Last month, I reflected on the development of Bodies in Play as a philosophy and artistic practice. I wrote of the politicization and discrimination of bodies and of the pursuit of becoming a better citizen. While these ideas sound nice in theory, they speak nothing to the application of a citizenship-minded body-based practice. What does Bodies in Play look like in action? The answer is multi-faceted and too vast to tackle in one reflection, but I’ll attempt to outline one example below.
I recently listened to an interview with Civil Rights Activist Ruby Sales in which she recounted the incident that solidified her role in activism: After being released from jail for picketing a whites-only store, Ruby and two fellow marchers were stopped by a white man with a shotgun. He aimed and shot at Ruby, who survived thanks to Jonathan Daniels who pushed her out of the way, taking the bullet himself. He died instantly and for months after the attack, Ruby remained mute - silent, with the exception of her own thoughts.
She recalled: “I could not speak. I was traumatized. I was trying to make sense out of being a survivor. I was trying to make sense out of Jonathan’s death, and so I just really went inside of myself and just shut down and would not talk.”
Ruby’s story got me contemplating about the idea of silence and bigotry. We call those who denounce sexism, racism, homophobia, or other forms of hate “Allies”, especially if they don’t personally face the same adversities being denounced. A straight person against homophobia, a cis-gendered person against transphobia, a non-disabled person against able-ism, or, in the case of Ruby’s savior Jonathan Daniels, a white person against racism. However, unlike Jonathan, far too often we are quick to identify ourselves as an “Ally” simply for not actively participating in hateful rhetoric, as if not being outwardly derogatory is the equivalent to acting out against it.
So as “Allies”, why don’t we more readily speak up?
Fear? That we will subject ourselves to ridicule (at best) or violence (at worst)?
Ignorance? Not having the tools or knowledge to fight back?
Apathy? For not being personally affected?
Or (most likely) a combination of all of these?
But Ruby brings up one idea that is rarely discussed: Surviving Trauma.
The concept of intergenerational trauma, in which post-traumatic stress can be passed down to our children, grandchildren, and beyond, has been studied and identified among populations with extreme historical trauma such as slavery and the Holocaust. While much of this trauma is believed to be passed through behavioral and psychological mechanisms, there is also evidence to suggest the transmission of trauma is genetic. Trauma can have an affect on one’s cellular makeup, literally integrating post-traumatic stress into the body of a survivor. When this passing of trauma becomes widespread and perpetual among an oppressed community, we call it cultural trauma.
But what if cultural trauma extends beyond the oppressed community? What is the reverberation of trauma among all citizens, oppressed or not? Could our entire society be collectively traumatized by a history of hate? Even if we have not been a direct recipient of discrimination, bigotry, or a hateful attack, what kind of scars remain from witnessing hate? What scars remain from inflicting hate? Are we all, in some small way, survivors of our country’s traumatic past? And if so, is this subconscious trauma keeping us mute against today's hate?
These are the kind of questions I want to explore in my practice. Through the process of personal physical investigation and communal physical exchange can we uncover genetic trauma? Can we do so in a way that protects us (and our audiences/students/colleagues) from further trauma, as some shame-based practices might inflict? Most importantly, if trauma is keeping us silent, what can the body communicate that words cannot?
If Healing is the antonym for Trauma, maybe a playful body can be part of the cure.