How Reconnecting With Our Black Roots Can Help Us Heal

mbg Contributor By Jasmine Gayle
mbg Contributor
Jasmine Gayle is a freelance writer covering mental health, education, and issues impacting the Black community. She has a degree in creative writing from Ithaca College.
How Reconnecting With Our Black Roots Can Help Us Heal

Image by mbg Creative / PeopleImages/iStock

I grew up with gospel music. I have watched the power of that music move people. Move my people to cry, move my people to create all kinds of footwork, and in ways heal. Even removed from church, I still think there is power in that music. For Black people, our music and dance is a powerful connection to our past—and our long history of communal healing.

Now more than ever, there is an unspeakable amount of exhaustion for Black people. From the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our community to the racial unrest across America, the taxation on our Black bodies and minds is a mighty high wall.

Now more than ever, Black Americans are in need of intentional self-care and rest. Black queer writer Audre Lorde famously wrote, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." Taking care of our bodies and minds is a continual act of reminding ourselves and the world that we cannot be erased. We stand presently and physically before the world as Black beautiful people. 

However, our resources for care are not abundant. We live in a reality where our existence is picked apart. So how do we recover? How can we feel whole in a world where we feel so attacked? Where can our spirits be nourished? Where do we find joy?

It's a little weird to say, but the answer is in our past.

It is inside of all of us.

When we dance, we are reenacting the same healing practice our ancestors have done. We break down the fear of being alone.

When I was in college, I had a professor teach music in a way where he'd emphasize the importance of listening to what each instrument is doing and what it is trying to communicate. This process, coupled with my then-new realization that all the original artists of jazz were Black, allowed me to hear the beauty and the unique features that make up what we know to be Black music. It has not only moved me but connected me to a past that always felt unconsciously understood but never quite written down.

This is because these practices are so embedded in our history. Our ancestors have used music and dance as a tool not just to celebrate but to heal.

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Our history of vibrant healing.

In African American culture, we are known for our dancing. We know this. We nae-nae and whip, and the whole world absorbs it as pop culture. But there is a deeper magic to behold in our dancing.

In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Pan African Studies, psychologists Nicole Monteiro, Ph.D., and Diana J. Wall, Psy.D., explain how dance has been used as an individual and community healing tool throughout the African diaspora. In Senegal, some communities have long practiced a therapeutic ritual of dance known as Ndeup. Drums, rhythmic movement, and songs are used to encourage a sick member of the community to enter a healing trance in a ceremony that lasts from four to 10 days. 

"Dance is a physical behavior that embodies many curative properties that are released through movement, rhythms, self-expression, communion, as well as the mechanisms of cathartic release. These properties allow individuals to shift emotional states, oftentimes creating an experience of wholeness," Monteiro and Wall write. "The rapid motion in dance is stated to be especially intoxicating, oftentimes leading to alterations in states of consciousness while facilitating feelings of internal bliss and elation."

We continue this heritage every single time we dance. When we fast-forward to hip-hop's break-dancing and krumping, we see how the Black community channels their pain into the dance. And as Monteiro and Wall point out, many dancers in hip-hop culture have never been formally taught these movements in school or classes. Instead, they often describe it as something that's seemingly "been implanted in them from birth."

"Descendants of the African diaspora have carried with them deeply rooted cultural inclinations and unconscious memory of their ancestral traditions," the psychologists write. "Many urban, marginalized, or otherwise disenfranchised youth have instinctively and consciously tapped into the artistic healing and movement traditions of the diaspora. Dance forms such as hip-hop, break-dancing, pop-locking, and krumping have acted as vessels of intergenerational cultural transmission, as well as modes of community and individual healing."

How powerful is it that we have an unconscious connection to the movement in our bodies

When we dance, the synergy of who we are becomes alive. When we dance, we release. When we move our bodies, it can create joy. When we're hearing the bass in a jazz run or even the beats in R&B, remember the magic it's releasing in your body. We are not alone, and the force of us is strong. We repeat this magic when we chant our "ayes" after snaps in dance circles at clubs. We do this when we start our chants to hype each other up.

Our Black roots are in the rhythm of our music, and the rhythm still remains in our blood.

Likewise, there are elements of Black music today that date all the way back to the sounds and music our enslaved people have created. For example, a key element in these songs was the call and response. In slave songs, we can hear one group start a chant and another group to respond or echo. We hear this demonstrated in the work song "Rosie." They would use the ax cut to signify a beat. There was a healing attribute to these sounds because the pain of the group was held together, collected, and then released in music.

This call and response is almost another musical language that has developed that is so unique in music. We can hear it in many Black musicians' work throughout history: We can hear it after the stomp beat in saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's "Work Song." We can hear it in B.B. King's guitar riffs as a response to his voice in "No Good." We can hear it in Roy Hargrove's Strasbourg/St. Denis trumpet riffs. We can hear it in the riffs and runs in R&B to the bass beats in trap and hip-hop music.

Our Black roots are in the rhythm of our music, and the rhythm still remains in our blood.

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Connecting with our past.

It is challenging and difficult to walk in a world outside of ourselves that picks every piece of us apart. It's a difficult balance to find little external representations and create internal ones.

However, the mere knowledge of our history is empowering. Every time I turn on a jazz record or listen to a hip-hop beat, I move my body. I move it in the ways that no one has ever taught me because I know that it lives within me. There is liberation and joy we can create from within, while we strive and fight to manifest it outside.

When I dance in my room and listen to Black music, I feel alive. I feel divine. I find peace, and I find joy. I think that feeling is exactly what this world may not want me to feel. The act of being bold enough to claim that divinity for ourselves in dance and in music, I feel, is what my ancestors have always known and done. It is within those moments where I'm freeing my body to rhythm that I feel that I cannot be broken.

Take time to remind yourself that the joy exists within your blood. When we dance, we are reenacting the same healing practice our ancestors have done. We break down the fear of being alone. We break down a lot of walls and reinforce our power.

These practices of dance, listening to the techniques in our music, and connecting to our predecessors can create a personal oasis. While it is OK to cry, rage, and feel broken, take an equal amount of time to remind yourself that all the power that was in the people before you is also within you.

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