The Riot Within: The Pain and Power of When They See Us and Why Black Traumatic Stories Matter

I was twenty-four years old when I learned about the Central Park Case. Browsing the documentary section on Amazon Prime, I happened upon a description that read: “Filmmakers examine a 1989 case, regarding five teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a woman.” I watched the two-hour documentary in one sitting; embracing the fullness of a vital moment in our history, while bearing the possibility that those men could’ve been Dominic, Michael, Terrence, Mack, Solomon, Jaron, Sammy, Wesley, Justin, and Reggie. My ten brothers. This would be the first time I would experience the riot within.

Four years later, the Central Park story would resurface through the direction of Ava DuVernay in the film docuseries, When They See Us. Standing on the conviction of doing what’s necessary for the culture, I knew it was imperative to relive this moment. However, I didn’t meet five teenagers wrongfully convicted. This time, I became intimately acquainted with five brothers who were exonerated: Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, Antron, and Korey. The Central Park Five no longer exists. I will always say their names. 

It took me nearly two weeks to watch the four episodes. I sobbed my soul to sleep on most nights. I swore at the television like Samuel L. Jackson. I didn’t read, write, or deal for days. During that time, my emotions were confined to only curse words and cries. The description of the first documentary toiled over in my mind: “Filmmakers examine a 1989 case…”

I failed to understand how one of the most crucial and controversial cases of our history was once referred to as just a 1989 case, especially given the result of a wrongful conviction. 

As with other Black stories, I could never fully express the internal juxtaposition that occurred when I learned about the Emmitt Tills, Harriet Jacobs, Rosa Parks, Rodney Kings, and Trayvon Martins. This would begin to change when I read an essay by Choya Randolph entitled: Black Stories are Educating and Traumatizing Me.” I was eager to understand Randolph’s perspective regarding the complexity of our stories; a complexity I tried my hardest to unpack for years when I experienced the second-hand black trauma she references. Randolph is undeniably correct: Black stories are educating. Black stories are traumatizing. The essay assured my internal riots weren’t in vain, nor were they invalid.

However, it was Randolph’s refusal to expose herself to another one of our stories that left me unsettled. I considered the many individuals who, like Randolph, had also settled on the decision to opt-out of dealing with Black trauma. Should we stop exposing ourselves and bringing exposure to our stories if they become too unbearable?

For the first time, the riot within was temporarily replaced with a deep urgency to reconcile. Not just the riot itself, but its who, what, where, and why.


What’s with all the Trauma?

The Mariana Trench is known as a crescent-shaped trough located in the Western Pacific Ocean. The trench formed due to the process of two masses of oceanic crusts colliding; where the two pieces of crust intersected, a deep trench was lodged in the sinking crust. The accurate measure of depth had been questioned since its discovery in the mid-1800s, primarily due to no one having traveled deep enough to record an accurate measurement – until April 2019. Victor Vescovo, an undersea explorer, went into the deep and achieved a new record measurement of 10,927 meters (35,853 ft.), confirming the prevalent theory of the Mariana Trench having the deepest natural depression in the world.

However, the whole gag is: The deepest natural depression actually lies within us.

The same us Ava DuVernay emphasized with Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, Antron, and Korey.

The same us I see when I look at my ten brothers.

The same us who carry trauma and triumph like sound over water. Our very own Mariana Trench – Black Trauma – has passed a torch which is now over 400 years deep. 

Trauma is described as a “deep, emotional wound”. I have always known this. However, I was unaware of Black Trauma’s ability to descend, generation after generation, like an heirloom. Trauma is a teacher to be learned. Unfortunately, we’ve learned the face of fear, similar to an epigenetic link recently established in animal studies. According to neurobiologist Kerry Ressler, his studies proved that mice who were taught to fear the smell of cherries when paired with an electric shock, had children and grandchildren who showed signs of the same anxiety when exposed to the odor; even though they were not directly exposed to the painful association. 

This is our trauma. Fear and affliction colliding, only to pass many times over.

I was today years old when I discovered the term Transgenerational Trauma. Interestingly, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) would follow shortly after. Transgenerational trauma would arise in the late ’60s through the work of Dr. Yael Danieli, who provided treatment to Holocaust survivors and their children. Danieli noticed a common thread that reflected an internalization of unreconciled grief and loss that was passed down.

Here, I thought of slavery. If Danieli’s research was correct, there had to be a similar experience for slaves and their descendants, severely traumatized by the worst kind of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.

*Insert Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). Coined by Dr. Joy DeGruy, PTSS asserts that centuries of slavery, followed by acts of racism and oppression (including lynching, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration), resulted in transgenerational traumatic behaviors first introduced by Dr. Danieli. 

This outline of PTSS is reverberated in Unchained: A Generational Trauma and Healing. In the documentary, Rev. Keith Marshall Williams, the great-great-grandson of a sharecropper shares his journey toward healing from five generations of Black trauma.

Williams contends that the “pain and trauma African-Americans have faced (stemming back to his slave ancestors) has taken a toll on its people.”

His 98-year-old grandmother recalls her experiences during the Jim Crow era, citing the memories as “buried so deep she can barely talk about it.”

This unresolved trauma would pass down to Williams’ 76-year-old mother, who regards her traumatic experiences during the Civil Rights Movement as “a survival mentality that grew up within her.”

Williams’ ultimately realizes the traumatic events his grandmother and mother lived through, linked with his own, created “a chain of trauma” which continues to linger within him. 

