A plague o’ both your houses: historical trauma, the collective shadow and the Pagan community

During the climactic Act III, Scene I in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio (in pain) speaks to his best friend Romeo as a dying man. “’Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses!”

Mercutio (played by Harold Perrineau) yelling the famous line in 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet.

A plague on both our houses; simple, profound, and so relevant in today’s society.

I went to a trauma summit in Oakland today. This summit concentrated on trauma-informed practices and the effects of trauma over time. It in essence was focused on providing hope for those who have experienced trauma by infusing new techniques with providers.

There are some things I could talk about that happened within the summit, but they would not be totally relevant to this particular blog. But one of the sessions I went to was called “Systematic Oppression and Resiliency.”

The facilitators, Dr. Jackson and Ms. King, packed this workshop with information that applied to the historical damage that has been done to the American Indians and African American people. The concept that damage, violence, harm, institutional racism, and the devaluing of humanity for an entire category of people, has lasting effects for coming generations. Part of this workshop addressed how individual treatment of trauma does not work for the healing of historical trauma because the root is in the systematic harm that has been caused. In essence, individual treatment does not fix society’s ills.

Dr. Jackson made some incredible points in response to people’s privileged statements about how slavery is over and we should move on. Some of those points addressed the concept of disenfranchised grief, the withholding of mental health service access during, and post-slavery (and even now), the collective shadow, and the need for psychological liberation.

Professionally it is my passion to work through historical, social and structural injustice in order to create opportunity for the underprivileged. This is the reason why I have worked in drug treatment for 13 years, and more importantly, it is why I have stayed working in the trauma-laced communities with youth for six of those 13. But it is also my spiritual mission in many ways as well because one cannot separate the two, as we are a “one” people.

In healing within any culture, there needs to be an opportunity to explore the untold stories. African Americans have not had the opportunity to do that within a safe and accepting societal structure. The reality is that Caucasians have not either. The damage of the historical trauma brought upon African Americans was also brought upon Caucasians as well. No group of people could do that level of damage to another group of people without being damaged in the process. In our Americanized-societal values, we choose to glance over the harm of our history instead of inviting ourselves to explore what our history means to who we are. And in the process we have some cultures feeling disenfranchised from the grief of their historical pain, and another culture unable to explore the discomfort of “white guilt” that has underlined privileges given due to the suffering of others within history.

One of the quotes from the workshop struck me to the core. “If the white man has inflicted the wounds of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself,” (Berry, 1989). I ponder that thought. How are we ever able to engage authentically with one another when we are not exploring the need for healing that is rooted in our very core? Society as a whole suffers from this, and so does the Pagan community.

Much of this discussion I was listening to overlapped with my beliefs around the needs within my professional and spiritual community work. The key note speaker, Mary Blake, made a comment earlier in the summit about how “the impact and legacy of violence does not go away.” And instead of embracing our collective needs for exploring the historical ramifications that these atrocities have had in our communities, we instead ignore their existence and then villainize one another for our responsive behavior to the “forgotten” traumas within our psyche.

The facilitators of this workshop gave a list of some of the things that support healing from historical trauma; I will include a couple points here.

  • Tell the untold story.
  • Put behavior and conditions in context of the history.
  • Ceremony and Native models.

Whether we are talking about Native people, African Americans or our dear Pagan communities, what if we applied this wisdom to ourselves? What if we allowed ourselves to listen, tell and learn from the untold stories of our history and our ancestors? Not the ones in the history books, but the ones of pain, the oppressed and the oppressors that were removed from modern American history. What if we approached one another with the knowledge that behaviors are influenced by the history of our collective stories and our collective shadow? What would it look like if we acknowledged one another’s need to heal and solidified that healing with ceremonies and culturally-relevant models of celebratory practices that would help us transition individually and collectively as a healthier community?

Why don’t we have rituals and ceremonies that allow us to embrace the shadows of our history? Why don’t we have rites of passage to empower and mark the transition from our past trauma into a place of spiritual wholeness? Why don’t we have ceremonies that reinforce our need for a trauma-informed community and support empathy for one another’s historical trauma?

These are big questions. I don’t have all the answers and yet I feel that the next movement in society will mirror the movement within the Pagan community, and our need to redefine our relationships with social justice, diversity, community values and sustainability will become more prevalent. Do we gloss over our road blocks as if they do not exist, or do we embrace the complexity of our human nature by acknowledging that our love of the Goddess does not erase the harm of our histories?

As the focus continue to turn to privilege, labels, inclusiveness, exclusion, community and our collective potential, let us stop allowing the “scratching the surface” norms to be acceptable within Pagan culture. Let’s challenge one another by extending a chance for safe exploration of who we are individually, who we are within our societies, who we are within our ethnic cultures, and who we are collectively as one Pagan community.

If we don’t take our opportunities to move toward health, it could be the keys to continued dysfunction or the beginning of our end. We are living in the plagued houses of Mercutio’s curse and we have forgotten where we are. As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you”.

Maybe if we release our stories, we can then be free to create new ones.

