My Grandmother’s Hands

Each spring I teach a capstone course for social work seniors, and there is a good bit of flexibility in terms of what I assign to read and what we discuss. This spring, my students and I have been reading Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. We just finished it two weeks ago and I have already given my copy of the book to a former student who dropped by last week; I was sad to let it go but it was more important to me that she reads it, based on a conversation we were having about her work and life. I plan to pick up another copy this summer in order to read it and practice some of the exercises more intentionally.

I assigned three discussion leaders each week, and most weeks we read three chapters. Students were so engaged with this book. They said frequently that every person should read this book, or at least every social worker or every student in a capstone class across campus. One of my colleagues, who teaches a seminar class that corresponds with students’ field placements, said that students often related the book content to their class and their processing of field. That is the biggest “win” for me, that students could immediately apply it to their work/field placement life and that it was challenging them to think about racism and racialized trauma on a near daily basis.

Below is a small sampling of some of the quotes or questions that were submitted by students on the week they were discussion leaders. Their questions and observations were so sincere and thought provoking. Even though it was a hard topic to discuss, spending time with the students in this discussion was a gift each week for me, to have the space to unpack it. (I was reading it for the first time along with them.)

What is an area of your life that you have become more aware of since reading this book? For me, I have become more in tune with the feelings I get in my body and the immediate thoughts that come with that – I give myself freedom to feel those feelings and then find the logic in them if any logic is present.

How can we, as helping professionals, hold empathy and accountability simultaneously?

What are your thoughts on this? (Note: referring to a section on page 205). I think we as a majority white group in this room need to be able to have an open conversation about this. About trauma, about whiteness not being something we chose, but the construct of whiteness being something we can change… An awareness needs to be more present and talked about.

On page 258, he talks about the importance of history. He says, “History lives in and through our bodies right now, and in every movement.” He also says that there are many white Americans who say things like, “Let’s focus on the here and now—or, better yet, on the future.” I think this is pretty evident in the ongoing debates (especially in the south) over critical race theory. I also think it’s super ironic that a lot of people who are so strongly opposed to the teaching of ALL of history, not just the whitewashed version of it are also the same kind of people who are “heritage, not hate” types. I don’t really have a direct question, but I’m curious what people think about the importance of history, and not just teaching it, but how we can use it to inform our present and future?

I will definitely use this book again, and have recommended it to several people both in the field of social work and outside of it. For me personally, on the first read through, the biggest thing that stuck with me and has shaped me already is the concept of “dirty pain” and “clean pain”. That has been useful as I have been thinking and praying my way through a particular situation. On my second read through, as I mentioned above, I want to be more intentional about some of the body practices as I think about healing personally and being part of collective healing as an activist. Lest you think you aren’t an activist, check out this one last quote, highlighted as a favorite by a student: “At its best, activism is a form of healing. Activism is not just about what we do; it is also about who we are and how we show up in the world. It is about learning and expressing regard, compassion, and love—for ourselves and for our fellow human beings” (p.244).

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