A White Body Elder Meets My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

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by Ellen Hoffenberg-Serfaty

Recorded by Carmen Rambaut


A resource for the Work That Reconnects programs 

This article overviews My Grandmother’s Hands  and complements an earlier review by Paula Hendrick (Hendrick 2020) It includes a review of what I consider the main subjects of the book, and  the body-based practices, which I consider the heart of the book.

Mr. Menakem uses the term Somatic Abolitionism for the groups that he currently offers, a term that for the first time incorporates the foundational principle in dealing with white supremacy, racial injustice and other forms of discrimination. 

What is the format of the book and what is it all about?

My Grandmother’s Hands is broken down into three parts, along with useful supplementary chapters at the end. Part I contains most of the basic concepts outlined in this article, as well as basic practices. Part II goes into greater detail for some of these concepts, including extensive body work for all three groups (see below), activities for each group, as well as sharing our experiences with others. And Part III deals with promoting group work, activism and community leadership, for each group, and collectively. Each chapter includes a summary of main teaching points, called “Re-memberings”.  

Most of the book covers the history and reality of issues relating to white supremacy, trauma -and how it has affected our society, mostly relating to American culture.  In most chapters, there is a section of Body-Centered Practices, easily adaptable as guided meditations.

I’ve identified five main issues in this introduction: White, black and polices bodies;
Trauma; White Supremacy; the Vagus Nerve; Body-based Practices

White, black and police bodies

Most of the book is directed to one of three groups: white bodies, black bodies (or other dark bodies or bodies of color), and police bodies or public safety professionals. The basis of the book is about how our bodies retain generations of violence, and thus pattern our reactions in our everyday world, whether we are black or other people of color, white citizens or police/public safety bodies. 

The author discusses throughout the book the reliance of white bodies on others, and deals with the myth of white fragility and vulnerability. In addition to seeing black bodies as a source of service, they view black bodies as “impervious to pain” and needing control, and the whole range of nonverbal sensations which result in fear, hate and constriction. Control of black Americans over their own bodies and their own agency is seen as a threat. Likewise, black bodies see white ones as dangerous and privileged. Both groups see police bodies as a source of protection, but black bodies also see them as dangerous.  While police see their role as protecting both groups, they often see black bodies as dangerous, with superhuman powers, and “similar to the prejudice of white bodied-people”, impervious to pain.


Body work and the healing of trauma are the foundations of the book, based on the premise that white supremacy cannot be addressed only through social and political action: ”We need to begin with the healing of trauma”, for white bodies, black bodies, neighborhoods and communities, and the law enforcement profession. Healing conflicts must begin with resolution within our bodies. If unresolved, Mr. Menakem predicts the continued mutation of trauma into even more dire consequences than currently occur.

Current racial conflicts in America are viewed as being several centuries old, having their roots in injustices committed against white bodies in Europe, and passed onto their descendants. 

The historical roots of trauma are traced, as well as how white bodies instilled this trauma in the bodies of many Africans as well as indigenous populationsCurrent racial conflicts in America are viewed as being several centuries old, having their roots in injustices committed against white bodies in Europe, and passed onto their descendants. 

The book explores trauma for each of the bodies of culture: for African Americans, who survived the traumas of enslavement through resilience but passed trauma from generation to generation. For white bodies, trauma inflicted by other white bodies in Europe throughout history. And for law enforcement, the stress that has been lodged within their bodies as a result of white-body supremacy. 

The author tells us that “(t)rauma is never a personal failure, nor the result of someone’s weakness, nor a limitation, nor a defect. It is a normal reaction to abnormal conditions and circumstances.”

Trauma often blocks healing when engaged in through traditional talk therapies, and requires its victims to understand what happens within their bodies, and how to deal with it through body-based practices. The author describes healing through distinguishing clean and dirty pain, and how clean pain can be attained through body centered practices. 

