By Jordannah Elizabeth
Resmaa Menakem is a world-renowned Black therapist, clinical social worker and director of counseling services for a number of organizations, and has written The New York Times bestselling book “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” and newest book, “The Quaking of America: An Embodied Guide to Navigating Our Nation’s Upheaval and Racial Reckoning” which gives a guide to Black and white Americans on how to prepare their minds and bodies for a racial war following the January 6th Insurrection.
“Quaking of America” shares exercises that help the physical and psychological body steady itself to be able to handle the American racial crisis, and also gives a deep dive into the generational trauma Black people have experienced since our arrival onto the shores of what is now known as the United States of America.
Menakem spoke candidly to the AmNews about health, wellness, race, and his new book.
AmNews: Please introduce yourself for those who aren’t familiar with your important and impressive work.
Resmaa Menakem: I’m 55, and I live in Minneapolis, Minn. I have a wife and two kids. I’m a clinical social worker by trade. I was a director of counselor services for a number of treatment organizations. I was a community care counselor in Afghanistan for two years; I’ve been in private practice for about 20.
AmNews: Your books, “My Grandmother’s Hands,” and your latest, “Quaking of America” both talk about generational, spiritual, and emotional health among other things. How did you traverse from clinical work to the esoteric spiritual, energetic?
Menakem: That’s a great question. I decided to approach it from an embodied place because [of] what I had been saying, especially as it relates to the brutality of enslavement, the brutality of genocide. What people started to do, what they were calling “healing” is this mystical, this almost…
AmNews: Unattainable spirituality?
Menakem: Yeah. And that’s why I situated a lot of stuff in terms of history and the body and how things end up showing, and try to as much as I could [to] connect it to some type of science. I had been seeing a lot of this shifting of people who meant well, but what they started to do was make things so mystical that people couldn’t relate.
I don’t consider my work to be “esoteric”; I talk about energy from the point of view of Einstein.
AmNews: Talk a little bit about the “soul nerve,” how it unifies the nervous system.
Menakem: The “soul nerve” is the vagus nerve. The reason why I moved away from the [term] “vagus nerve” is because when I would talk about things like the “vagus nerve” people would constrict. They wouldn’t know what I was talking about. The vagus nerve is one that comes right out of the brain stem. It hits the face, the throat, the pharynx; it constricts and expands. It’s very sensitive to environmental stuff. It’s sensitive to stress, things that the body may need to protect itself from.
Most of the vagal nerve lands in our gut. The belly — if you touched your belly right now, you notice that there isn’t any bone or anything to protect this vital stuff around your belly area. The way that your belly protects stuff, protecting itself from the environment, it pulls back, it constricts.
I started playing with a number of different words. When I came up with “soul nerve” people would nod, Okay I get it. I don’t know why that’s the case…
AmNews: Because that aligns with the sacral chakra [an energy point in one’s lower abdomen], particularly with women. We hold a lot of our emotions, our trauma in our womb and in and around the naval…
Menakem: And the hips.
AmNews: Which is why I think uterine fibroids are a huge issue with Black women and women of all backgrounds and ethnicities.
Menakem: Absolutely. I talk about that in my private practice. One of the things that was happening was I was getting a lot of Black women who were coming in. They were having relationships around the vaginal thyroids. I started researching a lot of that stuff and finding out that very few doctors associated — especially with Black women—vaginal thyroids with enslavement and the 250 years of rape, legal rape. This was an industry [affecting] not only Black women but Black men and women — rape is a power thing. Those thyroids, for me, were a real indicator of the historical impact of trauma.
What would be your definition of an empath, a highly sensitive person?
I believe that there is a conditioning and tempering process. What you’re describing is when you were…are you African American?
Menakem: When you were a little girl these pieces around conditioning and tempering we didn’t really have access to. In order to survive what our community was dealing with we had to override a lot of our own personal lived experiences, in order to get to the next day. I think what’s starting to happen — in particular the African American community, in the Indigenous community — people are starting to reclaim pieces.
There are things that are showing up that I can actually have access to, not just the cognitive pieces. And what you’re starting to see is, I’m going be honest with you, a lot of bullshit out there selling. People are trying to tell people this is the way, that mystical stuff. And that’s fine, but what our people really are needing is a redress of the thwarting and the damage that has been done to us, both individually and communally.
What you’re starting to see is people, particularly African American and Indigenous people from all around the world, re-claim[ing] those pieces of our intelligence that have always been there. A part of that is the conditioning and tempering process. And that’s what you just described. If you’re not conditioning and tempering your body enough to withstand and withhold 400, 500 years of brutality, and then you just open yourself up to people, you’re going to experience things that are very, very overwhelming. When we were coming up nobody was saying to us, “Okay if you’re going to work with bodies, you’re going to work with people with this level of terror and horror. You better be able to condition and temper your body to withstand that.”
AmNews: I came up around white artists as I was coming up in the rock music scene. I had gone to some hypnotists; they were always talking about grounding, “Oh sit on the grass and put your root chakra on the ground.” But I’ll be honest with you, I always kind of dismissed it because it never truly worked. But the last week or two I’ve been walking around barefoot. It’s been cold, but I’ve been walking indoors, outdoors barefoot, just as a grounding source. I feel like I had to incorporate it naturally, instead of spiritual people trying to push it on me.
Menakem: Absolutely. That’s what I’m talking about. People have packaged [the knowledge]. The new thing now is packaging all this stuff and wrapping it into yoga. And it’s making it so the people can’t really use it anymore. Because what ends up happening is you end up making it marketable in a way that it loses its essence.
AmNews: And white-ified…
Menakem: That’s exactly right. And one of the things that you just described is that idea of coming to it yourself and allowing that to emerge forth, as opposed to somebody bestowing some type of ancient knowledge to you that you could only have access to because they told you.
But that’s not the creation idea. The creation idea is that I am attached to creation itself. The first human expression on Earth is a Black woman; everybody else came through her. And so I am tied to that part of creation. So I don’t need to go through another medium in order to do that.
I respect everybody’s traditions, but this whitewashing of traditional and people’s emerging experiences is a billion-dollar industry. And this is why a lot of times when somebody, especially a white person, comes to us and tries to sell us Buddhism, or tries to sell us yoga, or tries to sell us these things, there’s something in us that constricts.
AmNews: The labor of “Quaking,” you’re preparing people to do labor to prepare for potential Trump-era insurgent or civil war, right?
Menakem: Well, that’s a piece of it. There’s also prepping and preparing, specifically for white folks, to reclaim their humanity that they gave up in order to be white. And so this idea of prepping and conditioning and tempering is a large part of my work.