WHOLE LIFE TIMES
When we were slaves, we left our bodies. We are still living outside of our bodies. I’ve asked you here to find out where we went.”
This is what Pastor Johnny Ray Youngblood told me when we first met. The head of the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., Youngblood had discovered my book, Bodies Unbound (Archer Books), and was intrigued by its title. Upon reading it, he said, he became fascinated by what people discovered about their lives when they were massaged.
His interest brought me to the basement of the St. Paul Community Baptist Church. I was here to hold two workshops with 18 people in each, all part of a healing circle at St. Paul. Most of them had read my book. Many had studied healing for years and were wiling but anxious to have me read their bodies.
Up until 20 minutes earlier, I hadn’t even known this was an all black congregation. I was in a state of great uncertainty, as I had rarely worked on black-skinned people other than those who were members of essentially white community, married to white friends and so on. The people of St. Paul are part of a black community, so this was a new experience for me.
I have given over 20,000 massages in my 26 years of experience as a massage therapist. As people have remembered traumas from their past while I massaged them, I’ve remembered my own. I have studied, through experience, how families pass along unresolved conflicts for generations. I have put together a system of reading bodies which brings to conscious awareness trauma that has been repressed.
I was teaching a class at the Ojai School of Massage when I learned that I was reading bodies. A student asked me to show the class how I worked with my clients. I asked for a volunteer and a woman who carried a “mother wound” lay on my table. I asked her to tell me about her mother, and she said her mother died when she was very young and she’d felt abandoned her whole life.
“How did you know to ask about her mother?” The students asked.
“Look at her feet,” I replied. “Her left foot is much further out than her right foot. Look how her weight is carried unevenly in her stomach. Her shoulders are rounded, protecting her heart. All these indicate a “mother wound.”
Not only were the students stunned, I was as well. Before that moment, I wasn’t sure how I came to know what I did. I didn’t know whether the information was coming through my hands, intuition or whether I was unconsciously observing something. It is my experience that I don’t become aware of something until a situation calls for the knowledge. Since that moment, I have discovered a system that relates the kind of trauma one has suffered to a particular reaction in the body.
When I have determined what kind of wound a person carries, I begin to ask questions about that person’s life. In most instances, I can connect the mind of that person to the memory of the trauma. In a matter of minutes, what was unconscious has become conscious. Then the healing can begin.
Healing Slavery Wounds at St. Paul
Walking into the St. Paul church, I was aware of a heaviness that I am unaccustomed to. Though there was laughter and good hearted banter, there was a deep soulfulness that I attribute to a need to grieve. When I saw the shoulders of one of the men in my workshop, I wanted to cry. His shoulders were broken from loads too heavy to carry. The ends of his shoulders, instead of going across, pointed down towards the floor. I later found out when he was on my massage table that he had been born into a sharecropper family. His workload as a little boy would have killed a mule.
I gave an introduction to my workshop, and talked about my experience and philosophy of how we carry the stories of our lives in our bodies. I then asked if there were questions or comments.
A man said, “We have been told we carry slavery in our bodies. Could that be true? Could we carry our ancestors in our bodies?”
My heart broke with the weight of his question. I had never thought of it before. Immediately, the enormity of their dilemma hit me like a blow to the back of my head. “Yes,” I said. “From what I know about bodies, we carry the unresolved issues of our parents. You can call it ‘carrying their genes,’ as in genealogy, or you can call it ‘carrying the ancestors,’ there is no difference.”
I did 36 body readings the next day, from which I have never recovered. I carry these people in my body, trying to understand what would be of help. Their heaviness has entered me. My belly has grown large in these two months. My legs ache with fear of where I’m headed.
More terrible than the stories, however, is the intensity with which their stories are locked in them. For this collective of people, to connect with themselves, tell their story and express the grief or anger is very difficult. Their bodies shake as though letting out the tiniest sign of sadness would be punished by death. So often when I asked questions of their lives, they couldn’t speak. A huge monster-like terror keeps them from the memory of their own experience. It is as if I were asking them about lives that don’t belong to them. I asked a woman who had a “father wound” in her body to tell me about her relationship with her father, and she crossed her legs. There were tears flowing down the sides of her face, but not one word or sound was made.
