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May 24, 2024 32 mins

Vanessa Tyler talks with journalist Lee Hawkins (Wall Street Journal) about family history and ending the cycle of trauma that Black History can cause.

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
Painful secrets, very deep in a family's history. Who would
want to dig it up, turn it over, examine what happened?
Why a family is what it is, the good and
the bad.

Speaker 2 (00:14):
So when I heard my father have nightmare, screaming out
like a little boy, and my mother waking him up
and saying, le Lee, Roy, you're having a dream, you
know in the morning. You know, one time I got
the courage to ask him, Dad, what we're dreaming about?
And he said, Alabama's son, Alabama?

Speaker 1 (00:30):
What happened in Alabama? Now on black Land and now
as a brown person, you just feel so invisible where
we're from. Brothers and sisters. I welcome you to this
joyful day and we celebrate freedom.

Speaker 2 (00:46):
Where we are, I know someone's heard something and where
we're going.

Speaker 1 (00:52):
We the people means all the people.

Speaker 2 (00:54):
The Black Information Network presents Blackland with your host, Vanessa T. Lee.

Speaker 1 (01:01):
Hawkins is a journalist. He's an author, documentarian, and he
decided to go down that dark road looking for the
light and it led him to Alabama. Lee, Welcome to Blackland.

Speaker 2 (01:15):
Hello, thanks for having me today, Vanessa Lee.

Speaker 1 (01:19):
What happened in Alabama?

Speaker 2 (01:21):
Well, you know, this was a project that I started
a decade ago, and my father was a native of Alabama.
He was born there, raised there in the nineteen fifties,
and left point he was twelve when his mother tragically
died of a kidney infection. And so this project really
digs into not just my grandmother's death and the impact

on my father as a young child, but I went
four hundred years into the past to really dig up
all of the things that led up to my family's
experience in Jim Crow Alabama, which I recognized was in
apartheid system. It wasn't what I thought Alabama was and
what segregation was. You know, a lot of us, if

you're like me and you have a parent, or if
you were a Jim Crow survivor or someone, or you
have people in your family who grew up under Jim Crow.
A lot of times the narrative is that the worst
of it was that black folks had to be separated
from white folks and that, oh, that was the torment
of Jim Crow. No, the truth of Jim Crow was
that it involved violence against our people, economic, the healthcare system,

everything from whipping to murders to lynching to sexual assault,
all of those things and that's what happened in Alabama.
And this project really goes into the trauma, but it
also goes into the resilience and the self determination that
black Americans, and especially this family of Black Americans responded with.

Speaker 1 (02:56):
What happened in Alabama is the title of your new podcast,
and it's also the stuff of your father's nightmares.

Speaker 2 (03:03):
Yes it is. You know, when I was growing up,
my father used to have nightmares sometimes. And you know,
we really think about that generation of Baby Boomer black men,
greatest generation black men. They were upright, strong, tall black
men who worked and had a strong work ethic and
did the best that they could to provide for their families.

And so I looked up to my father a great deal.
He was my John Henry, and I really wanted to
emulate him. So when I heard my father have nightmare,
screaming out like a little boy, and my mother waking
him up and saying, leroy, leroy, you're having a dream,
you know in the morning. You know, one time I
got the courage to ask him, Dad, what we're dreaming about,

and he said, Alabama's son, Alabama, And.

Speaker 1 (03:50):
That started it all, leading Lee Hawkins down a road
he's been traveling for years what happened in Alabama.

Speaker 2 (03:57):
And that was something that triggered a lifetime of curiosity
in me. And it wasn't until ancestry dot Com and
family Tree DNA and all of these different DNA testing
and family tree building services came up that I was
able to start to dig in. And I also really
dug in with my father and to help my father

understand the secrets that were kept from him, and then
to help me understand the secrets that he kept from me.
Because Vanessa, I think one of the biggest things that
I want people to know about this podcast is if
you were beat as a child, you need to listen
to this podcast, and you need to pre order my book,
Nobody Slave, How Uncovering My Family's history Set Me Free,

which comes out in January, Because what I do with
this is I start to unpack the reasons so many
African American parents use the belt on their children and
to understand that it wasn't just about this idea that
black children are doomed failure, but it was really a
reflection of the system that we were a part of,

and this idea that our parents rationalized beatings on the
basis of everything that they had been through and everything
people in generations before them had been through. And you know,
I think that in this podcast, I really give my
self permission. And also my little sister Tiffany, she's in
the podcast.

