The Creases of Collective Trauma: Reflections from 9/11

Image credit: Village of Willow Springs / Clerk’s Office News, Community News, Fire Department News, From the Mayor’s Office, Police Department News, Public Works News, Upcoming Events / Willow Springs Feature

On this day 20-years ago, I remember watching the news in disbelief as I begrudgingly ironed my clothes for work. At that time, I was a student affairs administrator. It had only been a short time since I earned my master’s degree from USD and now I was an employee. 

I can’t stand ironing. I see it as a fruitless chore connected to respectability politics. I’m sure Jesus wasn’t worried about wrinkles while out there healing the sick and loving on those the “Well-ironed crowd” shunned. I mean, really. All this to say, I was engaged in a process that didn’t matter on a day when my urgency to show up mattered way more than how polished I looked.

I recall rushing out of my apartment and during my drive to campus, I felt it all. Rather, I could taste it: Fear, sadness, confusion, helplessness, hyper-awareness, calm, out of my body/mind moments. Driving on the freeway in California was an eerie experience as well. There was this collective sense of unknowing/uncertainty, tied to disbelief and helplessness that was a thread connecting every driver on the highway that day. I did not know then to call it Collective Trauma, but I know it now. That moment, combined with the historical trauma that already lived in me from my African and Muscogee ancestors were active that day. I had to get to work and be a part of a community that had to support our students. What I did not know on my drive to campus was what that support was going to entail. 

That level of trauma was one like I had yet to experience (until 5 months later). It did not occur to me until I got to campus just how many of our students and employees had ties to the East Coast. Students were either from the area or had family members who travelled to NY, DC and or PA for business. Community members who had loved ones who worked in the Twin Towers. Colleagues that had friends who worked in the Pentagon. 

Image Credit: Orange County Register via Gulnara Samoilova/AP Photo –
Survivors of the World Trade Center attacks make their way through smoke, dust and debris on Fulton St., about a block from the collapsed towers, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 in New York.

When I got to my office, I put my purse away, found my supervisor to be directed to the students that needed support the most and went to work: Comforting students while my colleagues and I got on our cell phones dialing the phone numbers of loved ones to confirm what we could confirm. To this day, when I hear the words “We got through” or “We got one,” there is a momentary sense of relief that comes over me. You see, those phrases were yelled each time a member of our team was able to get hold of someone who was feared to be in the line of tragedy. 

Moving between screaming, sobbing students while “numbing out” in order to stay radically present, became my attire for the rest of that day and night. I am sure the wrinkles in my tear-stained clothes did not matter at all that day. 

Reflecting on that day as I enter my second semester back at the institution I left in February 2002 (five months after living through a family tragedy);  I think about the importance of just showing up just as we are. Not perfect. Not knowing what the hell to do at times. The simple act of showing up with our imperfect selves and having enough courage to love another person in pain. 

I have a faint memory of “Stolen Moments” when my colleagues and I would take a break to shed our own tears, breathe, hug each other, then go back to supporting our students. On that day, we felt like we were all we had. And, what we had to offer was more than enough.

 Oh, how the times have changed.

It shouldn’t take a national tragedy to bring out the best in us. Now, we’re in a time in this country where tragedy ushers a full-on assault from us on to each other. No, this is not an argument to go back to some fantasized or glorified, “Good Ole Days” because let’s face it, dehumanization through oppression makes for pretty awful millennia. What I will say comes in the form of my 7-Questions:

  1. What are some ways you have allowed yourself to 1) acknowledge collective trauma 2) release the collective trauma out of your body? [An excellent resource for Mind-Body-Soul work is the book “My Grandmother’s Hands” and the process of Somatic Abolitionism a practice championed by Resmaa Manakem]
  2. What, if any, are some rehearsed stories in your mind-body about a time of collective trauma that you may need to interrupt (i.e. question their validity and utility) in order to reveal a path towards healing?
  3. Who (if anyone) do you want to express gratitude to for helping you through the collective trauma (Divine Power(s), loved ones, strangers, ancestors, yourself, others)?
  4. Who (if anyone) would you like to extend forgiveness towards as you continue to process any of the collective traumas you have experienced (Again, Divine Power(s), loved ones, strangers, ancestors, yourself, others)?
  5. What questions, if any, do you wish you could have answered to help break up any mental blocks that may have you recycling/replaying the collective trauma?
  6. Depending on your age when the collective trauma occurred (if you were even alive when it happened), what expressions of love would you have wanted to receive in order to help you regulate/reconnect you to your humanity?
  7. Given the  uncertain times and collective trauma we are experiencing right now, how or in what ways have you “loved on” those who matter most to you?
Image Credit: Orange County Register via Robert Spencer/AP Photo –
A woman looks at missing person posters of victims of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 14, 2001.

On this day of somber reflection, during a time when fear and hatred are threatening our ability to critically self-reflect;  take a moment with me to re-member. As I have said in prior posts, you are still here serving as a Blessed Ambassador of those who we have lost. Please know, we are so glad you made it.

And to my USD colleagues who lived the experience of 9/11 twenty years ago with me: I see you. We got through. We got us. 

In closing, please know that I will “Say A Little Prayer” for each of you as we all work towards love, justice and liberation.