Book Review: My Grandmother’s Hands

By Resmaa Menakem.
Subtitle: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies and Hearts
Rating: 5 stars!

This is a wonderful book. It gave me a rich new way to understand and think about how racism operates, in the world and also in my own body. Menakem is a Black author, and a trauma therapist; but he writes with both clarity and compassion for three distinct audiences in this book – Black Americans, White Americans, and American Police (of whatever ethnicity).

I took a while to read the book; he’s very emphatic about stopping and taking time to engage in a series of practices he provides. I just wanted to read the ideas, so I skipped the first practice at first – but then I was busted: “If you’ve already skipped the previous activity, stop. Go back and complete it before reading further.” A little challenging for my frame of mind, but I was glad that I followed the practices; in addition to their own benefits, they supplied a necessary context for understanding his work.

One particular reframe that was useful to me as a white man was a new understanding of fragility in whites. I’m familiar with the concept of “white fragility” as it applies to race itself – the brittleness that we can bring to racial discussions, how easily we can collapse in shame or raise shields in defensiveness, which basically blocks the racial conversation. But he points out here that just as there is a myth of black resilience, based on the American legacy of using black people for brutal labor in brutal conditions; there’s a corresponding myth of white fragility, of a lack of resilience – a tendency for White Americans to believe that they can’t handle pain, they can’t do things that are hard. I see what a disservice this has been to my own life. I see this in my fellow white men – in the culture – we resist Manning Up, so to speak, we want to remain immature. And that’s bad for the world, but also profoundly unsatisfying for our own lives.

In some cases, we tend to look to Black Americans to do the hard things for us; including leading us out of racism. I see this in myself, I’m frustrated with racism, and I’m looking for someone like a new Martin Luther King to tell me what to do about it. But racism is primarily a White problem, and it’s up to us to lead ourselves out of it. (While certainly listening to Black voices and criticism, but also creating our own new culture around race.)

Menakem makes clear in particular that he and other Black Americans cannot lead us White folks to the new culture we need – but what he can do, and expresses very clearly in this work, is point out what hasn’t been working.

White Americans have not yet created any form of anti-white-supremacy culture. White Americans who seek to undo white-body supremacy have organizations; they have ideas and strategies and goals; they have initiatives; and they have energy, conviction, and hope. But they have little sense of community—and no culture to build and support such community. This needs to change. White allies must build culture, because culture trumps almost everything else.

I don’t give 5 stars often. This is one of the most important books I’ve read this century. Wholehearted recommendation.

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