An important concept is how trauma can spread between bodies, termed “blowing” trauma through another person, using varying degrees of abuse, control and violence. This phenomenon often occurs as a result of triggers, in a spontaneous manner, which are considered unintended, and thus may be rationalized after the act. This spread can occur in families as well as among strangers.

When passed from generation to generation, it leads to historical trauma, which the author discusses as also being passed down genetically, including memories of painful events.  This is examined in detail, from solitary incidents that happen to an individual, as well as witnessing traumatic events, and how oppressed people internalize values and techniques that are trauma-based, including African American self-hate, renunciation of Blackness, mistreating and a lack of respect for other black bodies, and  reticence about owning property. The author answers the question, when asked earnestly, of why so many “dark-skinned immigrants” prosper, while others do not.

Resilience can also be passed intergenerationally, although resilience is a combination of what is passed down as well as what we learn.  It can be manifested on an individual or communal basis.

The main teachings relating to trauma and white supremacy are located in Part II of the book, activities for mending trauma engendered by white-body supremacy, and are broken down for African Americans, white Americans and American police.  

The poignancy of the author’s discussion of his childhood, as well as how he raises his own son, who doesn’t understand the dangers waiting for him in the world, is captured in this quote: “(The) paradox of creating a loving home: parents raise kids whose bodies are unprepared to protect themselves from all the evils they will eventually will face.”

The healing that results on an individual and group level can be taken into the community, for each of the groups that receive focus in the book, as well applying to the greater community. 

The author calls dealing with trauma our reckoning, an opportunity and obligation “to recognize the trauma embedded in our bodies and metabolize the clean pain of healing; and to move through and out of our trauma…(enabling) us to mend our hearts and bodies—and to grow up.”

White Supremacy

…white-body supremacy infiltrates every aspect of American culture, affecting all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, and has become part of our bodies, changing our brains and body chemistry.

One of the major premises of this book is that white-body supremacy infiltrates every aspect of American culture, affecting all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, and has become part of our bodies, changing our brains and body chemistry. Very little of white supremacy is about our cognitive thoughts–it lives in our bodies. Mr. Menakem distinguishes how our thinking brains work–which can focus on the past, present and future—with what a traumatized body experiences, only now, “the home of intense survival energy”.  Therefore, efforts to address trauma through ideas have largely failed to stop the destruction of black bodies, especially that which is committed by the police. Trauma becomes embedded in our bodies, and results in untold suffering. 

Mr. Menakem explains that concepts of whiteness, blackness and race were invented in the 17th century, when white Americans created white-body supremacy culture in order to deal with the power differentials among white bodies.  By doing so, white bodies “blow centuries of white-on-white trauma through millions of black and red bodies” as well as colonizing people of color. 

The author also relates to the falseness of white fragility, and how it supports white bodies to “dominate, control, brutalize” and kill black ones.  Black bodies, in response, shift into the protective strategy of trying to sooth white bodies.

Although the author focuses on black bodies, white-body supremacy has harmed Native and Latino Americans, as well. American culture is the focus of the book, but the author gives many examples of how the teachings are appropriate for other cultures. One of the most helpful of these is tracing ancestry to when white bodies settled in America.  This relates as well to  those around the world immigrating from and to other countries. 

As well, the author leads us to examine intergenerational trauma—traumatic events that affected parents and grandparents.

Civilization as we know it is lost if we don’t take responsibility for reversing white supremacy, and other forms of racism in our world. Many of my first reactions to the book were: Can I seek help through Mr. Menakem or other black trainers to create a group to work on the teachings and practices in this book? Mr. Menakem answers this query–it is not up to him or other black bodies to tell us how to do this. The urge to rely on them for the way out is part of the systemic white fragility that has been a crutch for white bodies for many generations. It is time to grow up and solve our own problems. 

The author also discusses why white Americans must lead the transformation for growing out of white-body supremacy.

