Our Bodies Carry Our Histories With Us

June 26, 2009 4 Comments

One of the benefits I’ve experienced in our social change work as process experts and professional facilitators, is the exposure we get to have in various fields of social change work. Since last October, my colleague Andrea and I have had the pleasure of consulting with an amazing collaborative of stakeholders, the Springfield Health Equity Initiative, who have determined to build a plan to reduce the incidence of diabetes in the black and brown neighborhoods in the city of Springfield, MA. Even more boldly, these dedicated and thoughtful leaders have also chosen to take up an analysis for their work that incorporates how systemic, government sanctioned, racial discrimination has  played a direct role in creating the egregious disparities in health outcomes we see today among black and brown folk in the U.S., and regardless of class.

I have learned so much. About diabetes. About social determinants of health. About the inextricable link between personal wealth and personal health.  Its made me, personally, look with more intentionality to my own family history,  health maintenance, and sadly, about how it is that  I too carry in my own mind, body and spirit the affects of stress, strain, pain and struggle that is due to reacting to and surviving though racism, racist practices and its ugly remnants. Whats bad is that I don’t know what its like to not live in this reality. What’s worse is that while I am conscious of occasions and scenarios that make for my racism-stress, there is that which does not even register with my head or heart, yet still takes up residence in my body in some way, shape or form.  Such reflection has made for a poignant and sobering personal subtext to the inspiring and pioneering work of the fine and committed souls we’ve met who refuse to relent to daunting statistics and blatant injustices that plague their — our — families, neighbors, children, and communities. And, of course, there is also the context of the national political conversation around finally get universal health care, and the recent activity in our own state that jeopardizes healthcare coverage for low-income legal immigrants.

In graduate school, I took a class, Vocal Performance for the Stage, with a dynamo of an instructor, who also taught us that our bodies really do store every single emotion and psychological bruise of our past. I recalled how amazed I was at that idea when I heard the similar statement made by one of the expert in this video: “Our bodies carry our history with us”.  She was making the same point my instructor was making in voice class,, but  emphasizing the social-histories we also carry within us.

Sure, I’ve made goals with Fall-due dates designed to help me stave off the hypertension that runs in my family (D.A.S.H. diet, lose 10 lbs, exercise).  But I’m wondering, for all of us: whats the anecdote for unwanted history that somehow lives in our bodies? Do answers lie in the notion of power of story, of narrative…becoming incarnate?. I think of the violence perpetrated upon black bodies through slavery. I think of the dehumanizing body images and stereotypes perpetuated about black folk ever since.

So, I ask, in the context of considering processes for social transformation, while we often engage in processes to re-imagine and re-vision the future, what might be the healing, revolutionary, psycho-social justice work of re-membering our bodies? Of  deconstructing or defeating past hurts, injustices, infractions…if that is even possible?

I know….a blog isn’t supposed to be this deep.

But then again, the work of social transformation wouldn’t have to be so deeply messy if the injustices we seek to transform and transcend were not themselves so vile, unpleasant, de-humanizing, perverted.

What do you think? How best do you perform your body work?  Your body work related to social justice? Your body work related to undoing racism? What does/might it entail?  How do you assess what parts need tending? What is the mind-body-spirit connection strategy that is directly target to combat injustice? Is this work for all, or work for some?


  • Jen Willsea says:

    Wow, Melinda. Beautiful, real, deep, provocative. Thank you.

  • Paul C says:

    This is a terrific post, Melinda. It highlights the innate interconnectedness of the external and the internal and how we can so quickly absorb even the slightest injustices not only psychically but physically as well. The video clip is disturbing and powerful.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks for this Melinda. Like you, I’ve been learning a lot about this from colleagues and clients as well as my own life. I’m aware that there is a school of psychology/therapy that goes directly at the memories and experiences storied in the body. They say elephants never forget. And apparently our bodies don’t either! One documentary on race equity puts it this way…. “day to day racism grinds exceedingly small.” It wears on one’s body, mind and soul. I think our challenge as change agents and as individual people is to figure out how not to be ground up by the injustices that surround us just as much as how not to be ground up on the work we do to transform those injustices. A life’s work for sure!

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