Speaker 3 (05:25):
You know, it's just like them coming home from work,
like is that all the chores done? Like what kind
of mood are they going to be in? Like are
we going to get yelled at or be today or
you know what's going to happen? You never knew you
were constantly having to live with this, you know, fear,
and you had no control over how what was going

to happen?

Speaker 2 (05:47):
Right, And then our parents would come home and they
were like military inspectors and they would go over. Mom
would go over and make sure if there was a
you know, if there was a smudge on the mirror,
and that meant you were gonna go she was gonna
come into your room, drag you out into the living
room and beat you down and tell you that was

just to mirror her. It's so crazy because yeah, and
we left now because there's that thin line between comedy
and tragedies, we give ourselves permission to say, you know what,
that was wrong and we're going to break this cycle,
but we understand where it came from, and I think
that we need to start to really probe that. And

this podcast and this book is going to help people
understand the history behind all of those whipmans people took.

Speaker 1 (06:37):
You grew up in Maplewood, Minnesota, which is, you know
something that we don't really hear a lot for black folks.
And you had, of course two hard working parents, middle
class parents, You had two sisters, You had plenty of love,
but as you started to talk about, you also had
plenty of abuse. So I mean, how bad was.

Speaker 2 (06:59):
It Well, I mean relative to a lot of people
I knew and kids that I knew. If I didn't
think it was bad and I didn't think it was abused,
and I don't think in the black community many of
the people who use corporal punishment see it as abuse.
And so that's the first part that we really have
to start to unpack. You know, it took many years,

and you people will have to listen to the podcast
to really understand the death of how I got to
that place where I did finally understand that even though
I was a black child, I shouldn't have gone through
that experience, and that no black child.

Speaker 1 (07:38):
Should, no child should, but many do. The beatings have
crossed the line into abuse. LI sees our painful past
in that too.

Speaker 2 (07:47):
Give ourselves permission to understand the reasons it happened, but
also to understand that black children have bodily integrity, and
that we never want to be put ourselves in a position,
for instance, where a father is using violence against a
black daughter, and what does that really tell her as

a young woman about men and how to receive love
for men. I'm not saying that black parents, and my
parents especially didn't love their children, but the system that
we were enslaved under and the system that we lived
apartheid under, taught us that every generation, a black parent

needs to keep that black child in line. And so
on one hand, we say that we despise the discrimination
of the police and the violence that the police use
against our people, but at the same time, the whipping
culture the part of and I'm not saying that every

black family does this, but the black families that do.
The whipping culture that we now and in previous generations
have imposed on our children is really in compliance with
the very law enforcement system that we claim to actually
be in protest. Now we're doing exactly what they as

what I believe the modern overseer is telling them to
do to our children. And that is something that's a
deep issue, and it's something that we really have to
start to be responsible about and start to look at
what are the long term of implications of this on
our children. You know, not just from a standpoint of
it's not about the welts that you get when you

get hit with the belt, but it's really about that
anticipation of getting hit with the belt. You know, some
of the biggest stress Vanessa. I know you're a prominent
journalist and you've had deadline pressure. I've had some very
serious deadline pressure, very very stressful job. But one of
the things about it is none of the stress that
I've had in terms of paying bills and being an adult,

has anywhere has been anywhere close to the the stress
that I felt as a child being in a home
where you didn't know at any time when the next
beating would come, Especially if you knew that you did
something and mom and dad were going to come home
and you just knew for that five to six hour
period that a beating was coming. That's a form of

toxic stress. It's almost the same as if someone were
to put a gun to an adult's head. It's a
level of stress and trauma that black children many times
go through over and over and over and over for
a period of eighteen years. And by the time you
come out of that process of that eighteen years of

chronic stress and cortisol going through your system and not
really knowing when the next outburst is going to be,
you're already halfway to a heart attack, halfway to diabetes,
and halfway possibly to cancer.

Speaker 1 (10:52):
Lisays, there's research and what these beatings would do. The
trauma is real and can be measured.

Speaker 2 (10:58):
So what I did was I took my personal experience
and I combined it with research going back four hundred years,
but also research of modern science and what we know
and now we know better, so we need to do better.

Speaker 1 (11:12):
There's always been questions about why black people have an anxiety,
most importantly, why we have high blood pressure, which seems
to be like nine out of ten of us. So
you're kind of relating all of this back as we
dig deeper into the core of all these things, going
back to Jim Crow, going back to slavery, that's a.

