Laura Yuen
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Nightmares afflicted the father of Lee Hawkins Jr. and awoke his son, then just a little boy growing up in the St. Paul suburb of Maplewood. His dad would jostle out of his sleep screaming, startling the entire family.

One time, Hawkins asked his father what his dreams were about. "Alabama, son," his dad replied. "Alabama."

When Hawkins entered his 30s, the nightmares came for him, too.

The term "intergenerational trauma" might not be easily understood for those who haven't experienced it, but Hawkins, a veteran journalist formerly at the Wall Street Journal and now a podcaster and author, was able to connect the dots after investigating his own family's past and diving into the long shadow of slavery.

His father, a Black man born and raised in Alabama whom Hawkins loved and idolized, was traumatized by his childhood experiences in the Jim Crow South. Hawkins was haunted by the belt lashings his father would give him in Minnesota in the 1970s and '80s.

Hawkins remembers watching the whipping scene from the 1977 miniseries "Roots" with his parents when he was about 5. "And at that very young age, I made the connection: I thought, 'That's what they do to us,' " he said. "It planted the seed of curiosity in my mind about my family's place in America."

Hawkins, 52, said a DNA genealogy test he took in 2015 sent him on a hunt to find out more about his ancestors. Building his family tree, often sharing it with his dad, he began to connect the "horror of history" to his own upbringing.

"My father kept secrets from me about his time in Alabama, and his parents kept secrets from him," said Hawkins, who now lives in New York. "It was a dark cloud that always hung over me. I was a Black kid up north who knew I had cousins and connections and cultural traditions that traced back to the South, but I knew nothing about the South."

The Hawkins family from left in back row: Tiffany Hawkins, Tammy Hawkins, Lee Hawkins Jr.  Front row: Parents Lee Hawkins Sr. and Roberta Hawkins.
The Hawkins family from left in back row: Tiffany Hawkins, Tammy Hawkins, Lee Hawkins Jr. Front row: Parents Lee Hawkins Sr. and Roberta Hawkins.

What he eventually learned is the subject of his new 10-episode podcast with St. Paul-based APM Studios, "What Happened in Alabama?" and his book, "I Am Nobody's Slave: How Uncovering My Family's History Set Me Free," to be published early next year by HarperCollins.

"Alabama" became his father's shorthand for the trauma he endured during Jim Crow.

The period after slavery, after all, was not just about segregation. Jim Crow was a ghastly system that led to violence and oppression against Black Americans. Hawkins reveals in the podcast that two of his great-grandfathers were murdered by white men who were never brought to justice.

Parenting with fear

Both of his parents, including his mother who hailed from North Dakota, were loving people, but Hawkins said they raised their children with hypervigilance and fear. The kids had to know their place. Mischief or disrespect would warrant beatings. And yet even when they excelled in school or sports, their mom didn't seem to want to celebrate their achievements.

Hawkins learned from his research that downplaying the success of one's children was a protective instinct on the plantation — intended to keep their kids close to their parents, rather than sold off for their skills.

He's careful to note that of course, many Black parents do not hit their children. Many who were on the receiving end of the belt, like his sister, have broken the cycle while rearing their own kids.

Parents spank their children in every culture and community in the United States. But he says African Americans have the highest use of corporal punishment. Hawkins said he felt compelled to confront what millions of kids like him experienced out of their families' desire to keep them safe.

"You can call 10 Black parents who use a belt against their child and ask why do they do it," Hawkins said. "Nine out of those 10, especially if they're descendants of slavery and Jim Crow, will say, 'So they don't get killed by the police.' "

Hawkins credits his home state for rousing the world to the problem of police brutality after the murder of George Floyd.

"But at the same time, I also can't deny the fact that some of the very Black parents who speak out so forcibly against police brutality and police homicide are using corporal punishment against their children in direct compliance with the police," he said. "If you really want to protest police brutality and police injustice, the last thing you should do is beat your children."

'The integration generation'

Hawkins calls people like his father the survivors of Jim Crow. And he's proud of the resilience shown by his own generation of Black Americans that integrated neighborhoods and schools in predominantly white enclaves like Maplewood following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His family moved to the suburbs for the same reason anyone does: They wanted to own a home and find a better life for their kids.

But it wasn't always easy for those kids. He says while the South was ground zero for his family's trauma, Minnesota had its own brand of racism.

Hawkins remembers a neighborhood kid hurling eggs him and his sister, screaming the N-word, as the siblings walked home from school. Black kids who did defend themselves physically were disciplined.

His troubled third-grade teacher, who later died in a murder-suicide at the hands of her husband, never missed an opportunity to call home to report the slightest of behavioral issues. Hawkins suspects she did it because she knew his parents would give him the belt at home.

It was a lot for a child to carry, Hawkins realizes today — the chronic stress of being singled out at school and being beaten at home. The love of his parents (despite their complicated relationship with their kids) and the support of elders and other teachers helped mitigate his trauma. His father, Lee Hawkins Sr., died five years ago.

Hawkins says speaking about corporal punishment in the home can be painful. It can cause people to second-guess whether they were loved. The whole conversation may touch people in "too tender of a place," he told me.

"The immediate tendency is to lash out and condemn the person who questions this," he said. "I'm OK with that, because if there's ever been a time in my life that I've been on the right side of history, it's now."