The Vagus or Soul Nerve

Another of the concepts that has received quite a bit of attention in the last decade by healing professionals, the book traces how our bodies gain knowledge, distinguishing it from our cognitive brains: how this knowledge is experienced and sensed in our bodies, and stored, where it is activated through our nervous system, primarily through the vagus nerve. And more recently, Mr Menakem has integrated the psoas muscle into his work. The trauma that we develop in response to threats is not an emotional reaction, but is happening to our bodies, and generate physical, visceral sensations, which are unique for each person, happen quickly, are unpredictable, and override rational brain functions. It can easily engender disproportionate responses to the actual danger encountered.  A common trauma response is ghosting, or “the body’s recurrent or pervasive sense that danger is just around the corner.” And these traumatic reactions are often retained and passed from generation to generation.  The signals from the soul nerve are incorporated into one of several body practices, below, for working with the body’s checkpoints or warning signals.

Body-Based Practices

Throughout Part I of the book, the author leads readers through a series of body grounding and settling practices, which include awareness of our environment, guiding us through fears and hopes that arise. This is of immense help to all of us: to notice when we are open or constricted and what causes these reactions, what it activates, and where any discomfort or pain is located. The practices should be repeated several times. 

While dealing with the subject of clean pain, the author introduces the Five Anchors, the process for moving through clean pain and when someone senses conflict building. 

Caution: The author warns us about the reactions we might have as we begin to work, the result of energy releases. We need to be aware of defensive thoughts and to just experience the practices.  

 Parts of the Body: Similar to body sweeps or scans, some of these exercises encourage attention to different parts of the body. 

A more pinpointed scan is shared in the chapter on clean pain and anchors: Check Your Body’s Checkpoints, or physical sensations that signal a “not right” situation—one that is unfair, frightening, dangerous. These are signals from the vagus nerve, above. 

Guided Imagery: Body work guided imagery exercises of safe, secure situations, as well as threatening ones. 

Settling the body: Practices used for settling the body when it is experiencing stress, including resourcing, body scans, contraction and release, and other practices related to observation and soothing. The obvious benefit, in addition to creating more “space” and freedom in the body, is to counteract fight/flee/freeze reactions.  The author talks about the tendency to disengage, instead of the healthier response of staying with the body despite the discomfort.

Soothing: Soothing physical acts or soul (vagus) nerve training, such as touching parts of the body and vocalizations (humming, buzzing, singing, chanting), belly breathing, which is a well-recognized meditation technique, especially among somatic meditators, physical movements (rocking, movements of parts of the body), and resourcing, as well as focusing on sensations that arise from painful incidents. 

Group practices: Soothing activities (Chapter 14) that all bodies can do with  friends, family, and others that a person knows and trusts, of the same race or different races; while Chapter 15 shares physical activities for black bodies, as well as guided imagery practices involving perceived unsafe situations. Chapter 16 continues with guided imagery and practices, and uses media for white bodies—much of this material is quite graphic. 

 Ancestors: The practices proceed to working with ancestral memories for up to three generations, as well as contemplating when ancestors began to be referred to as black, white, Asian or Indian, and observing what the effect of these contemplations are on the body.

Micro-aggressions: The subtler forms of violation to black bodies, including micro-aggressions, day-to-day stressors and lack of regard, are explained and form the basis for body practices where the contemplations begin with these violations occurring to white bodies, and then shifts to others. Some of the exercises lead black bodies to contemplate black-bodied internalization of the values of oppressors, e.g. a black person denigrating another.

Primitive brain responses and reinforcing security: One of the most fascinating sets of practices involves how the primitive part of our brains reacts to encountering an unfamiliar body, and how closely that body matches its own, through a series of social encounters between white and black bodies, followed up by healing work for these reactions.  This is contrasted with the contemplation of incidents engendering feelings of strength and resilience, asking white bodies to recall times when they asked black bodies to comfort or protect them, and how non-white bodies altered their behavior to comfort or protect a white body.

Witnessing arrests, and law enforcement: Other body practices include contemplating and contrasting times when the arrest of a black and a white body was witnessed.