Speaker 2 (11:35):
Really good question, Vanessa, and I think that, yes, I
think that if you look at slavery, for instance, and
all the way to Jim Crow, every black child, and
I'm talking about Black American descendants of slavery, now, those
of us who descend from people who went through slavery

and Jim Crow, every black child has gone through trauma
all the way from of course slavery, right, so that
we have that generation, you know, eighteen generations of our
family and then five generations of Jim Crow. So if
you were under enslavement, of course you went through childhood trauma,

and that would qualify for the Adverse Childhood Experiences study.
If you went through Jim Crow and lived under an
apartheid system, of course, then you went through childhood trauma
that would have a negative effect on your body and
your mind. And then if you went through some of
us who went through integration. I mean, you mentioned that

I grew up in Maplewood, Minnesota, but I was also very,
very active in the black community, and if I didn't
have that black community to offset some of the challenges
that I was experiencing every day as one of the
few black kids in my school who managed somehow to
become the class president all four years, and my sister

was a class president all three years and then became
the homecoming queen. That was a lot of pressure that
we were under. And so the integration experience also to
avoid becoming the next Filando Castill or the next George Floyd.
Every black boy in Minnesota who lives only steps away
from where those men were killed, we have to go.

We had to go through a lot of trauma. We
had to always be thinking about our next step. You know,
we weren't black boys from Philadelphia. We weren't black boys
from la or black boys from the Bronx. We didn't
have black teachers. We had to fight the battles of
black people every day if we were dignified, strong black men.

And so my point is that the stress of being
African American is real. And there have been over fifty
counties in this nation who have said that racism is
a public health crisis. And the way that this told,
that this has taken on our bodies is something to

take seriously. And the last thing I'll say on this
is that we have to accept that equality. Racial equality
is a new concept in America. It's only been sixty
years that black people have been equal to white people
on paper. America has only been trying for sixty years

to look to look fair for only sixty years. And
so as America continues to struggle and try to come
to terms with this notion that black people would be
equal to white people, we're still going through those growing pains,
and a lot of us have been caught up in

the middle. Not in slavery and Jim Crow, but in
modern times. It's still very real today.

Speaker 1 (14:59):
But let's get ba to Alabama. Once you did your research,
you found some frightening things that happened in your family tree.

Speaker 2 (15:09):
Yes, you know. One of the biggest things, Vanessa, was
that every generation since eighteen thirty seven, I've had a
family member murdered. And most of the murders in my
family were over one of two things, land or lifestyle
or both. And the crime that my family members committed

was basically entrepreneurship and daring to be perfectionist and bursting
out of slavery with a vengeance, wanting to own and
to be free, and this American dream that was promised
to everyone. We decided that we wanted to be a
part of it, and I had family members murdered as

a result of that.

Speaker 1 (15:57):
Researching what life was like for black people come out
of slavery shows a rough, tough, unfair life, but there
was one thing in their lives that was priceless, their freedom.

Speaker 2 (16:10):
And I think that we have to start to look
at that period coming out of slavery and the reconstruction period,
where black people essentially were taking home. I mean, black
people had We were the carpenters, we were the seamstresses,
we were the people with the real skilled labor and
the hard work ethic. And if you look at the

legislatures in the South, I mean there were many, many
prominent black leaders who were rising up in government. And
then that's when Jim Crow really started to come in
and be instituted, and there were laws made, you know,
to basically put us into another form of slavery. But
the part that I don't think that people understand, and

I didn't understand before I did this work, was that
we had the slave codes during slavery, and so that
was a code that governed the behavior of black people.
And I'll give you an example. No more than four
black people could be together without the presence of a
white person, and if they were found to have that

fifth person, that meant that they had to get whipped
between thirty nine to one hundred lashes, if they were
found reading and writing thirty nine to one hundred lashes,
and that whipping culture went all the way into the
black coldes some black people who I believe are still

in that slave mentality, which I call the bondage belief system.
That when people subscribe to the Bondage belief system, they
have a very hard time seeing other Black people exercise
their authenticity and their autonomy, and that to me, is
a reflection of slavery. And so this book goes very

the podcast does, but the book goes very deep into
that mental process and how far we have to go
and how much we have to think consciously about decolonizing
our minds so that we can finally really get free.
And that's what I'm trying to do, not only for myself,
but also for my black people, who I love so much.

I love my people, and I want to see our
children really free.

