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For Many, Celebrating Black History Also Means Dealing with Trauma

Dr. Cleveland Sellers at the 2022 Orangeburg Massacre Commemorative Program at South Carolina State University.
During the 2022 Orangeburg Massacre Commemorative program at SC State University, survivor and activist, Dr. Cleveland Sellers shared that this year will likely be his last participating in a speaker's capacity. He shared how anxiety, because of the 1968 event, played and continues to play a role in his life.

“Sometimes is kind of peeling off a scab, a wound that’s been trying to heal for a hundred years or more. Sometimes it’s joyous; its beautiful to know and celebrate Black history and Black history achievements, but sometimes its very traumatizing.”

Documentary filmmaker and historian Julian Gooding shares personal stories to help create spaces for conversations about trauma and mental health. He said as a child he witnessed his father’s struggle with depression which he connects to his family’s leaving the South for a better life.

“He didn’t want to be a sharecropper. He didn’t want to be abused or maybe end up on a chain-gang because he was out too late at night.”

Gooding’s family was one of countless Black families who uprooted and moved North. His family landed in Washington, DC where he saw his father “self-medicate” with alcohol and deal with triggering events.

“I knew he was scared, but he wanted to be an example for me to stand up to oppression. He understood microaggressions and what they really meant before we were even talking about microaggressions.”

Its estimated that 70 percent of adults experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. According to the CDC, traumatic events are marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death. Experiences like natural disasters, acts of violence, as well as car crashes and other accidents can all be traumatic. Gooding adds, for many, celebrating and commemorating the stories that make up African-American history can also be traumatic.

“Often times, during Black History Month, people want to never forget and showcase these stories, but for many people, you can have flashbacks, you can have fear, you can have frustration.”

There are no shortages of African-American stories in South Carolina. One, the Orangeburg Massacre, brings survivors, college students and local communities together to remember the young lives lost in February of 1968. During this year's commemorative program survivor, Dr. Cleveland Sellers, shared this year will likely be his last participating in a speaker's capacity.

I’m going to make this the last time that I have to go through the anxiety and all to come to a program like this. So, I’ll have to come and I’ll have to sit way in the back, because it’s not good for me. I just want you to know that we have everybody in our hearts. All the survivors and we know the pain and suffering that you go through. Most people don’t know about the PTSD that we all go through, but we have to fight through that.
Dr. Cleveland Sellers

Recounting these stories, Gooding said, is sometimes like "peeling off a scab, a wound that’s been trying to heal for a hundred years or more. Sometimes it’s joyous; its beautiful to know and celebrate Black history and Black history achievements, but sometimes its very traumatizing,” he added.

Gooding is also a librarian at the Wando Mount Pleasant Library. He recently hosted a virtual open discussion on mental health in Black communities. The three-part discussion called Black Minds Matter focuses on generational trauma, the pressure on Black men to excel in sports, instead of academics, and the effects of imposter syndrome.

Gooding believes in many ways, African-Americans are just finding their voice. After the first two discussions, he said there was a lot of silence, but that he was also encouraged.

“I can see the numbers that people are attending; a lot of people are listening. And then a lot of people will email and say they loved the conversation.”

One participant was Melvin Graham, brother of the late Cynthia Graham-Hurd, one of the nine church members killed during the racist attack on Mother Emmanuel Church in in 2015. During the Zoom discussion, Graham shared how that traumatic event continues to impact his family.

“You’re just in a very self-destructive mode about everything. You drive everyone away from you.” You just do things to hurt other people, because you’re in pain.”

Gooding said, as painful as it may be, more conversations on mental health are needed.

“We have to stop and really have more conversations about just how deep in our psyche that colonization, the years of enslavement, Jim Crow, the construct of race- how far it goes back.”

He said he's hoping these conversations will continue to take place, as more people grow comfortable talking about trauma and mental illness.

Thelisha Eaddy is a reporter/producer for South Carolina Public Radio.