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Phoenix Rising in Resilience (AZ)

We are an online collaborative dedicated to raising awareness about ACEs, trauma-informed practice, and resilience-building in the greater Phoenix area. Given the unique history of this city and region, Phoenix Rising will explore personal and historical sources of trauma.

Our Ancestors Knew; African American Journey of Historical Trauma


Standing on top of Ogun Mountain, in the Sacred City of 41 Mountains, West Africa, I knew my life would forever change. The women from the royal house danced for me. The men drummed me into a trance. They called me by my African name as they welcomed me home. On the soil of my ancestors, the healing began.

I am a black woman born in the 1970’s. Nine generations ago, my ancestors were on the continent of Africa inhabiting the Kingdom of Dahomey. We were thriving. Unbeknownst to most, we were highly intelligent, hard-working people who enjoyed economic security, and a deeply spiritual way of life. And then the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade gripped West Africa. The initial agreement between our people and Europeans was for indentured servitude in exchange for weapons. We were promised to be returned to our homeland after 7 years of service. Once human trafficking proved to be profitable, we became the enslaved. Word traveled back to the homeland about the horrors of the New World. We learned not to trust outsiders.

I imagine my Dahomean mothers and fathers desperate to survive and therefore adapting to the new threats. I bet my ancestors could distinguish the smell of our tribal people versus Europeans. I’m certain they could sense danger. They must have always been at the ready for the fight of their life and primed to run. As a people, we became hypervigilant. Our DNA interacts with the environment and the epigenome adapts for survival. The genetic code does not change, but the expression of our DNA can change. Epigenetic adaptation results in behavioral changes, changes in cognitive ability and in decision making. Life threatening danger is the reason we were equipped with our stress response system. In survival, with our brain stems engaged we lived in fight or flight mode.

The history of our people is filled with adversity. We were captured on the Motherland, watched while some of our brothers and sisters refused to board the ships and drowned themselves in defiance. We were sold on the auction block and ripped away from our parents and children. We lived in constant fear. We endured heinous physical and psychological torture. Trauma is cumulative over time, multigenerational and is linked to multiple negative outcomes. During the Civil Rights Movement, our homes were torched, our peaceful demonstrations were met with tear gas and high pressured water hoses. Our grandmothers were trampled in the street. Our mothers raped. Our men were often the strange fruit hanging from the trees. Trauma manifests as neurological dysregulation which in the case of historical trauma can be expressed as: depression, self-destructive behavior, substance use disorder, identification with ancestral pain, fixation to trauma, somatic symptoms, anxiety, guilt, and chronic bereavement in the descendants. Epigenetics teaches us that trauma can be passed from one generation to the next for potentially fourteen generations.

Since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide. Like their ancestors, my sons must be hypervigilant. They carry the burden of trauma from those that came before in addition to the world in which we live. Intergenerational trauma, microaggressions, and bias impact resilience. The day to day stressors created by structural racism decrease a person’s window of tolerance. Without the right tools, it’s difficult to maintain neurological regulation when we are wired for survival and feel threatened. When a person has primitive behavior it is because they are reacting from the most primitive part of the brain (brain stem). This is not a measure of civility or intelligence. It is the reality of having a prolonged response to stress.

The COVID-19 worldwide pandemic is an excellent example of collective trauma. Regardless of whether we have been directly impacted by COVID, we are affected as members of the collective known as human beings. Many Black people in America have essential jobs. In our communities, we struggled with trusting information around the virus, we were afraid to lose jobs, afraid to become sick, afraid to get our families sick, afraid to wear PPE, and angry when we were forced to be exposed to illness. Our window of tolerance was significantly decreased. And then the world watched Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. We fell out of the window and set the world on fire.

Like trauma, healing and benevolence can be passed from one generation to the next. When we restore cultural identity and live with a regulated stress response, we all have the opportunity for self-realization and a full expression of resilience even in the face of adversity.

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