Speaker 1 (18:28):
Here, of course are award winning journalists and former writer
for the Wall Street Journal, but you have this training
with the mental health field as well, which is something
that is very unique. And you were talking about how
we're doing, how are we doing psychologically? As you know
here we are today twenty twenty four, we have a

lot of issues that we're dealing with. We're still dealing
with voting issues, so all these issues are still on
the table. What is that doing to us? And then
of course there is the crime issue that is very
difficult for many of us to wrap our hands around,
especially with these young people and the shooting and the
violence and innocent people being killed. So it's a very

difficult time for us psychologically right now.

Speaker 2 (19:15):
Yes, Vanessa, I'm so glad that you mentioned it. It's
a lot to unpack. And yeah, I do want to
thank you for noting my mental health background. I want
to give a shout out to the Carter Center, which
I'm a fellow with, and then also the USC Annenberg
Fellowship for Childhood Well Being Reporting, which I did in
twenty eighteen, and all of that prepared me for this.

So I say that to tell you this, I feel
that when I really look back four hundred years from
now to when our initial ancestors came here, black people
have done really well, you know, and from a mental
health standpoint, not because of America, but despite America, and

the strength that we have had has been because of
our collaboration in the extent to which we built strong
communities and we supported each other. We found ways to
buy homes when we were redlined, and when we went
through racial covenants. We put together the Civil Rights movement,

which forced America to live up to the Constitution and
the ideals in it. Every positive step forward, from women's
suffrage to the passage of the sixty four Act for
Civil Rights has been led by Black people, and we
carried this nation on our back. So I'm proud of that.
But so I say that to say that despite going

through all of that takes a toll. And you're right
to mention a lot of the modern pressures that we
see not just on Black people, but our young people
in general. And three American children are struggling right now
with mental health issues. And what do they say when
the nation such is a cold black people catch pneumonia.

We see suicide rates up exponentially, especially among black boys.
We're seeing the homicide rate continuing. We've had over two
hundred and eighty thousand black men murdered since nineteen eighty,
which is more than five times the number of casualties

in the Vietnam War. And so, Vanessa, I'm so happy
that you pointed that out, because I think it's just
it's a challenge, especially in the Black community, of the elites,
you know, the journalists, the pundits, the professors. If you
put most of us on CNN or MSNBC and we're

in a debate with someone who's trying to discredit the
Black Lives Matter movement, they'll say, well, what about the
crime in the black community, And most of us will say, well,
that's not an issue. That's not an issue. All crime
is intraracial, and every white person is more likely to
kill a white person. A Asian person is more likely

to kill an Asian person because of proximity. But you
know what, that's not in my case. We have to
be honest that per capita, it's the highest in our community,
and the reason it is is because of the political, social,
and economic injustice. But I'll take it a step further.
It's also because of the mental health crisis that a
lot of our young people who are killing each other

are dealing with the self hatred that goes all the
way back through that to slavery and spun forward the
whole idea of identity, to the point that if you
can't look yourself in the mirror as a black man
and really come to terms with all of the demons
and all of the different things, you know, maybe your
father wasn't there, maybe you went through different kinds of

trauma that you haven't come to terms with. If you
can't come to terms with that and look your self
in the mirror, you're gonna hate your own reflection when
you see another black boy. And I would say that
a lot of the public perception is that so much
of our homicides are about indiscriminate gang violence, and that

couldn't be furthest from the truth. I think that there
are a lot of black men who every day have
to look out for other black men who are not
doing well and who are just frankly mad and jealous
because they're not in a good position in their own lives.
And so this is a crisis for any black male
who is serious about life and who is looking to

move ahead. We don't just have to worry about the police.
We have to worry about our own people. I'll even
go back to nineteen eighty two, when I was eleven
years old. The song the message don't push me because
I'm close to the edge. I'm trying not to lose
my head. Aha. It's like a jungle sometimes it makes

me wonder how I keep from going under. That was
to me the mental health battle cry for the black
young black man of that generation.

Speaker 1 (24:12):
Lee Hawkins says, researching, reporting, producing the podcast What Happened
in Alabama revealed to him the African proverb it takes
a village to raise a child is true now more
than ever. We all must be responsible for our children.

Speaker 2 (24:28):
If it's not going to be a church, okay, there
has to be somewhere where black people can take their
children every day, every once a week to be around
other black children as family structures. No matter what that
family looks like. It doesn't have to be mother and father.
It can be mother, it could be father, it could

be whatever it is today. Because I know things are
coming in different iterations, but somehow we have to have
our community together because that is what actually helped us
in those periods of Jim Crow and before. It was
that collaboration and when I was a kid growing up
in Maplewood, I knew that my confidence had to be

a level twelve because when I went to school and
that that predominantly white school, it was going to be
knocked down to elevel nine. And so I knew that
the school system would break me down, but every Sunday,
my community would build me up.

