency of African-Americans, and the immeasurable sacrifices we’ve made to have our basic physical needs met.
Thankfully, those active in movements for social justice have acknowledged the benefits of therapy for Black people since 1968, when the Association for Black Psychologists was founded. As more Black people, like Richeal Faithful, a self-described “street shaman and folk healer” who works in Washington D.C out of the Freed Bodyworks wellness center, engage in practices of healing, alternatives to generational trauma will make themselves increasingly available. Our goal, however, must be a societal transformation which makes these spaces for healing accessible to everyone.