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My grandmother’s hands (Social Work book review)

Posted: September 09 2021

Social Work student & staff projects, Social Work
Social Work student & staff projects, Social Work

Interested in Social Work and want to learn more about the subject? The book reviews written by our Social Work students and staff help you identify the best literature to advance your learning.

This week:

  • Title: My grandmother’s hands: racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies
  • Author: Resmaa Menakem
  • ISBN: 9780141996479
  • Publication: Las Vegas, NV, Central Recovery Press, 2017, published in the UK (2021) by London,Penguin Books
  • Reviewed by: Ayeshia Jehangir, MSc Social Work student
  • Published first online in Social Work Education: The International Journal: https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2021.1976760

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ (William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1970)

The book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, is an excellent addition to texts about racialised trauma experiences

Resmaa Menakem gained a rich professional understanding from helping people comprehend their traumatic experiences as a social worker and a trauma therapist trained in somatic experiencing (SE). Somatic experiencing is an integrative body-focused treatment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental and physical trauma-related health problems. A focus of such therapy is to integrate an awareness of inner psychical sensations with their bodily manifestation, as the body is seen as the carrier of the traumatic memory. The goal of somatic experiencing is to guide the patient to develop increased tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions (Levine, 2010). The author takes the reader on a historical journey across continents when he explains the transmission of trauma from Medieval Europe to America. The reader is introduced to 25 years of trauma theory and research, which is then being applied to analyse contemporary racism in America. The author searches for the answer to why, in the modern world, racism exists and why we did not achieve social justice despite multiple attempts. According to Menakem, white-body supremacy has been ‘imprinted’ on bodies; hence to heal ourselves, we need to start with our flesh, bones and muscles. Living in Great Britain, I have found it interesting to learn about how the American police force is trained and how they deal with trauma. The author gives an essential insight into the rules and practices of American law enforcement resulting in the police force to be one of the leading causes of racial trauma in American society. However, the author also points out that not only bodies require heeling but also communities and police forces. At the end of the book, Menakem gives ideas on how to heal communities and how to transform activism. My Grandmother’s Hands is based on a wide range of research of many scientists, including the psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk, the psychologist David Schnarch and the work of neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda, who has demonstrated how trauma gets passed on from generation to generation through our genes. She and her colleagues argued that trauma irretrievably damages genes using the example of Jewish Holocaust survivors (Yehuda et al., 2015). It is valuable that Menakem ground his ideas in current research rather than ‘old tales’. Furthermore, the author requires the reader to read the book slowly to absorb all the information and consequently to heal. He includes multiple exercises which help to learn and feel the body. The chapter ‘Your Soul Nerve’ introduces the idea of the soul nerve, which is the part of the body where we experience love, compassion, fear, grief, anxiety, empathy and many other feelings that makes us human. I enjoyed the breathing exercises which were designed to calm the body, and I believe that this practical knowledge is potentially beneficial to anyone with a stressful profession including social workers. Hence it is crucial to take the SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION time and turn attention inward. Exercises introduced by Menakem teach precisely this—to ‘take responsibility for yourself because no one is going to take responsibility for you’ (Tyra Banks). Finally, Menakem’s writing style is accessible to every reader as the book is written in a non-confrontational style in order to engage all readers, regardless of political standing, skin colour or education. Also, the addition of audiobook version gives everyone the chance to engage with his brilliant ideas. My favourite part of the book is the story of the author’s wife, Maria, who one day after shopping in Wal-Mart sat on the bench near the exit. She observed that only dark skin people were stopped for the bag search. It is a classic example of how white supremacy lives in our body, as the shop employee then explained to Maria that she did not stop only Black people on purpose. The shop employee was targeting non-white customers, unconsciously. It reminds me of Muslim passengers being targeted in airports. I feel that many people living in white majority countries are struggling to blend in with the white community; hence not only black people but many others are experiencing stigma and discrimination. The USA is leading in creating counter-terrorism mechanisms in the name of War on Terror. However, Menakem’s book shows that many innocent people are being affected with no fault of their own. I believe the issues explored in this book affect the lives of many nations and races, not only those of black people. Overall, My Grandmother’s Hands is a ground-breaking self-help book to investigate how white-body supremacy affects our everyday life. Menakem does not teach tolerance nor diversity, which are seen as traditional ways of dealing with racism. However, he inspires the reader to investigate their body, first to understand where the trauma comes from and how it affects us. My Grandmother’s Hands introduces an alternative view on what we can do to grow beyond our social and racial divisions. The question now is—are you willing to take the first step? 

References: 

  • Faulkner, W. (1970). Requiem for a nun
  • Chatto & Windus. Levine, P. A. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. North Atlantic Book
  • Yehuda, R., Daskalakis, N. P., Bierer, L. M., Bader, H. N., Klengel, T., Holsboer, F., & Binder, E. B. (2015). Holocaust exposure induced intergenerational effects on FKBP5 methylation. Biological Psychiatry (1969), 80(5), 372–380. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.08.005