Cries of Trauma and Calls for Justice: My Family’s Story and Our Country’s History
He could not recall how old he was when he was separated from his parents. But he did remember this: That he was stripped of his clothes; that his head was shaved; that he took showers in a large room with children he did not know; that the showers were cold. He remembered that he was deeply confused and acutely frightened. He remembered lying alone in his bunk night after night, crying silently, wondering when his parents would return. What he could not recall was how many nights he spent curled beneath a thin blanket in that bunk, crying and wondering. He might have only been there for a few days. Or it could have been several weeks. It might have been months … or a year. He could only say that the time he spent away from his parents seemed interminable: like loneliness — like hopelessness. To him, time was like the ocean on a moonless night: Vast. Deep. Churning. Dark. Endless. Completely and desperately engulfing.
Based on the emotional vividness of his memories, paired with a lack of clear temporal details, I have guessed that my father was about four-years-old when his parents left him in an orphanage in Brooklyn, New York, hoping to return when there was money to feed him. It would have been about 1937, in the depths of the Great Depression, when nearly 150,000 children were made wards of orphanages in the United States. Most of these children were not, in fact, orphaned. Like my dad, they had parents, but their parents did not have the financial means to support them. Every day, families were torn apart by economic devastation that was far beyond their control. Parents made impossible choices to save their children from homelessness and starvation. My grandparents made that choice. And I cannot imagine the feelings that must have overcome them as they took their small child by the hand and guided him through a doorway to an uncertain future — knowing that they would walk in as a group of three, but depart as two, perhaps listening to the plaintive wails of their child echoing through the corridors as they did.
When I listened to the audio recordings of the grief-stricken cries of children who had been separated from their parents at the United States’ border with Mexico, I felt something ancient and heart rending stirring within me: the cries of my father, alone, cold, frightened, and desperate — reaching through the decades.
This past weekend was Father’s Day. It is not unusual that I think of my dad on Father’s Day. My father was the True North that straightened the needle of my moral compass. Dad passed away in July of 2005 after a long battle with cancer. Throughout his career, my father insisted on holding public officials accountable. He spoke truth to power, regardless of the consequences. In his work as a newspaper editor, he called for racial equity and economic justice. As a parent, he taught me that I was never to avert my gaze from the sufferings of other human beings, no matter how painful it was to witness. He taught me that I was privileged, and that it was my responsibility to use that privilege to create more justice for more people in the world. He taught me that history was not something to be relegated to the past, but a living story whose veins and arteries perpetually feed into the story of who we are — as we live and breathe on this very day. He taught me that it’s impossible to look at the news-cycle outside the context of the history from which it is born.
Perhaps you also heard the heartbreaking cries of those children in Texas. And perhaps those cries made you weep. Perhaps you held your breath without realizing that in your shock, you had stopped breathing. Perhaps a wave of nausea made you clutch your gut.
What you perhaps also recognized, as I did, was that those cries have a historical resonance in American history; that those children wailing in fear and grief in internment camps in Texas join a chorus of cries that echoes through the annals of American history. That the streams of their tears flow into a river of tears that have issued from the hearts of children from the very inception of our country. Children torn from their native land of Africa to face the horror and dehumanization of slavery; children sold away from their parents at the auction block; Native American children separated from their parents and relocated to “boarding schools” — government-run re-education centers following the massacre at Wounded Knee. American children of Japanese descent that were detained in prison camps on American soil during the Second World War. And then there were children like my father who were separated from their parents because of poverty. And children who have been separated from their parents who have been imprisoned or killed because the color of their skin has been criminalized.
It’s been scientifically proven that childhood trauma can reshape a person’s DNA and has broad reaching and lasting effects on health. I carry my father’s DNA. I carry his trauma. I also carry his voice. His call for justice. For just laws. For just communities. And this I pray: May the cries of my father, echoing down the corridors of history, be comforted through my words and my actions.
And we as Americans carry a kind of cultural DNA — which includes the trauma that has been inflicted on children and continues to be inflicted on children as you read these words. Its strains are woven into every cell of our cultural story. May we learn to look at this virulent strain and see it for what it is: cruel, unrelenting, lethal. And may we, like my father, let it call us to justice. Let it call us to compassionate action, so that not another child’s tears will be shed in our name.
If you haven’t done so, please text RESIST to 50409 insist that your representatives in Congress act to end the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.
And this is a list of organizations provided by the Texas Tribune that are mobilizing to help immigrant children who have been separated from their families.
If you, like me, live in Western North Carolina, please consider donating to CIMA, an organization that protects immigrant rights locally — and most recently mobilized to aid families that were impacted by ICE raids in Western NC.