There is so much power and healing that can be found in understanding intergenerational trauma. Being of both Métis and Jamaican ancestry, both my bloodlines know it well.
My Métis mother raised me. I grew up on Indigenous land and have been brought up in community and with elders. Because of this, I had an early awareness of how residential school systems, genocide and racism have impacted — and continue to impact — Indigenous people. This awareness shaped my attitude, for the better, towards my Indigenous family members with whom I grew up.
However, I had only really been taught to think of intergenerational trauma in terms of my Indigeneity. Having had virtually no early immersion in Black communities; no access to Black elders or Jamaican culture; and little formal education on the pervasiveness of slavery practices, I did not have the capacity to afford the same understanding, love and forgiveness to those whom I owe my Blackness to.
‘A pattern of trauma spanning generations’
My father had been the only Black role model I had in my formative years. I now am 24 years old, and I have resented him for the majority of my life. What I have to say is not intended to defame my father, but his actions impact my story — the trauma of abandonment and abuse; the poverty my family endured in the absence of his legally required financial contributions; the difficulties I had embracing my Jamaican identity.
Having stereotypes of Black men affirmed in my father affected how I related to other Black men, and contributed to my internalization of anti-Blackness. Unlike the support from my Indigenous family and community I had while navigating anti-Indigenous racism, I had no such support when facing the anti-Black racism I experienced growing up in rural and Southern Alberta. I was constantly made aware of how undesirably different I was, and I had no language to articulate how I felt or what was happening to me.
The pit my father left in my racial and cultural identity stifled my participation in Jamaican culture, too. Even after having my daughter at 21 years old, I found myself too uncomfortable, even anxious, to engage in Jamaican culture the way she deserves. Carrying the privilege she does as a White-passing child with Black ancestry, I feel it is especially important for her to understand her position and responsibilities to her Jamaican lineage.
My resentment deepened the more I blamed my father.
And then, about a year ago, I learned how my father was treated by his own father. I learned about the traumatizing pain, alienation and emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of a man who had a child, but never fathered. This revelation led me to critical, guilt-ridden self-reflection. Why, at no moment before this, had I applied what I know about intergenerational trauma to my own father’s lineage?
“Understanding what happened to my ancestors, and ultimately my father, helped me start letting go of the resentment.”
I started doing more intensive research on slavery. One study specifically explored the history of traditional family units from West Africa, where many Jamaican slaves like my ancestors were brought from. It showed me how slave practices, including separating fathers from their families while leaving babies with their mothers, continue to impact modern-day Afro-Jamaican fatherhood. I also learned how the forcible loss of traditional names — in which fathers consistently played varied but significant roles — contributed to the deterioration of African identity, and especially fathers’. There is no shortage of studies that reflect similar findings.
Neither will I uphold harmful stereotypes of “absent Black fathers,” nor will I make excuses for fathers bringing pain and trauma to their children; however, these studies painted a picture that, for me, led to a deeper, more empathetic understanding of the deeply rooted systemic barriers Black men and families face.
Understanding what happened to my ancestors, and ultimately my father, helped me start letting go of the resentment and self-blame I had carried all my life. This was no longer about a single father’s love or ability to care for his daughter — I now understand that my relationship to my father existed within a pattern of trauma spanning generations.
The thing about patterns is that it takes just one decision, one act, one person to disrupt them — and that’s exactly what I set out to do.
I began by fostering a genuine relationship with one of my first Black male mentors, Dr. Lorne Foster, one of Canada’s leading anti-racist researchers. Employing teachings of Indigenous elders, I approached Dr. Foster with the intent of “how can I support you?” Through his mentorship and friendship, I saw what a healthy Black man can be to his family and to his community, and what infectious pride in one’s ancestry looks like.
I also engaged with others whose experiences mirrored my own. A research project offered me the opportunity to connect with 11 other Black-Indigenous people. For many of us, it was the first time we had met others who shared a similar heritage. For five days we discussed and researched our most intimate, painful reflections of our ancestry and identities. This act of communal healing helped validate my feelings and gave me the language I needed to articulate them.
Then came the difficult conversations with my father’s Jamaican family. It was a dual process of working out my internalized prejudices and overcoming the shame over my cultural disconnect — of not knowing how to make peas and rice, or having never been to Jamaica, or not fully understanding how to keep my natural hair. As we rebuilt our relationship, our difficult conversations flowed more easily. I came to understand more of my father and the challenges my family faced coming to Canada from Jamaica.
For the first time I could see the resilience of my Jamaican family, just as I could see it in my Indigenous ancestry.
My father has done some seemingly unforgivable things, but I don’t carry the pain with me anymore. He has never asked about his granddaughter, but it’s OK. I’ve seen him twice since I was 10 years old, and that too is OK. I am not at a point where I have been able to actively reconnect with my father, but in creating space to learn and love his family as my family, I love all people more passionately, I forgive more liberally, and I’m a more self-confident woman and community member.
I now recognize that it is not only intergenerational trauma that defines my ancestries; my bloodlines know intergenerational resilience as well. It is with this resilience that I choose to move forward, disrupting the patterns of trauma as a daughter, mother and future ancestor.
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