Heirlooms of Trauma

Generational trauma is a major part of systemic racism that often gets overlooked. Because black people seem to be inflicting this on ourselves, it is dismissed as a “Black Problem”. Parents passing their trauma and mental illnesses onto their children is not only genetic but a subconscious act. In both “The Sky is Gray” and Nothing but a Man, we can see examples of parents passing trauma to their children.

In “The Sky is Gray,” Octavia shows strong signs of depression. Between her vacant staring (commonly called dissociation), her lack of speech, and irritability, her symptoms come through quietly in the story. There is no real diagnosis in the story, which is not surprising, as the black community often recognizes mental illness as a weakness; something Octavia refuses to show. Her struggle with depression was likely passed to her from her own parents, though we never see them. But throughout the story, she visibly begins to pass her trauma to James. Not only does James’ internal monologue mention fairly regularly that he can’t show Octavia any “weakness,” but when he doesn’t kill the bird when she orders him to in chapter four, she beats James instead of explaining that they need the food. Her behavior throughout the story toward James makes him latch on to her, desperately trying to reach her expectations of him. In his internal monologue, he continually tells himself that one day he’ll buy her a red coat and that he loves his mother but can’t tell her. This is a textbook psychological reaction to being abused. If there were a continuation of this story, it wouldn’t surprise me if James eventually showed the same symptoms of depression that Octavia does.

Nothing but a Man film poster (1964)

As for Nothing but a Man, Duff wrestles with abandonment. It is mentioned throughout the film that Duff tends to sleep around, which is a common coping mechanism for dealing with abandonment. Then when he finds out that his father is in Birmingham, Duff goes to meet him. After asking his father for his name, and introducing himself, his father mentions that he wouldn’t have recognized him. Duff returns the sentiment. After a lengthy conversation with his father and stepmother, Duff suddenly decides he wants Josie to marry him. Latching onto people who show you affection is a common reaction to being abandoned. Even further, when someone has been abandoned, they often attempt to push others away before that person can leave on their own. This is apparent when Duff lashes out a Josie after he breaks a chair with his ax. She tells him that she knows he can’t help his rage over everything that’s been happening in his life, and he gets frustrated, saying that she should stop being so understanding, as if that is a bad thing. Fortunately, Duff may have been able to break this cycle at the end of the film. Though initially, he denied his bastard son, saying that the child wasn’t his when Josie kept bringing the boy up, Duff has a change of heart when his father dies in the backseat of his car. There is a chance the child will still feel unwanted, but hopefully, with his family, the boy would be able to find solace before the trauma was passed down again.

2 thoughts on “Heirlooms of Trauma

  1. This was a super interesting post! I really enjoyed the connection that you made between the two films. I agree that both are good examples of passing down trauma and mental illness onto children.I also noticed that Duff was attempted to break the cycle by taking his son home and raising him with Josie. Hopefully his son is able to escape the trauma and abandonment issues that Duff suffered from.

  2. This was a really interesting post Alyssa! Both “The Sky is Gray” and Nothing But A Man focus a lot on the relationships between parents and children and I think considering the roles mental illness and trauma play in that relationship is important. I agree that both these works, especially “Nothing But A Man,” really highlight the cyclical nature of these issues.

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