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Who Am I Outside of My Trauma Identity?

In an excerpt from her new book, Black Joy, author Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts reflects on a pivotal moment of self-discovery.

author tracey michael lewis giggets
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

I wish I could tell you what it was. The thing that Randall or Kate or Kevin said that triggered this response in me. All I know is something happened with one of the characters in the popular television show, This is Us, at the height of the second act and my body began to tingle.

What in the world?

Then a warmth overcame me and all I wanted to do was smile. Hard. I mean, a full-out cheese-fest with no one in the room.

So I did it. I cheesed. And then I laughed. Hard. It started low like Miz Sofia at the dinner table in the final scenes of The Color Purple. It ended like the psycho lady in a horror flick.

I’m fairly sure there was nothing funny about the episode.

I’m officially losing it.

Then I remembered that my therapist had recently asked me what joy felt like in my body. I couldn’t answer her at the time. I had no idea. I spent so many years—decades—wading in my pain that I didn’t know how to identify joy when it showed up.

Joy came in fits and sputters for me. I’m not sure I ever really knew what it felt like in my body. Life didn’t allow for that.

Of course I’d experienced joy before. I know joy was there when I held my baby girl for the first time. But my heart was cloudy with fear and anxiety. I couldn’t access the fullness of it. I couldn’t name it. Joy came in fits and sputters for me. I’m not sure I ever really knew what it felt like in my body. Life didn’t allow for that. I had to keep moving. So I ignored the sensation. Pushed it down.

It was much easier to recognize and categorize what my pain felt like. To tell that story over and over again. At one point in my life, I’d become obsessed with being seen. Trauma taught me very early that the way to be loved and valued and protected was to perform. I attached my worth to knowing all the answers in class or being “talked up” because of my accomplishments. Social media, with all its likes and follows, became a problem, and I wrestled for a long time with what it meant to be undeniably and irrefutably a Black woman. What it meant to struggle with every one of my identities in some way, shape, or form. Though never my intention, it started to feel like I was using my trauma to gain validation. Who am I without the trauma identity? Who are we as Black folks, particularly in America, outside of the trauma of our arrival and the continued impact of racism?

Which led me to wonder: what does it mean to hold so much joy in my body, the same body seen as inferior, as inconsequential, as unacceptable in this world? Maybe it is the ultimate evidence of God. That there is something bigger and greater that allows my laughter to block the lash, my rhythm to wreck the warden, and my voice to wrap itself around the grave and squeeze every bit of life out of a seemingly perpetual and generational death. That, by definition, is Black power.

Trauma taught me very early that the way to be loved and valued and protected was to perform.

I know that my story would have gaping holes if the hard places I’ve traversed were left out. Much in the same way Black folks must never stop talking about the impact and residue of the transatlantic slave trade on our present and future experiences because it has informed the plight of multiple generations of Black folks who came after.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that my trauma isn’t the only chapter in the book of my life. There are chapters that have left me bursting with light. Which, by the way, is exactly what joy feels like in my body. Like my stomach and chest are so full of sparkling light and it will ooze through my pores like fresh water from a rusty well. There’s a tremble in my hands. Tears threaten to escape as they tingle the corners of my eyes. I usually start to rock because somehow the movement eases the sweet overwhelm.

This is it! I finally found it!

Sure, the specific scene that sent me over the moon was when Randall’s severe anxiety was revealed. All his previous behavior finally made sense. But I think it’s more than this one show and this one character. I get high off a good story, told well. I think I’ve been chasing that hit all my life. At least since Maria’s story time on Sesame Street or Sherri Chessen’s mesmerizing voice on Romper Room. Or maybe it was the way Heavy D said, “I’m a quick rhyme shooter, rap rookie recruiter, I always say could, never ever say coulda,” in “Mr. Big Stuff.” It was the storytelling in the show that triggered the rivers of joy in me. I was just free enough to finally feel it.

From BLACK JOY: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration by Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts. Copyright © 2022 by Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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