I went home with a promise to return the following February. I read books on the history of Black America, segregation; I rented Roots and watched all eight episodes. I met with people from South Africa to learn about their experience of apartheid. I met with Michael Ortiz Hill, an initiated man who wrote about his experiences with an African Medicine man named Augustine from Zimbabwe. Hill collected the dreams of 100 African-Americans and gave them to Augustine to interpret. Augustine believed that without a doubt, the dreams indicated the people having them were still suffering from slavery. Augustine believes that freeing the ancestors is the only way people can solve their problems. The ancestors will continue to bother the living with tragic circumstances until their needs are made conscious, he said. This is an indigenous explanation for what is needed for healing, a question I’d struggled with for years.
I pondered on the teachings of Malidoma Some, an African shaman I’d met in 1989 and studied with years before. It was the belief of his elders that those people who had not grieved for their ancestors were dangerous people. Not just because of the energy locked inside, but because the ancestors would keep haunting their lives. The ancestors needed the water of tears and the energy of grief to get them home.
Gathering and holding this information with my deep study of the Bible and my 26 years as a body worker, my ideas began to form into a process. It was obvious to me that in order for the people at St. Paul to heal, they had to heal their ancestors as well. If alcoholism can be passed down from one generation to the next, as well as all kinds of emotional and mental/physical pre-dispositions, why not the effects of slavery?
As before, my work with others made me work on myself. I realized if I was going to work with the people in New York to free their ancestors, I had to free my own. It was the day before I left to return to New York that I was finally able to grieve for my father. He’d died the year before on Feb. 5, 2001. His drinking had led him to do all kinds of unspeakable things for which I held him responsible. If the theory of “ancestor” work was true, I needed to forgive him to set him free, as well as to free myself. I had tried for months to cut the memory of him off, but he kept coming back. It wasn’t until I felt love in my heart for him and was truly able to forgive him that I felt at peace.
On my second visit to the people of St. Paul in February 2002, I was scheduled to do six workshops in three days. Now we were somewhat familiar with each other, and I felt more confident and at ease.
In the first workshop, people began to let go. One woman in particular got in touch with the terror and isolation in which she lived. She screamed out her pain. I could hear the pain of the Middle Passage (that hideous trans-Atlantic journey taken by the slave ships) in her screams. Through her screams and sobs, generations of pain were expressed. Those in the group surrounding her became a tribe. When she quieted, she went to the altar we’d crated, washed her face from a large crystal bowl and prayed. She then came back and received loving hugs from everyone in the group.
One woman asked if this kind of expressing was safe. We had only to look at Audra’s face to find our answer. Her countenance, now glowing with a radiance and peace, had been filled with sorrow when she’d arrived that morning.
After the workshop, my assistants from the community let me know that I touched people too much. It was their opinion that the members of the workshop would have an easier time getting to their feelings without being touched until after they had grieved. The information I was trying to connect them with, they said, might be blocked by my physically touching the person. They informed me that they had learned to hug after they came to the church; prior to that, they had rarely touched anyone.
I was stunned by this news. In my culture, it was often the case that a person couldn’t get to feelings without the reassuring touch of others. It was the warmth of the body that created safety. All my feelings of certainty vanished. If I didn’t know this about their culture, what else didn’t I know?
When I went back to my hotel during the break, this question and Audra’s creams haunted me. I began to sob. Some white man had caused that pain. Something my race had done to the Black Nation had caused them to separate themselves. Could it have been one of my own ancestors? I couldn’t stop crying.
I went back to the evening workshop via the New York subway, filled with fear and shame. As I rode deeper and deeper into Brooklyn, I was the only white-skinned person on the train. It was a rare experience for me, being in the minority. It felt awful being separated by the color of my skin. Usually I’d been transported to St. Paul Community Baptist Church by cab or town car. They treated me like a queen when I let them. It was I who insisted on riding the subway during the day. Nell picked me up at the station and drove me to the church.
In my work, only truth is honored. It is my belief that truth is the healer, so in the workshop, I didn’t dare try to hide what I was going through. In my introduction, I told them I was grieving too. “I am so sorry for what white people did to you,” I said. “I pray my ancestors did not have slaves. White people need to grieve for what they did to you.”
The group went well. In each workshop there were some who were able to release tremendous amounts of emotion and others who couldn’t release any. I knew this was only the beginning, however. It was a crack in the dam.
What most surprised me was the number of people abandoned by parents. Many of the people I worked on had never felt waned by their parents, and couldn’t remember being touched by their parents.
On the last day I told the group, “I have never encountered so many incidents of children left by their parents as I have with you. It’s as if you are starved for parental affection. This is a great tragedy in the life of a child. I don’t understand it.”
