My mother never talked about her past. Yet I felt her pain and the sadness that she held in tight, which crept out in metaphors in her richly crafted poems. My mother, mixed-race African American, Passamaquoddy Native American, and Irish, was raised in Portland, Maine, in extreme poverty. She suffered abuse due to an alcoholic mother and absentee father. She grew up in the 1950s, a time when you were told to keep your chin up, don’t look too far back, and keep moving forward. And she did — she thrived, earning a PhD in Maternal Child Health Policy and becoming a published poet and respected scholar. Still, her untold pain was passed on, even in her silence.
I. Intergenerational Trauma
The phenomenon of epigenetics, when trauma is encoded in the genes and passed on through generations, is explored in Elizabeth Rosner’s Survivor Café
. Rosner examines her own family history — both parents survived the Holocaust — and its effects on following generations. She makes parallels between her history and others worldwide who suffered or are currently suffering from the atrocities of war, genocide, and violence.
Similarly, Dr. Joy DeGruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
is a historical account of the brutal and barbaric system of slavery in America and an in-depth analysis of how trauma manifests itself in African American lives today, resulting in what DeGruy coins “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” Dr. DeGruy also includes antidotes: building strong communities, leaders, and families, and sharing our oral history with our children. This was the lifeline my mother couldn’t give me: she was cut off from her own past; this left me severed from my own sense of roots. The result was a gaping wound, a longing for connection, belonging, and understanding.
II. Where’s My Narrative?
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My parents married in Boston before interracial marriage became legal nationwide in 1967. My father’s parents, white and from Arkansas, refused to attend the wedding. In fact, interracial marriage was illegal in Arkansas at that time. My parents thought deeply about the best place to raise mixed children and chose a small town in New England.
Growing up mixed in a white community had its advantages and disadvantages. Schools that were funded with excellent art programs were a plus. Yet at school, my older siblings were persecuted, called the N-word, and sometimes beaten up. By the time I went to elementary school, the racism was not as direct as with my elder siblings, but covert. Teachers were surprised if I did well. I always felt the need to prove myself, that the expectation for my performance was quite low.
My mother told us to be proud of all our heritages, yet in order to survive I had to be invisible, to myself and others. Back in the 1970s the term “mixed race” did not exist, so when people asked me what “I was,” I just rattled off all my heritages and waited for their reaction, which often resulted in derogatory statements like, “Oh, you’re a mutt,” or even worse.
I drank the poison of the white dominant narrative — I was in it, there was no escape. Native American history was nonexistent in schools and Black history was skimmed over. The message was: Real Americans are white. Poison turned into self-hatred or internalized racism. I was in constant search for myself in movies, books, history, to identify with someone I resembled, someone who was mixed like me.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to deconstruct the white-washing and claim my roots. With it came unearthing childhood trauma and becoming aware that I suffered from post-traumatic stress. In my journey to heal from PTSR (Post-Traumatic Stress Response), it was critical for me to put together the pieces of my own trauma as well as gain an understanding of my mother’s trauma. To heal I needed a narrative, an understanding of my family’s Black and Native American history, the history I was denied. This became the impetus to write my book Mostly White
. The novel is a testimony of my mother’s untold stories, a fictional narrative of my Passamaquoddy Native American, African American, and Irish ancestors’ survival, endurance, and powerful resilience.
III. Post-Traumatic Stress Response and the Ever-Changing Brain
I was not doomed to merely exist as a reaction to childhood trauma; I could heal and create a new life.
As a survivor of trauma, I spent the bulk of my young adulthood dealing with triggers that disrupted daily life. My limbic brain system was in overdrive, releasing cortisol (a hormone released during stress), sending the brain into flight-fright mode. Although we need this response for our survival when confronted with danger, I experienced the flight-fright mode in unpredictable ways and often at unpredictable times. It was as if I never knew when I would step on a land mine that would blow up my ability to maintain equilibrium. I had to dig deep to recover, to seek help, to find my own medicine.
Writing, music, dance, connecting with others, nature, humor, and meditation all became essential on my journey to heal. I found a skillful therapist who helped me discern my triggers and navigate a pathway away from engrained childhood responses.
During my master’s work at Saint Mary’s College, I implemented an action research project that examined the effects of performing arts on self-regulation in young children. I came across the term “neuroplasticity,” which is the brain’s ability to create new neuropathways. I realized our brains can change, and that I had experienced this intrinsically: I had firsthand experience of the rewiring of my brain. This was an intersection between science and faith: neuroplasticity is science-based faith. The fact that our brains have the capacity to change and rewire gave me freedom. I was not doomed to merely exist as a reaction to childhood trauma; I could heal and create a new life.
Presently, I am rarely assaulted by triggers and have identified tools to manage or intervene when I do experience an override of my limbic brain system. I have benefited from the very intervention tools I researched for my students to assist them in their self-regulation (that include dance, singing, and mindful breathing). These tools I call my medicine.
IV. Flight, Freeze, Float, Fight
My understanding of my own PTSR informed the creation of characters who react to trauma in similar ways. The Characters in Mostly White
struggle with poverty, racism, and addiction, and respond in four different modes: flight, freeze, float, or fight. Some, when triggered, fly into drunken rages and fight. Others, when confronted with uncomfortable emotions, flee; or when faced with extreme violence, freeze. Some disassociate or float away from their bodies when a situation is untenable. These coping mechanisms bleed through the generations. Trauma is passed on, but medicine is too. This manifests in characters as they connect to the earth and their ancestors for guidance and sustenance. They celebrate singing and dancing in speakeasies during the Depression, they dream and even when they fail, they dream again. The universe conspires with them, sending them messages in dreams and from the natural world. They are not alone in their struggle.
V. Medicine Story
I have learned to depersonalize my battle with PTSR, to let go of any shame, and understand the historical context of trauma over generations in my family. This gives me a sense that my own healing is relevant to others; sharing my story is sharing my medicine. The medicine I cultivated I take every day in the form of writing, singing, meditating, laughing, honoring my ancestors, dancing, and being in nature. The “fear brain” has less of a pull on me. Tara Brach, a psychologist and author of Radical Acceptance
, describes this as developing the “heart brain” or living in faith versus living in fear.
Soon after I had written Mostly White
, we all witnessed history repeat itself in this country with government-enforced separation of children from their families at our border. This genocidal act is a repetition of the forced removal of Native American children to residential schools, and the brutal separation of families during slavery. What we do to one child affects generations of children to come. Find your medicine and allow your heart brain to lead you. The world needs all of us now.
÷ ÷ ÷
’s debut novel Mostly White
was praised by the National Book Award-winning author Isabel Allende as "so compelling it gave me goosebumps." Alison identifies as a mixed-race African American, Passamaquoddy Native American, Irish, Scottish, and English woman of color. She is the author of the poetry collection Temp Words
, the play Mother Daughter Dance
, and her poems appear in Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry From California
. Hart is a writer, musician, music educator, and mother. She lives in Northern California.