Book Review: My Grandmother’s Hands

Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, is one of the most insightful works I have read in recent years. It gave me a deep understanding of, as its subtitle states, racialized trauma and the pathway to mending hearts and bodies—in different communities. Menakem speaks to the Black, white, and police audiences, sometimes separately and sometimes together but recognizing the different backgrounds and perspectives they will bring. As a white reader, I started to reflect on the ways my body reacts and drives actions my brain condemns. We can’t just think bias away.

The heart of the book, for me, is Menakem’s illumination of generational trauma—a glimmer of light on how to honor our scars rather than re-inflict them. The title image refers to Menakem’s childhood memory of his grandmother’s wounded hands, painful and disfigured from being forced to pick cotton in sharecropper fields from the age of four. “The cotton plant,” she explained, “has pointed burrs on it.” Her four-year-old hands were left torn and bloody every day until her very child’s body altered—twisting, scarring, thickening to hold in the pain. Decades later, she would soothe the wounds by rocking, humming, and asking Menakem to rub her hands (p.4). Over the years, as a therapist, he has learned, and now teaches, ways of dealing with the wounds of the past that build on his grandmother’s wisdom and recognize her human fallibility.

It would be easy to turn Menakem’s grandmother’s story into a tragedy and heroic struggle story, the disability-as-inspiration meme that demeans rather than empowers. But that is not what My Grandmother’s Hands is saying. Menakem’s point is that the wounds of the past—sometimes many generations past—must be redressed in the bodies of the present. The historical context is not just built into our ideas and our laws (though it certainly is that), but embedded in our limbs and the neuropathways of our brains—what he calls the “soul nerve.”

Here is where I see a parallel to my field. The disability rights movement taught that disability is about context—a wheelchair is not a problem unless the building entrance was constructed with stairs. The disability justice movement taught that context can include obstacles much harder for the privileged to see. I think Menakem’s book is an illustration of one such deeper vein. How can we build ramps for the soul nerve?

Most everyone, Menakem notes, has trauma to deal with in their past. Europeans, he posits, transformed colonialism into U.S. white supremacy as they came to the United States to flee centuries of war, torture, plagues, compounding their trauma in “dirty pain” blown through others. His prescription was surprising to me: take care of yourself, he says to white people, to police, and, of course, to Black people. Inflicting harm causes more injury, not less. Heal your own community, find ways to make it less toxic, and only then can we have a meaningful discussion about bridge-building. 

It’s a sobering thought to me. The obvious implication is that the world may not be ready for civil rights law’s integration focus. Yet I take hope in the idea that in nurturing our bodies—our own and one another’s—we can make our society a better place. The book offers a fascinating weave of collective analysis and individual exercises. Even though Menakem’s analysis contrasts centuries-old pain for the white community with current violence against Black people, it leaves room for individual pain in way that social justice analysis often elides. Menakem’s solution is not white guilt or Black sainthood. I found myself thinking about my own family history. Menakem’s embrace of self-care offers an intriguing third way, neither MAGA denial nor progressive deploring, to achieve the goal of equal justice for all.