Speaker 4 (25:39):
One of the issue for us is tracing back to
the roots of our family trees, meaning how do we
do it with little know knowledge beyond from many of us,
it's beyond our grandparents.

Speaker 1 (25:53):
That's about as far into history that we know. Is
it necessary for us to dig deep in the past
like you did, to go all the way back to
Alabama to find out what happened in Alabama for us
to have a good future.

Speaker 2 (26:09):
I think so, Vanessa. I mean, you and I are
in a field where we ask questions for a living,
so maybe we're a little biased on that. But you know,
for my person, I'll just I can't speak for everybody,
but I'll tell you my book, I am nobody slave.
How uncovering my family history set me free really shows

that I needed to do this work because I was
that curious person, and I think that black people in
general were spiritual people. Many times we're feeling people were
expressive people, and we do. We're the best activists in
the history of this nation, Black American descendants of slavery

and Jim Crow, and at our core we are people
who questioned the And I think that if you're that
your spirit will never really be as settled as it
could be if you don't have the answers to the questions.
And I will tell you that it was no accident.
There was an institutional agenda to keep Black people ignorant

about their past. You know. Frederick Douglas writes about how
one of the worst questions you could ask in enslaver
or overseer was about the day you were born or
about the people who came before you, because they didn't.
They wanted you to be genealogically disillusioned, so that you

didn't have that sense of pride and who you were,
or to even know who you were. That was strategic.
If you look at the movie Roots, you know, that
was one of the hardest movies for me to watch
as a six year old boy when I saw Kunta
Kintay what's your name, Kunta? And I saw the extent

to which they had to whip that pride and that
dignity and that heritage and his understanding of who he
was and where he came from, that he came from,
you know, he was standing on the shoulders of giants.
They had to change that, they had to take his
name from him, they had to do all of those things.
And so I think that not just to go back

to slavery, but also to try our best to get
these DNA tests and figure out where we are from
West Africa where you know where, and then start to
study Congo and to study Nigeria, and to study Senegal,
and to study all of these places across the African
continent that we hail from, to start to just get

an understanding of who we are. You know, how our
people got to America. Once they were in America, what
did they do, what did they accomplish? What was their philosophy?
And the dark things that happened? Was it because they
hated us? You know a lot of times when we
were kids, my sister and I, we thought our mother
hated us. And when I did this work, I was

able to understand and have compassion and empathy for my
mother as a black woman and everything that she went
through because she dealt with a lot of chauvinism from
my grandfather, and he was a good man as well,
but he was socialized in America as a black American man,
and at that time, that's what it was. And so

it's very important to understand genealogy, so you understand the
positive things that you can derive from your family history
and to go and run towards those things and then
the negative things so you can start to eliminate that
from your bloodline and break a cycle of three hundred

years of trauma just from making one decision. So for instance, saying, hey,
we decided we're not going to whip our children. Hey
we decided that if our son or daughter decides that
they want to play lacrosse and go to an Ivy
League school, well then we're going to let them do it.
We're not going to tell them that they're not being
black enough because they decided to do that.

Speaker 1 (30:13):
And you have the book coming out, like you mentioned,
Nobody's Slave. When will that be out? And please please
tell us how we can hear your podcast.

Speaker 2 (30:22):
Okay, thank you so much. The book I Am Nobody's Slave,
How Uncovering My Family's history sent Me Free comes out
January twenty twenty five. But please, if you can preorder
it now, I should tell you that my real agenda
is to start to spread this message across Black America.

And I said, if you were someone who received the
belt when you were a kid, you must read this book.
And the way to really enhance the visibility of this
book is to get the pre orders, so then I
will get good placement on Amazon and the different sites
when it comes out. Can buy the book great and
the podcast what Happened in Alabama dot org. What Happened

in Alabama dot org is where you can find the
first three episodes of What Happened in Alabama the ten
part podcast series So Yeah.

Speaker 1 (31:18):
Lee Hawkins Award winning journalist and producer of ten part
podcast series What Happened in Alabama and What Happened There
can punt and educate us all.

Speaker 2 (31:31):
Lee, thank you, thank you for this tremendous opportunity. Please
continue to amplify black stories. I want to thank you
so much, and I want to also say that I
don't do this myself. I have a great team behind me,
and it's just another example of us working together, you know,
as a people, to move our people forward. I love

you all and thank you so much. Vanessa.

Speaker 1 (31:56):
Be sure to like and subscribe to Blackland on the
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