Summary by Sally H.
Seeking Racial Justice Series, Session 1: Systemic racism in the US: Historic Roots and Generational Trauma
This first week of the “Seeking Racial Justice” film series laid the groundwork for our ongoing conversation about institutional racism and generational trauma in the US and the Christian Church. Shancia Jarret and Jennifer Brown guided our conversation around the testimonies gathered in two recent documentaries: 13th, and Unchained. 13th, Ava DuVernay’s 2016 piece, traces the roots of mass incarceration in the US to the loopholes stitched into the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the part shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…[emphasis mine].” To curtail the effects of emancipation, white Southerners criminalized ordinary behaviors (“loitering” etc.) in order to sustain their workforce and perpetuate the second-class status of Black Americans. These tactics evolved throughout the 20th century, finding form in the Jim Crow laws, the War on Drugs, and the growth of the prison-industrial complex. The film allowed us to explore the history of convict leasing, disenfranchisement, and the deliberate anti-black violence engrained in public policy throughout the nation’s history.
While 13th unpacked systemic elements of racial oppression, Unchained (Life Focus Communications, produced by Mona Heinnen) delved into the intergenerational effects of racial trauma, termed “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” Testimonies from Rev. Keith Marshall Williams, Phyllis Smith (cousin of Emmet Till), Dr. Greg Thompson, and many others probed the persistent wounds of racism, which not only pulse through generations but are refreshed with every instance of stereotype, discrimination, and racial insensitivity. Phyllis Smith described memories of her cousin’s brutal murder, and the long process of claiming her grief; Dr. Greg Thompson reflected on internalized shame of watching his best childhood friend humiliated by their elementary school teacher. Honesty, moral courage, and justice emerged as key elements in racial healing. The video led us through a Christian approach to healing this kind of trauma.
As a community, we processed new information, asked questions, heard testimonies, and struggled together with the evil and pain our collective history and individual upbringings had woven through us. “I grew up assuming…” “I had never heard of…” “How do we avoid despair?” “Do you think…?” “What does it mean to follow Christ’s lead?” As we spoke together, the need for white Christians and Christian communities to reckon with Christ as Truth emerged. The closer we draw to the suffering of our neighbors, and the more keenly we recognize the sin inside ourselves, the closer we draw to Christ on the cross. As a community, we drew on the encouragement that Jesus gives. Holding together truth, grace, and the need for reparative action, we closed the night with prayer.