The Healing Work of Anti-Oppression: Two Book Reviews

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reviewed by Paula Hendrick

Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture
By Nora Samaran
AK Press, 2019

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies
By Resmaa Menakem
Central Recovery Press, 2017

We humans are designed for connection, for empathy and nurturance. The dark side of this sensitivity is that we are terribly vulnerable to the triggering of shame through violence. And shame is a powerful tool of oppression. This is a core concept from Turn This World Inside Out.

I first learned of Naava’s work (I know her as Naava Smolash; Nora Samaran is her pen name) when she advised a group of us at an Interhelp Facilitator Deepening weekend on how to organize a “repair circle.” A repair circle is a group of people to whom any member of our community can turn if they experience harm that is not understood or adequately responded to within the context/activity where it happened. (You can read about our process at Interhelp here.)

This experience with Naava led me to her essay “Own, Apologize, Repair,” included in Turn This World Inside Out. Here she guides us through a process, even including a mock script, for verbally “owning” when we have caused harm, then apologizing, and moving toward “repair” by saying what we will do to do better in the future. But what makes this essay – indeed the entire book – so valuable is that she precedes this practical guidance with a story, from her own family, illustrating what empathy is and how it can be taught, and how shame evolves. This gives the reader a basic understanding of the psychology of both harm and repair.

Turn This World Inside Out is woven throughout with stories from Naava’s own experience as a white woman. She also includes extensive dialogues with persons from marginalized communities. In this way we are also learning both about the generational harm endured in these communities and how someone (like myself) with white privilege can skillfully support anti-oppression efforts. I especially appreciated Naava’s dialogue with Aravinda Ananda, “Cultivating Empathy and Shame Resilience.” Aravinda, who is biracial, is a Work That Reconnects facilitator and member of the Interhelp Council.

Naava is showing how we can begin to create nurturance culture, in our own families and communities, in particular when people of different levels of privilege come together. Gaining an understanding of what goes on in the human body/mind/heart that causes us to hurt and be hurt, helps us take steps toward supporting healing and creating justice for all. She has a great talent for combining the theoretical and the practical, applying science to the most intimate of interactions, all with compassion and a laser focus on truth and solutions. The interweaving of her own writing with conversational dialogues adds a pleasant rhythm to the reading experience, making it easier to integrate the information. At only 131 pages, with type that feels spacious on the page, it’s a welcoming book on a challenging, fascinating, and urgent topic.

As I was reviewing Naava’s book, a friend, fresh from a weekend workshop with Resmaa Menakem, recommended his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Resmaa, who is Black, is a body-centered trauma therapist who works in depth with Blacks, with whites and with police officers. This book is intended for all three groups, with some chapters for all, and some crafted expressly for each group. The kind of work he does is known as Cultural Somatics.

Resmaa provides essential background material but keeps the book accessible. For example, he explores the embodied trauma, from centuries of white-on-white violence, that European colonizers brought with them, and shows how racialized violence – in particular white on Black violence – evolved from that. Even material I thought of as familiar (white fragility, for example) jumped off the page with freshness because of Resmaa’s continual centering of the experience of the body.

This book is a plea for all of us to grow in body awareness, and he lovingly introduces the reader to the vagus nerve (soul nerve, he calls it) where we experience the felt sense of all the emotions. The how-to sections throughout the book help us learn, step-by-step, to settle our bodies, soothe ourselves, and move beyond the reflexive fight/flight/freeze responses, except when these responses are necessary. This is more than a do-it-yourself book, however. Many chapters are on healing in community, and bringing the engaged body into our activism.

Human beings have a profound need for belonging; when we experience belonging, we feel safe. We crave this feeling in our bodies. The work for white people (like me) is to grow in responsive resilience to events that trigger my white-person’s inherited/embodied trauma response. Then I can begin to let go of the fearful or rigid aspects of “whiteness” to which I have clung because they make me feel safe. That work begins in the body. Resmaa says that the work of Black people, and of law enforcement personnel, begins in the body, too.

This book has it all, for me: context; how-to on both a personal and communal level; and the feeling of being accompanied by a compassionate guide.

Paula Hendrick, a Weaver for the Work That Reconnects network, serves on the governing Council of Interhelp, a networking group for Work That Reconnects in the northeast US. Interhelp has recently committed to becoming an anti-racist organization.

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