Pastor Youngblood was attending this workshop. He explained, “When we were taken from the Continent, we were taken from our parents and elders. For almost 400 years of slavery, we didn’t dare bond with our children because they would be sold. We didn’t touch our children for fear of getting too attached to them. We also didn’t want our children to bond with us and cause them more pain. We have grown up not touching to this day. When our children were sold, we had to watch them taken away without any show of feeling. If we complained, we were beaten or worse.”
That was it. That was one of the wounds still being passed down from generation to generation in the black community. This was one of the causes of separation from themselves and each other. There was an unspoken rule: “Don’t get attached; not to your mother or father or your sisters or friends. Don’t even get attached to your very own flesh. Stay out. Be polite. Don’t make waves. Endure.”
Those who can’t endure politely explode. Acts of violence are punished by long prison terms. It is like a repeat of slavery. The black person in America has had few choices. In the words of Emiel Roberson (Kofi Addae), “The majority of African people have been manipulated in the way of miseducation, propaganda and cultural devaluation. The majority of us attend schools run by people and institutions that have never had our best interests in mind.”
An exception to this is St. Paul Community Baptist Church. There people learn basic things like hugging, and are provided basic needs like a caring school for their children. St. Paul church provides a school from kindergarten to the eighth grade. It has a program for rehabilitation of drug and alcohol abuse based on the principles of AA. There are dance and theater programs, mentoring and healing programs and women’s study groups. Pastor Youngblood calls it, “The Church Unusual.” He is, unfortunately, so right. I am always overwhelmed at the scope of Johnny Ray Youngblood and the people he has gathered together to discover what the needs of the Black community are, and t strive to meet those needs.
A tall, stately, deeply soulful man lay down on my massage table. He said, “When I feel my heart, it is empty. I want to cry, but I can’t.”
“Honor your emptiness,” I said. “Carry the emptiness like a stone in your medicine pouch. You are a healer; first you must heal yourself. It begins with self-love and acceptance. Have compassion for yourself. Honor the state and find yourself in. It is my belief, in order to truly let Christ into your heart, you must empty yourself of grief. Not just for the lack of love from your parents, but for the slaves who were lynched, mutilated and terrorized. The ancestors must be freed by the living.”
Another woman was a sharecropper. She watched her father beat her brothers until their white boss said he could stop. She wouldn’t get on my table, but she told her story from her chair.
Another woman watched her mother get beaten up over and over and couldn’t say a word. This woman was not able to say “no” to men. Her mother’s story called for her reenactment over and over.
At the end of the workshop, I led a guided meditation designed to connect the mind with the body. It shows the difference between “thinking” and “being.” I started the meditation by bringing the attention to the feet and going slowly up the body, feeling each part. At the heart center, I stopped. I talked about seeing with the heart. This means not seeing what is apparent, but beyond. It is seeing the hateful behavior in a person and knowing that person is a hurt person in pain. It is seeing a brother stoned on drugs and knowing he is escaping from the terrible emptiness in his life. It is seeing a father who could not touch or hug or admire them, and knowing he is terrified to open his heart for grief. That is seeing with the heart.
After the workshop was over, I welcomed the hugs from each newly unbound soul. They are my healing. They bring me comfort and love I need so badly myself.
Pastor Youngblood asked me what my gift costs me. It was the first time anyone had asked me that question. I replied, “Johnny, I don’t know that I have a gift. I just ask questions.”
“Yes,” he said, “but you ask the right questions.”
I pondered this for a while, until it was obvious what the price is. The intensity of my work and its related inquiries often robs me of mere casual contact with people. Some might say I am no fun to be around because I always bring up memories that would rather stay hidden. I carry the wounds of thousands of people. My own energy is made heavier with the responsibility of this load.
Because of the immensity of the pain of the black experience, i is doubly important that they become aware of what they carrying their bodies. The statistics of black men in prison, of black children being born to violence and escaping into drugs makes awareness of what they are carrying and how to free themselves a must! Their ancestors are raging inside them, begging for freedom. All the good things in life can’t reach a soul that is filled with grief.
Monica Walker, Youngblood’s assistant, gave me a pile of books to read about black culture. She teaches workshops all over the country as a trainer with the Undoing Racism Workshops sponsored by People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. One of the books she gave me was And Not Afraid To Dare: the Stories of 10 African-American Women (Scholastic Trade, 1998). In the story of Charlotte Forten Grimke’ an educator of Black people after the Civil War, she mentions the name of my great-great uncle, John Greenleaf Whittier. He was the poet laureate of the antislavery movement in the 1800s.
My heart sang with joy at the good news. I knew, without a doubt, I was doing the work of my ancestors.