What It Takes to Heal

How Transforming Ourselves Can Change the World

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From one of the most prominent voices in the trauma conversation comes a groundbreaking new way to heal on a personal and a collective level.

“I love this book.”—Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score

“In a time when so many of us are being trained in cynicism, this book stands in necessary defiance.”—Cole Arthur Riley, author of Black Liturgies and This Here Flesh

As we emerge from the past few years of collective upheaval, are we ready to face the complexities of our time with joy, authenticity, and connection? Now more than ever, we must learn to heal ourselves, connect with one another, and embody our values. In this revolutionary book, Prentis Hemphill shows us how.

What It Takes to Heal asserts that the principles of embodiment—the recognition of our body’s sensations and habits, and the beliefs that inform them—are critical to lasting healing and change. Hemphill, an expert embodiment practitioner, therapist, and activist who has partnered with Brené Brown, Tarana Burke, and Esther Perel, among others, shows us that we don't have to carry our emotional burdens alone. Hemphill demonstrates a future in which healing is done in community, weaving together stories from their own experience as a trauma survivor with clinical accounts and lessons learned from their time as a social movement architect. They ask, “What would it do to movements, to our society and culture, to have the principles of healing at the very center? And what does it do to have healing at the center of every structure and everything we create?”

In this life-affirming framework for the way forward, Hemphill shows us how to heal our bodies, minds, and souls—to develop the interpersonal skills necessary to break down the doors of disconnection and take the necessary risks to reshape our world toward justice.
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Praise for What It Takes to Heal

“I love this book. Prentis Hemphill offers us a visionary, personal, compassionate, empowering guide for our healing as individuals, within the histories of our families and deep within the broader contexts of our communities, societies, and the world at large.”—Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score

“In a time when so many of us are being trained in cynicism, this book stands in necessary defiance.”—Cole Arthur Riley, author of Black Liturgies and This Here Flesh

“A powerful, prescient, incisive book that helps us better understand ourselves, our relationships, and how to fully be in this world, all while creating the next.”—Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering

“This book reckons with our major issues—trauma, race, social upheaval—and opens us up to the possibility that everything actually could be different. And it does so one gorgeous sentence after the next.”—Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands

“This book will be both the ‘aha’ moment and the balm for so many people who are saddled with vacant platitudes that don’t give them a way forward. It is what we need in this moment and will be foundational for generations to come.”—Tarana Burke, author of Unbound

“Hemphill teaches us where healing begins, and how crucial our healing is for the worlds we want to conjure.”—adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism

“In the tradition of James Baldwin, Hemphill invites us in close and personal to experience life, pain, beauty, injustice, and healing. I’ll read this again and again.”—Staci K. Haines, author of The Politics of Trauma
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Excerpt

What It Takes to Heal

1

Vision


Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us. —Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination


In the fourth grade, we were asked to study a figure we admired in early American history and present a report, dressed as that person, to the class. The assignment came from my teacher, Ms. Jefferson, a tall, thin, middle-aged Black woman with a bootleg British accent who looked down on you over the rim of her glasses. I knew, though no one else in the class did, that she lived in the same hood as me, just two blocks away in a pink brick house with a manicured lawn. Over the summer, my dad had pulled some strings, made some calls, so I could be in her class. I was being sent across town to a majority white school and I wanted a Black teacher. The year before I’d had the only other Black teacher in the school, Mrs. Williams. She smiled when I spoke, hugged me tight into her neck, asked me what was wrong in private when I came to school upset. She was a home to me.

It only took a couple weeks in Ms. Jefferson’s class for me to realize that she would not be pulling me into her neck or asking what was wrong. She treated me like a strange thing. She didn’t seem to like children generally but had a certain disdain for the Black and poor ones, for me, maybe because I knew the truth—that she was just like the rest of us. I could never catch her eye in class; she seemed to always be looking just over my head or through me like a window. She seemed to show her teeth when I got an answer wrong. I didn’t understand it then but that was the year I began to learn that we come into the world with meaning and that there was history in my skin.

On the day of our presentations, the classroom was a parade of variations on a colonial theme: George Washingtons, Abraham Lincolns, Benjamin Franklins, with construction-paper hats and costume wig pieces taped and glued to little faces. Brown faces, too. Most of the Brown people hiding out in the pages of our textbooks didn’t have names—they were the necessary masses being driven off land or chained to it. The chorus, not the main characters. According to our lessons, we hadn’t made real contributions, were not yet people. Not like those whose names and pictures and accomplishments made history.