Phyllis Smith was just six years old when she learned about the highly publicized murder of her cousin, Emmitt Till. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Till was kidnapped and lynched in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The brutality of the murder received wide attention and controversy, especially after Till’s mother insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket; a matter Smith could not fully understand the importance of at six years old. Yet, even after she became old enough to understand, Smith still recalls feeling haunted by “built-up feelings of emotional trauma and anger which left her mentally stuck as a six-year-old for the majority of her life.”

Although coined a “syndrome” which encourages the seeking of treatment, Dr. DeGruy states that PTSS can’t be clinically remedied alone. Dr. DeGruy advocates that a profound social change must occur in individuals and institutions that promote inequality and/or injustice against the descendants of slaves. One may argue that 400 years have passed. However, it is unrealistic to assume that the trauma ended with the abolition of slavery. 


How Do We Deal with Our Trauma?

It was a particular observation of Danieli’s, which helped me understand how we currently treat Black trauma. Danieli reveals her patients’ experiences of trauma had initially been met with denial, avoidance, and indifference, adding that their stories were viewed as “too traumatic to be believed or discussed.”

Dr. Harriet Hill, an expert in traumatic healing, also discusses this silence in the Unchained documentary. Hill states that the “wounds of slavery last for a long time, and often times, we are ashamed and don’t know where to go with it.”  I think of many of us who are not dealing. And how not dealing has kept us from healing. Where does it all go if we don’t know where to go with it? 

Within, perhaps?

Our fear has us convinced that the best way to deal with our trauma is to avoid it. As a result, this learned silence leaves us no choice but to withdraw within, making reconciliation nearly impossible.

Phyllis Smith states in Unchained that: “When you don’t process trauma well, you become stuck at that point of trauma”, referring back to her arrested six-year-old self. After sixty years, Smith says telling her trauma helped her “heal into a journey of acceptance and forgiveness.” Dr. Harriet Hill also contends that we “heal from trauma by telling.” You may remember the experience, but not with those same painful emotions. In telling our trauma, we can replace feelings of anger with feelings of acceptance.

Our inability to process trauma well (not knowing where to go with it) can also be primarily attributed to the miseducation of our history.

I repeat, I was twenty-four years old when I learned about the Central Park Case.

A few years earlier, I believed Black History only consisted of slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. Shouldn’t I have known about our stories when I was educated about the Hemingways, Kennedys, and Armstrongs? Were Black stories too traumatizing to be taught?

Healing from Black trauma often involves doing the work of two; to be educated (exposed) and to educate (expose). Hence, most education of our history will involve sharing our self-education and, in the process, the ability to expose the miseducated. Just think, where would we be if Transgenerational Trauma and Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome had not been named, owned, and given power?

Trauma teaches us that we are real, and as survivors, we have the power to say what our ancestors could not; to speak their pain while healing from our own. To opt-out is to turn a moral blind eye to what lies in the deepest part of us.


Weighing in on the Riot Within

Watching the last two episodes of When They See Us had me wishing for a different outcome in 2019, although the verdict had been determined in 1989. I am full with what I know now, but I won’t deny that I was traumatized by it; very much like Randolph. However, it’s hard for me to escape the trauma of our stories once they have been realized.

I recognize our stories as a gateway, traumatic as they may be, to lead me closer to reconciling the riot. The telling, and sometimes retelling of our stories, has the power to do just that. Even Victor Vescovo knew he’d have to go beyond to get to the depth of the Mariana Trench.

Mamie Till, Emmitt Till’s mother, knew that truth would eventually come out of the trauma. Ava DuVernay knew it was necessary to take us back to April 1989 to understand that when they see us now, they know we are not who they said we were. We are who we’ve always been.                                                      

Strong and Vulnerable
Courageous and Afraid
Sensitive and Tough
Beautiful and Imperfect
Open and Broken
Worthy and Humble
Ups, Downs, and Stumbles
Tangles, Falls, and Bends
From breaking out to keep
from breaking back in.

Because day after day,
we have to face the riot within.

Whenever I experience the trauma of our stories, I am inevitably filled with pain and power. Black traumatic stories matter. Because we continue to overcome and redefine our identity despite them.

For me, this is what the riot within has always been; a constant collision of terror and triumph. I didn’t know how to say that until now. And it is my biggest fear that my trauma, if not dealt with, will consume and destroy me from the inside out. That it will spread beyond the boundaries of what I intended. If I chose to opt-out, it would feel too much like a cop-out.

We must unlearn fear and begin healing by dealing. We have a responsibility to reconcile the trauma lodged in our deep. By facing it, we have the power to replace it. The more we expose and become exposed to the trauma our people face, the deeper we discover the destiny of our race. 



Suggested Readings/Sources:
International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma by Dr. Yael Danieli.
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by Dr. Joy DeGruy.
The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson.
Understanding the Black Multigenerational Education Trauma: A Theory of the Dehumanization of Black Students by June Cara Christian.
When They See Us by Ava Duvernay.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross by Henry Louis Gates.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois.
How to Heal African Americans’ Traumatic History by Daryl Rowe and Kamilah Woodson.
Unchained: Generational Trauma and Healing by Life Focus Communications.



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Tessa Williams

28-year-old recent college graduate from the University of North Florida with a Bachelor's Degree in English (minor in Creative Writing). Currently working as an Accounting Specialist at Florida State College at Jacksonville, while making a life of my writing career.