My Grandmother’s Hands

I didn’t really plan on doing another book review so quickly, but I wanted to share just a few thoughts about this book [suggested to me by a friend], which was really interesting and different than any other book I have read recently about racism and society.

Menakem focuses on our bodies, arguing that we have to tend to the physicality of our experiences in the world, and pay attention to the knowledge that our bodies carry with them–and even pass down through generations. He says, “We’ve tried to teach out brains to think better about race. But white-body supremacy doesn’t live in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies” [5]. Trauma lives in our bodies, fear lives in our bodies–and hope lives there, too. So, by attending to our bodies, training and re-training them, we can develop more constructive ways of living and breathing in the world that facilitate healing, peace and reconciliation.

He focuses on white American bodies, African American bodies, and police bodies; there are some chapters that are exclusive to those readers and others that are meant for everyone. We all have work to do, but the work is different. Here are just a couple points from the book that I thought were really helpful and worth thinking about more deeply.

He describes the difference between “clean pain” and “dirty pain.” Clean pain is the pain that comes with uncomfortable growth, dealing with difficult emotions and challenging ideas. It is, as Menakem says, “facing what you don’t want to face–what you have been reflexively avoiding or fleeing. By walking into that pain, experiencing it fully, and moving through it, you metabolize it and put an end to it.” This process “builds your capacity for further growth” [165]. By contrast, “dirty pain,” comes with choosing “paths of avoidance, blame, and denial” [166]–it actively prevents growth and creates habits that trap us in this pain and actually create more of it.

This is what he says:

Clean pain is about choosing integrity over fear. It is about letting go of what is familiar but harmful, finding the best parts of yourself, and making a leap–with no guarantee of safety or praise. This healing does not happen in your head. It happens in your body. And it is more likely to happen in a body that can stay settled in the midst of conflict and uncertainty” [166]

He talks more about this “settling” of the body in chapter 11–this was perhaps my favorite chapter in the book. He opens the chapter with this sentence: “Few skills are more essential than the ability to settle your body” [151], and I heartily agree. I don’t know about you, but when I am stressed, upset, anxious or angry, my whole body experiences the fullness of that emotion: sometimes I get cold and I shake; sometimes my temperature rises–and usually my voice along with it; and sometimes I retreat, and my whole body shrinks. Needless to say, none of this is helpful–either to me, or to anyone else in the room. So, this chapter offers a bunch of concrete, constructive practices to train your body to come into a room well, to safeguard your body, and to develop a good growth routine. None of this is revelatory–get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, enjoy simple pleasures, meditate or pray, etc.–but we all know how easy it is to abandon those things and neglect your body when life is “particularly stressful or uncomfortable” [161]. Again, this helps no one, and certainly not you.

In my view, we are in a moment in our society that has plenty of opportunities for growth and healing, but they all require the ability to stay in difficult situations, stay with challenging conversations, and stay open to learning something new, repenting of past mistakes, and choosing a new path forward. All of this requires the ability to settle one’s body.

Every chapter ends with a bulleted list of “Re-memberings,” key insights from each chapter you can return to to remind yourself of the main points. And, most chapters also end with a short list of “Body Centered Practices” that he encourages you to do to develop more physical resilience, healing and calm.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the one thought experiment he uses in the book that is quite graphic and triggering for many, I’m sure–if you search reviews of the book, you might well find references to it. In the opening of chapter 16, he invites the reader to imagine the horrible killing of a puppy, with agonizing detail. He uses this as a lead-in to engage one’s body around the experience of seeing mutilated Black bodies. He doesn’t say this, but I imagine he wants to challenge people who completely shut down around the image of a murdered puppy but explain away or dismiss an image of a lynched Black man. Nonetheless, I was unable to engage with it at all, and I know others have had a similar experience.

He begins each chapter with really insightful quotes, and I want to close with the one that he uses at the start of chapter two. He quotes Bessel Van der Kolk, who says:

Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

This is lovely, isn’t it? When we treat our own bodies with care, concern, openness and invitation, we can treat others’ bodies that way as well, and create spaces and opportunities for other bodies to settle and flourish, which then can create more spaces and more opportunities. These spaces, multiplying and expanding, create healing and foster growth–for all of us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s