I burped a lot.
Not loud, aggressive belches but tiny windpipe burps. As a dedicated yoga student, this became tricky. I’d try to open my breath smooth and even. Instead, my breath would catch around air bubbles, burps, some type of disruption that I couldn’t fully resolve.
I met a myofascial release body worker at a party and thought it couldn’t work. As I laid down on her table, she began to lightly run her fingers through the sheaths of fascia around my throat, shoulders, and neck. I felt points of tension that ran from my thumb to my ears; she tugged and pulled and softened. She asked me, “Were you ever in a car accident?” “No,” I replied. “Huh.” More pulling, head turned, hair brushed away. “Were you ever choked?” “Thankfully no!” I waited while she moved her thumb deeper into my body’s webbing. “Why do you ask?” “Well… your body shows patterns as though your head whipped back. That can sometimes occur with people who had whiplash from a car accident. It also occurs if someone choked-- swam and swallowed water or was abused.”
She’s not the first person to ask me this. Body workers continually read this pattern in my body.
I went home thinking about it. I couldn’t shake the only story I knew in my line that fit that pattern: my maternal great grandmother. When her daughter, my grandmother, was away at Tennessee State Teachers College in the 1930s, my great-grandmother, the bookish, quiet, smart mother of 5 children, went into the barn and hung herself.
Throughout her life my grandmother said her mother had died from the “change,” a nickname for “change of life” a euphemism for menopause.
I’ve never known a woman to hang herself due to menopause.
I started looking into epigenetics, the study of how trauma is passed in DNA in surprising and seemingly improbable ways. I really have no way of knowing if I somehow, God knows how, inherited my great-grandmother’s hanging. I know that I have lived through so much of the trauma and tragedy written into her family line.
I grew up in homogeneously white, wealthy suburbs. Public schools funded by a strong tax base, well kept lawns, regular dental visits. The story told out there was that hardship lived in cities and refugee camps. We should be the nice wealthy white people who volunteered here and there.
In college, still safely inoculated from responsibility, I had enough distance to study systemic oppression, the web we all live within whether acknowledged or not. I began to notice the myth of the safety of suburbs-- as if there was a way to protect ourselves from one another, to let the fences allow some in and some out. I started to be able to name some of the ways we structured our relationships to one another and the embedded pain.
I studied systemic racism, sexism, oppression.
I became close to women of color as we had intense, painful conversations about the lived reality of racism. As I learned a level of accountability for my complicity in racial blindness I simultaneously felt waves of jealousy. Part of their path through understanding racism involved the lived details of resiliency. They poured over the lives of their ancestors who passed knowledge in food, music, and language. They investigated lost spiritualities, reviving them in their own lives as they lit candles to those who had passed, honoring them, and uttering their words.
Later, I traveled to Vietnam. In the corner of every shop and every home, a small altar held lit incense, small deities, money, and fruit. I asked people about these altars. They always said, “they are for our ancestors. They protect us.”
In the suburbs, I did not know my ancestors.
My paternal grandmother told me that I came from governors and governor’s wives. I should be the same-- I should aim high for a marriage that wielded political clout and power. I should learn to be a sparkling conversationalist to advance my husband.
These same people were slave-holders. After the Emancipation Proclamation these same people institutionally fought restitution. They voted for conservative politicians. They supported tough crime laws that resurrected structures of slavery in modern day prison industry.
My ancestors frighten me.
Their legacy frightens me.
As I walked in marches against police brutality and spoke out on behalf of political prisoners, I wondered if I could ever be “good” and what good meant. I knew I couldn’t ignore who I come from but I also didn’t know what to do with their memory.
I searched out for tender memories, memories of my grandmother braiding my hair or telling me stories. There were some… and the stories were racist. I remember my maternal grandmother laying in bed and telling me brair rabbit and the story of tar baby. Her voice still had the gentle Tennessee lilt. She’d never lost some of those colloquialisms like “hell’s bells” and “my stars.”
