July 25, 2023

The Power of Place and Racial Trauma Healing with Dr. Justin S. Hopkins

What holds memory can also hold healing.

In the work to tell the full American story, preservationists preserve places whose narratives include the full arc of history. These stories are not all joyful; often they encompass moments of pain, loss, and trauma. Still, these histories are part of an ever-present journey towards a more perfect union.

These sites also present space for what Dr. Justin S. Hopkins, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., calls racial trauma healing. As his field of expertise, racial trauma healing applies the psychology of trauma to the historical context of race in America. He believes diversity initiatives are critical to fostering equity and inclusion in any space, but that “first there must be a commitment to healing the trauma that caused inequity and exclusion.”

On July 25, 2023, President Biden designated the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument. The designation of this monument is an opportunity for the nation to remember the life and legacy of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till Mobley.

For Hopkins, who has been serving as an advisor to advocates for the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, places like these are an important part of the process of not only reckoning with the past, but also moving forward together. To understand more about his work with racial trauma healing, we asked Hopkins to explain the intersection between trauma and place, and also share how he feels about our newest national monument.

An image of a man looking forward with arms crossed in a marron sweater against a black and tanned striped background.

photo by: Markus Wilborn

Dr. Justin S. Hopkins, a clinical psychologist, served as an advisor for advocates for the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument.

How do you define trauma and its connection to racial healing?

Trauma is not simply a conscious experience with rational meaning and a linear narrative. It is a wound bound inside us—it is a living story in the body that tells us what is threatening but lacks the words to be understood without intervention. In order to heal from trauma, we need to process and make meaning of the distressing experience.

When we fail to confront our trauma, we can be triggered in the present—we may feel the fear that past trauma has taught us during new experiences and behave in ways that cause similar harm. The experience of the trauma is reinvented through new experiences, new forms. This is very much the case for racial trauma.

A man standing in front an exhibition in a museum

photo by: Markus Wilborn

Hopkins visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Racism is a multi-generational trauma that lives within the body of our society and affects all who inhabit it. As a nation, we have resisted the necessary process of reckoning with our racial wounds by disavowing our history. This does not afford us the chance to heal. It denies the existence of the problem. In the American sense, we’ve denied the crimes of white supremacy and the systemic racism it supports in the present day, the recurring racial violence, the oppression and inequality that minority people endure, and the privileges that are granted to white Americans vis-à-vis this dynamic.

That denial, as often happens with trauma, has resulted in reinvented forms of the same racial wounds. This is evidenced by our present-day racial violence and tension. There simply isn’t a place far enough to escape what our nation has been through.

“As a nation, we have resisted the necessary process of reckoning with our racial wounds by disavowing our history. ”

Dr. Justin S. Hopkins

How does racial trauma healing connect to historic places?

Historic racial events hold the keys to understanding the enduring reality of racial trauma in America, and remembering this history is essential to the viability of our society. We can only understand our present through the lens of our past, and we cannot understand how to heal until we reckon with what caused us harm.

Places tell stories—the stories of history—and we need those stories in order to heal from trauma.

My interests in places and trauma reflect my interests in healing societal ills, and particularly racial trauma. By preserving our history, we hold on to the opportunity to reckon with the parts of our past that are still present, and free us from reliving racial trauma in reinvented forms.

History will hold us captive when we’ve failed to learn its lessons. But when we preserve and confront our history, however painful or traumatic, we are afforded the chance to embrace a more complete truth, reap knowledge from our mistakes, prevent similar trauma from recurring in the present, and put the past to rest. Healing trauma demands that we make that we make meaning of what we’ve been through, rather than avoid it.

What are some of the key considerations that stewards of historic places should use when thinking about racial trauma healing?

Historic preservation of places that embody racial oppression can be a conduit to healing racial trauma. But healing is neither simple nor easy.

Healing trauma of any sort is a paradox. It demands that we confront our most distressing memories or experiences, which we understandably may want to avoid. So, in doing this type of preservation work, we have to keep in mind that not everyone is up for healing and confronting the past. It requires a tolerance for pain—good pain, that can help us grow and heal, but pain nonetheless.

We may evoke hate or rage from others for preserving aspects of our history. Hate and rage are just a couple of the many mechanisms people use to defend against painful truth and the process of mourning. Mourning is a prerequisite for healing trauma—mourning and grieving what has occurred. It allows us to move through our emotions with a sobering look at reality. It allows us to process and make meaning of experiences that can only be felt. But we cannot mourn what we do not acknowledge or remember.

Without mourning, our nation continues to wrestle with the racial ills of its past. We need to be able to mourn the truth. We need to be able to grieve the loss of comfortable ignorance and the soothing falsehoods that we cherish. But this work simply will not proceed without resistance. When we see that resistance, we have to know that it’s par for the course in pursuit of healthy mourning and healing.

You have applied this expertise as an advisor to help frame how historic sites related to Emmett Till’s history can be a part of a broader process of healing. What does it mean to you to be working on this project?

This work is so important to me. As a Black man, the story of Emmett Till is especially heart wrenching. I see myself in Emmett’s story. When I saw the video of Tamir Rice’s death in 2014, Emmett was the first to come to mind. Tamir was 12 years old. Emmett was 14 years old. I too was once a Black boy their age living with the same kind of threats to my life. The innocence of boyhood was not allowed to Black boys in Emmett’s life; it wasn’t allowed during Tamir’s life; and it hasn’t been allowed in mine.

Roberts Temple, Chicago, Illinois 2022

photo by: Battiest Photography

Interior of the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, Illinois, one of the sites in the recently designated monument.

Black men and boys are always criminal, when our skin is what makes us guilty. It means so much to me that I get to help people interact with Emmett’s story in a meaningful way to humanize the suffering of Black boys then and now. There is so much work to be done in the way of racial healing. I am doing my part—a small part—through my work with the National Trust, and I hope to inspire others to do more. We need others to do more.

The murder of Emmett Till tells the story, not of a single atrocity, but of the normalcy of anti-Black violence, and the public institutions that sanctioned it. These same institutions are the backbone of our society today, and continue to allow harm, as evidenced by the racial wealth gap, employment disparity, disproportionate allocation of resources for education, mass incarceration, and many other large-scale inequities. No one alive today is responsible for the rules of white supremacy, and yet its legacy is our inheritance. We inhabit a society that was founded on lawful racial violence and established institutions with white supremacy as its bedrock.

A man standing in front an exhibition in a museum

photo by: Markus Wilborn

Justin S. Hopkins at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Almost everyone in America carries trauma in their bodies around race. That trauma is different according to racial identity, but present nonetheless. In many instances, just the mention of race evokes unprocessed or unconscious emotions that carry decades or even centuries of neglected trauma passed down from generation to generation. In order to heal, we have to acknowledge that we’ve been socialized through our inheritance. We have to commit to doing the long-term work of repealing the reach of racism and white supremacy.

I am honored to help others heal through this kind of work. No one particular effort will resolve racism. No complex problem has a simple solution. But it is rewarding to know I am contributing to the change I hope to see.

What are your hopes for the historic sites related to Emmett Till?

I hope people will embrace the opportunity to help heal the racial tensions in this country by visiting the sites and having their own mourning process. While this may seem like a small act, every step helps change our culture. It moves the needle on how future generations are socialized around race and decreases the amount of racial baggage they’ll inherit. Go to the sites. Bring a friend. Have a conversation with a neighbor. Let’s be in the healing work together.

Dr. Justin S. Hopkins is a clinical psychologist and owner of Hopkins Behavioral Health, a therapy practice in Washington, D.C. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @drjshopkins.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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