Writers note: This video was shared in the workshop.  I had to share it here.  It brought tears to my eyes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

    This post is great, and it reminds me of what Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy have to say about processing deep trauma (cultural and personal) through ritual that involves role play and intense physical sensation. I agree with you, though, that storytelling — especially telling the uncensored versions of our history — is the place to start. Perhaps you should prepare something for a future PantheaCon?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1678081929 Bill Wheaton

    Perhaps we don’t have these things because we haven’t thought about it before.  We are a relatively new phenomena.  I think we can.  Great idea

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    There’s a lot to think about here. I have direct ancestors who fought in the American Revolution in upstate New York on both sides of the conflict. My rebel ancestors fought against Native people such as the Seneca- but they were defending their homes and families from attack by raiders. My Tory ancestors fought side by side with the Seneca as comrades in arms- but committed war crimes against unarmed noncombatants. So as a pagan with some concept of ancestor veneration, what am I to make of all of this? Should I be proud of my rebel ancestors because they fought for their principles, or ashamed of them because they helped dispossess Native peoples? Should I be proud of my Tory ancestors because they stood with Native people, or ashamed of them because they committed war crimes? There are no easy answers here that I can see. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/RevCrystal.Blanton Crystal Blanton

      Christopher, coming from the perspective of a Black women, married to a Caucasian man and raising bi-racial kids… I do not think it is about identifying who to have pride for and who to have shame for. I think that is the polarized thinking that society has cultivated and we have to unlearn. I think it is more about giving ourselves the opportunity to explore what it really means. How does our history affect us energetically? psychically? emotionally? concious and unconciously? These are all questions we have not given ourselves the chance to truly explore.

      My hope is that one day we are more invested in healing than blame, in telling the untold stories and gaining empathy for one another versus shame.

      • Christopher Scott Thompson

         I like that approach. The truth is, I mostly just enjoy knowing the stories of my ancestors and their struggles in life; the pride/shame thing only comes in when I think in terms of ancestor veneration. Like, what exactly am I venerating and what does that mean? How can I honor their strength and courage without taking on the moral weight of their choices? But I can see what you’re saying about the “blame dichotomy.”

  • http://www.humblewonderful.com/ Tony C.

     As a drug and alcohol worker I really enjoyed this post. There are things we do to address systematic and historical trauma but quite frankly they are usually tokenistic and seldom address the need for the historical opppressors healing. Here in Australia that’s partly because workers and services don’t have their own shit together in this regard. I would say there is a whole lot of deep work to go.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Thanks so much for this, Crystal.

    It’s something that is important to me in the collegiate history teaching that I do:  I teach U.S. History I and II, which covers everything up to about WWI.  The textbook we use has some very good chapters on slavery and its effects, and the views of “both sides” on the issue.  It’s complex and difficult material, and I try to emphasize to the students that while we most certainly can and should hold slavery as abominable in its effects, we are also obliged to understand why the people who did it (and often felt very bad about doing it, despite not doing much to change it) could act in such cruel and inhuman ways towards other human beings.

    In my spiritual life, it has been important for me to owe up to the mistakes of my spiritual ancestors.  In 2009, our first Communalia ritual took place, and while I’m happy for everyone that took part in it and the people with whom we have become official allies as a result, it was the AMHA group that was most touching and effective from my viewpoint.  As someone with Jewish ancestry, to connect with an Israelite polytheist group, and to acknowledge that there were good and bad people on both the Roman and Jewish sides of the conflict in the 132-135 Second Jewish War (which the Emperor Hadrian fought as a defensive war after Bar Kochba’s uprising destroyed three or more entire Roman Legions), but that from a modern viewpoint we must not allow such to happen again, was powerfully healing and important, in my viewpoint and those of many others present.  I hope to do similar rituals with others over the years as well.

  • M.A.

    Several months ago I was riding a local bus, and a young Black man sitting behind me was asking White people “Are you racist?”  He sounded to me a tad defensive/belligerent about it, and I was only riding a short way so I didn’t have time to respond, but it seemed to me a very good question.  And I don’t have a very good answer.  I realized that I can know my own motives and intentions, and I can watch another person’s actions and form opinions about that, but I really can’t tell how my actions appear to others.  Am I racist?  Well, I sincerely hope not, but how would I know?  There are so many things we need to talk about.

    That video is incredibly moving — thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=577495451 Boysen Hodgson

    Bravo. Well captured. 

  • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

    I think we should address these traumas through ritual and poetry. I would be very interested to see how these kind of rituals would work. There is a whole load of mythology out there which might help with this process, too, such as High John the Conqueror.

    I found the Knock Knock video very moving too.

  • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

    This reminds me of the approach to ancestors and previous incarnations in The Temple of My Familiar (the sequel to The Color Purple) by Alice Walker. The main character talks about how her previous incarnations were white, Black, Native American, men, women, the oppressed and the oppressors,and so on, and how she is made up of all of them.

  • Elinor

    Crystal, I have no idea how I missed this post until now. A huge YES from me. 

    • Elinor Predota

      Sorry, befuddled by the interface temporarily. 

      Have you come across the work of the National Coalition-Building Institute? They are engaged in exactly this kind of work. I am not a fan of the emphasis on catharsis (energetically, I personally find it too much, and it unsettles my mental health for weeks) but the results and the bonds formed across divides by their work is brilliant.

  • Joel Milan

    In America, there have been periods of breakthroughs for race relations, followed by downturns. In partisan fashion, each side blames the other for frictions that create racial divisions, but the politicians elected on various race tinged campaigns or issues are the ones getting on the payrolls with media exposure to keep the system in operation. The Pagan and occult counterculture with path followers are going to reflect what they have lived through or been taught to believe. These factions are seen in other groupings like LGBT and Women’s interactions. Add the corporate media that daily spreads residual fear media about racial groups that many sponsors continue to materially enrich. Other nations have their forms of residual manipulation.