I hunted for the riches but they were always embedded with the shame.
My grandfather was a quietly hilarious man. He was really attractive, sharp, and mischievous. After his father died when he was a child, he held many jobs while going to school to help his mother and two younger brothers. He went to Georgia Tech and would take me to the Varsity, an Atlanta hot dog joint opened by a Tech drop-out. When we came home with greasy hands from onion rings, I’d go into the bathroom to wash up. I remember on the wall a framed picture with a caricature of a Black man captioned “I’ze a rambling reck from Gawgia tech and a helluva engineer!”
I still miss my grandparents. I don’t know what I would light incense to.
When my friend started exploring the tight tissues constricting my throat, possibly contributing to my burps, I thought of my maternal grandmother. My mother’s mother. I never got the sense that she was very motherly. My grandmother made it seem like her mother hid from her children, taking books into the barn or some other space of some seclusion.
My grandmother felt motherly towards her younger sister especially. She told me that they held dances in the barn and her mother would, on occasion, play piano as they danced.
My grandmother too, was bookish. She tried to help her father with farming one time. She took in the seed potatoes and cut all of them through the eyes. Her father came in seeing that the whole seed crop was ruined. He was kind with her and patiently explained her mistake. She remembered that with relief-- 80 years later.
That was a myth too-- they did have a farm but my great-grandfather hired white sharecroppers to work it. He was on the board of the local bank there in Sweetwater, Tennessee. I asked, reluctantly, if they had Black servants.
“Oh no.” My grandmother answered quickly. “They wouldn’t work for my family. On our property, there was an old slave auction block and when it rained, the Black folks said it turned red from the blood of the slaves. They wouldn’t work for us. We hired poor whites.”
Her mother, hid in the barn with her books, from her children, her husband, the slave auction block. Or did she? Did she think of it? What did she think?
As her eldest daughter studied to be a teacher, the next soon to follow, and three younger children still at home, she went into the barn and hung herself.
For the ensuing months my great-grandfather tried to keep his remaining children at home. And then he suffered a heart attack and died. Each remaining child was sent to a different relative, one as far away as Chicago.
One daughter died on her honeymoon in Niagara Falls.
Theirs was a Southern tragedy.
My great-grandmother dying of the change. Her daughter, my grandmother who went on to be a wonderful teacher and a wildly independent woman. During the age of Donna Reed, my grandmother embarassed my mother by wearing pants and refinishing furniture, less bound to the standards of white womanhood of the day. Her spirit influenced my mother. After bearing three children my mother went back for her master’s degree and started her career as I, her fourth, was a young child.
The women in my family are complicated and strange and I love them.
When I look at my family’s history there is mental illness, abuse, and dysfunction-- the ingredients for many of our families. They kept slaves, lived by slave auction blocks, and neglected their children. The stresses of power flowed out and in their homes. The weight of shame wound into repressed stories and half-lived lives.
I look back and wonder how long until I see people who belonged to a tract of land, to one another, to themselves?
And perhaps that’s the invitation. I’m steadily working on belonging to myself. Noticing where these histories choke me, force me to look at my own shame. The privilege I haven’t earned. The trauma not named.
My husband and I talk a lot about race. We still march against mass incarceration. We still visit our friends who are incarcerated-- Black men and women living in modern day plantations. We talk openly about race, about the access we have that is denied many. We talk about what it denies us-- a sense of kinship and closeness to our community.
And from my friends of color I hear their complicated ancestries too-- the white blood in their veins that came from rape, the African ancestors who sold their cousins to slavery, the compromises and negotiations of survival. It’s written in us all. Perhaps people of color don’t have the same insulating myth of amnesia.
I am a white woman who descends from slave holders and racists and I am naming it. My hope is that that I create space in the naming. This is what I come from. This is what I’ve lived. This is who I am. And I am working to be more.