 A powerful section is geared to law enforcement, asking them to make an inventory and explore sensations at the end of a workday. 

An additional exercise, introduced in the Chapter on clean pain and Anchors, is Stop—whatever you are doing; Drop Back—paying attention to what is going on in your body, as well as where a situation is headed; and Roll—or moving with whatever is happening in the body, without succumbing to fight/flee/freeze. 

Journaling is often recommended as a way to process some of our contemplations, reactions and after-affects.

How would I sum up this book?

If I was tasked with summing up the book in one sentence, I would borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates, quoted at the beginning of the book: 

But all our phrasing —race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privileged, even white supremacy (and I would now add, Black Lives Matter)—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. (Coates, 2015)

A powerful book, a call for all of us to get to work, with practical suggestions presented in historical contexts, for us to begin to heal. I can’t praise Mr. Menakem enough, or be more grateful for the gift that he has given us all. Let us use it wisely and comprehensively.



Coates, Ta-Nehisi (2015)  Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau

Hendrick, Paula. (2020) “The Healing Work of Anti-Oppression: Two Book Reviews”, Deep Times, March 2020.  https://wtrjournal.wpenginepowered.com/2020/03/08/the-healing-work-of-anti-oppression-two-book-reviews

Menakem, Remaa (2017) My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Central Recovery Press.

Menakem, Resmaa. (2020) “Unlocking the Genius of your Body: Why your logic isn’t adequate when it comes to the violence of race:, Psychology Today, December 2020.

Menakem, Remaa. Sounds True video interview with Tami Simon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dAAWgpokvo&feature=youtu.be

Educational resources from Mr. Menakem’s site: https://www.resmaa.com and https://linktr.ee/actionEDUCATE

Menakem, Remaa. Sounds True video interview with Tami Simon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dAAWgpokvo&feature=youtu.be

Menakem, Remaa. (2020)  “Why We’re All Suffering from Racial Trauma (Even White People) — and How to Handle It.” Ten Percent Happier Podcast with Dan Harris. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/why-were-all-suffering-from-racial-trauma-even-white/id1087147821?i=1000482826916

Menakem, Remaa. (2019) Video interview on the Connectfulness Practice Podcast—Mending Racialized Trauma, A Body-Centered Approach.  https://youtu.be/hC-O5UOvh1s

Tippett, Krista (2020) “Notice the Rage, Notice the Silence”, On Being, June 2020.


Recorded by Carmen Rumbaut

Shalom, my name is Ellen Hoffenberg-Serfaty, an American-Israeli living this last half of my life in Israel. I’ve recently moved to the northern Mediterranean border of Israel, to a magical sea community called Achziv, in northern Nahariya, after over 30 years in Jerusalem. My favorite calling these days is being a new Nana to my first grandbaby, Mika, as well as a mother and wife, and member of a large Moroccan-Israeli tribe through my marriage to my husband, Dany, and a smaller one from my roots in NYC.  I am retired, and formerly spent 45 years as a public service criminal defense lawyer, creating and leading public service organizations, mostly for children, lobbying and teaching people of all ages, including university and law school students, as well as teachers and other professionals, originally about advocating and protecting abused and neglected children, and later, here in Israel, working with students with special educational needs, including the college prep program for Blind, Visually Impaired and special needs students at Hebrew University.  I also worked as a Development Officer for a non-profit international children’s rights organization.  Since my retirement, I am a curriculum and evaluation volunteer consultant with the Charter for Compassion Education Institute, lead several online sanghas, including the Third Third, an Insight Timer app group.  I’ve broken open my “bucket list” and become an avid potter, Miksang photographer, amateur musician, writer, and am getting wilder and wilder in nature. I’m a two decade plus meditator, and it has inspired my current love for learning how to facilitate the Work That Reconnects and leading some book groups, and credit the generosity of my online Spiral teachers over the last year for leading me to  my sea turtle and sea and beach protection leadership and volunteer environmental activism in our local and regional community. ehoffserf@gmail.com


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