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A Time for Healing


- Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!     When the sun is bright on the upland slopes; When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass, And the river flows like a stream of glass;     When the first bird sings and the first bud opes, And the faint perfume from its chalice steals— I know what the caged bird feels!

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;     And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars    And they pulse again with a keener sting— I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,— When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee,     But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings!

I will never fully understand.  No matter how much I listen, no matter how much I read, no matter what I do to try to put myself in another's shoes... I will never fully understand.  I will always see through the lens of one who grew up in a two-parent home located in a White, middle-class community in the United States of America. 

I remember when my daughter was born, her dad’s first reaction was a sigh of relief.  He expressed to me he was glad she was so light-skinned. Ironically, I was disappointed she wasn’t darker.  What I didn’t fully comprehend at the time was where his relief came from.  In his perspective, he believed she would likely fair better in life because of her skin tone.  I was still too idealistic to fully understand the gravity of all of this.

While I can empathize, my lens can not fathom what it is like to live, not just every day but for generations, having to think twice about my every action; be looked at as “less than” or a criminal if I enter certain communities or businesses; witness (often at a very young age) my friends and family suffer brutally at the hands of others because of the color of my skin.

When one is born into a family and community where stress, fear, and trauma are present, the lens with which one sees the world is dramatically different. From the very beginning of life (even in utero) the brain and other developmental responses are distinct.  This is a reality regardless of the color of one's skin.  Layer structural racism, poverty, issues of food security, disparities of income, and access to fundamental resources on top of this. We are now talking about a person being born into this world who has a higher likelihood of suffering from depression or other mental illnesses, obesity, and other diseases and has limited access to shift this reality.  The way the brain processes words and sights is different.  While not all Blacks in this country face each of these challenges, these are realities for a disproportionate number of Blacks compared to Whites and even people in other minority groups.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m in distress and know that there is a solution to my struggles, yet that answer is kept back from me unnecessarily, I get angry.  I want to fight for what I should be able to attain.  When my fight is met with greater resistance and I’m continually told, ‘you can’t have it,’ my response often goes one of two ways - heightened anger or resignation. This is normal human behavior.

Most Whites do not have to struggle for everyday basic necessities, yet many Blacks do.  The struggle comes not because of an incapability or poverty, but rather because our society has set up institutions and structures that deliberately hold Blacks back.  The finger is then pointed and they are blamed. It is pointed at the things visually seen, yet everything that has brought them to this place is ignored.

I am not condoning acts of aggression nor am I removing individual responsibility for people's actions or conditions.  What I am saying is that the problem is much more complex than our brains want to acknowledge, and this is an uncomfortable place for many to sit in.  We want to be able to remove our own responsibility and find a way to neatly package the issue, putting the blame on others so we do not have to examine ourselves or put in the effort to bring about change.  When we really take time to reflect on what is going on, we realize this is deep…deeper than any one of us can change individually.


Each of us longs for these states to be present in our lives and nation and yet for Blacks in the United States they can almost feel like empty promises.  After hundreds of years of struggle, resistance (peaceful and violent), laws and policies, and so-called actions taken to bring equality, the disparities in our nation are still too great.  They will remain this way until we get to the roots of the issue.

Getting to one of these roots is through the lens of wellness.  If you remember my health tip on mental health, you recall I talked about the flight, fight or freeze response and its impact on our mental and physical health.  Today I’m taking this one step further and integrating a discussion on epigenetics and the state of our nation.

Epigenetics is the science of the impact on one's external environment on gene expression.  It is a relatively new field (or at least in terms of acceptance within the scientific and medical communities) but the research has had significant impacts on understanding human behavior and disease.

Trauma - which can arise from physical, emotional or sexual abuse, bullying, unrelenting racism, the loss of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, poverty, divorce, or a myriad of other circumstances -  changes everything.  It shifts our reactions to the environment around us, our ability to process information, our understanding of ourselves, and our place within the community – aspects comprising identity.  People who experience trauma, especially repeated traumas, are at greater risk for suffering from emotional dysregulations such as aggression, addiction, depression, and anxiety as well as physical illnesses such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other inflammatory illnesses.

Early research suggests trauma actually turns on or off certain gene expressions in one's DNA and then can be passed down through generations.  This means that people who have been harmed by a stressful childhood, resulting in epigenetic changes to their genome, can pass those genetic alterations down to their offspring. As a result, their children might also have an abnormal, excessive stress response and a heightened risk of mental and physical illnesses.

One thing we’re learning...

Epigenetics shows that when it comes to genetic mutations and the negative impacts on our bodies, there is hope.  These mutations are reversible!  Through nutrition, counseling/emotional support, exercise, prayer/meditation/mindfulness, and other deliberate actions, we can reset our DNA.  This reset positively impacts the life of the person who has made the change and can be passed down to generations.

As a society, we need to put that same intentionality into righting the wrongs of racism, dismantling the structures that continue to oppress, seeking to understand, listening, and honoring all people for the unique gifts they bring to this world.  When we do this, change is possible in our nation.  We need this type of change.  We’ve always needed it, but now it’s more important than ever.  We need this healing to stop the violence, to restore life, and to ensure all are able to live healthy and free.  In this time of the pandemic, the added stressors of the anger, pain, unforgiveness, and despair only weaken our immune systems and put us at greater risk for higher numbers of mortality rates. We can’t afford to lose any more lives in such reckless ways.

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,— When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee,     But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings!

Yes, I know why the caged bird sings and I long for her freedom just as much as she does.  Each of us has a part to play…yes, each of us…. So what is your part?

In love and health.....


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