I’d chosen Harriet Tubman. We’d read about her only briefly, a few paragraphs accompanied by a picture of a Black woman holding a lantern. Yet despite the tiny corner of the page given to her in our history book, I knew she was the most important person I’d ever encountered. As I read, the ground had shaken under my feet. Her story lifted off the page and called everything into question—the legality, the morality, the humanity of this history. An inscrutable tension had entered the room when slavery was first discussed. Ms. Jefferson taught it at a distance, as words, dates to remember, hurrying us through the unfortunate time. We didn’t talk about what it really meant or draw any meaningful lines between the beliefs of that time and our own. I could tell, though, by the furtive glances and the smirks, by Ms. Jefferson’s enforced silence, that that time was not exactly over. It was here now, and somehow I knew that my role was to not press it or feel it or ask anyone else to feel it, but to give everyone reprieve, accept the order, and store slavery as my own personal shame. The only place I had that was my own was my body, so I put as much as I could in my downward gaze.

But at the end of the section on slavery, when we got to those few paragraphs on Harriet Tubman, her story came around and sat me up straight. She had escaped slavery and led scores of others to freedom through channels called the Underground Railroad. The details on the page were so scarce that most of us imagined an actual tunnel dug through the earth connecting to an underground hatch in people’s homes. This official textbook story neglected what I sensed was there, that Harriet represented something much more dangerous and holy than the book let on. She was the freedom the forefathers alluded to but were terrified of. She was the true story at the heart of this country, the contradiction and pursuit, the hidden pulse under the war drums, a Black woman in a white man’s vision for the world. She broke the spell for me at a time when I was learning what was expected of me. When I was learning to internalize the hatred, the way I’m sure Ms. Jefferson had figured out how to do forty years earlier. Harriet disrupted all notions that I had to accept any of this order as fact. She lived in the shadows and cracks of that world, traversing and widening them until something broke open. If she had found a way to make her body free, I knew that I could, too.

My mom had helped me assemble the outfit. Tied my straightened hair up in her nighttime headscarf, cinched a white sheet at the waist with a belt to make something of a dress. I held her worn-out Sunday Bible in one hand, and across my shoulder slung a tote bag filled with shredded cotton balls. I held a flashlight in the other hand, my lantern. I’d never really enjoyed dressing up. Halloween was always and only the devil’s day, according to my grandmother, who found any activity short of praising Jesus inherently sinful. Halloween to her was an open invitation to possession. But as Harriet, I wasn’t in costume as much as I was being fortified. At the time you couldn’t have told me that I wasn’t a superhero. I walked into school proud, defiant, straight-backed. Ms. Jefferson’s expression was blank when I showed up to her class, as though she thought that if she stayed very still, the others might not see the resemblance between us. She stood behind the kids, her eyes fixed on me when they asked, “Who are you supposed to be? Are you some kind of slave?” I waited until their giggles died down, and declared that I was Harriet Tubman, that I freed people under their noses. I said it as a dare. Neither the other kids nor Ms. Jefferson said another word. When I gave my report, I talked slowly and met each person’s gaze. The shame left my body then. I felt strong, determined, and I could, at least in that moment, see through all that was unacknowledged, unspoken in our class.

I don’t think healing begins where we think it does, in our doing something. I believe it begins in another realm altogether, the realm of dreams and imagination. A realm that I might also call spirit. A place of potential, where possibilities reside, where we retrieve, through prayer or in dreams, visions for ourselves and for the world that make us more whole. And with our visions in place, we can realize them through what follows, our commitment and the steps we take toward them.

I sensed this in Harriet’s story, and I listened for her name, catching pieces here and there on how she coded plans for freedom in the spirituals we thought we knew. Harriet, our Moses, who led our people out of bondage. Who could somehow imagine past the barriers, beyond the seemingly immovable logic of her time that celebrated kidnapping and enslavement, and foresee a world where the accepted order of things could finally be exposed as brutal and inhumane.

I don’t call on Harriet Tubman here to invoke some trope of a Black woman who must bear the weight of this country’s transformation. I am most interested in what I can never know, how she learned to trust her dreaming and how she committed deeply enough to stay the course. The world she was born into was on the brink of civil war and was contained and kept in order by both casual and ritualized public violence, by intimidation, and by the denial of rights. Masses of people were being indoctrinated with propaganda that created and reified the world’s most recent invention, race. She led people anyway, through battlegrounds and forests into an iteration of freedom, a new context. How she did so wasn’t only a matter of technical or tactical skills.

Harriet Tubman had visions—messages directly divined to her from God.

As a young girl she had refused to detain an enslaved Black boy, and the plantation’s overseer hurled a weight at her head, fracturing her skull. For the rest of her life, she experienced pain and pressure to her brain that led to blackouts, visitations, and visions. Dreams in which routes to freedom and warnings of impending danger revealed themselves to her. Premonitions that showed her the future. So persistent and accurate were her visions that despite narrow escapes, and a bounty on her head, and nearly twenty perilous journeys to the South and back to Canada, she was never caught, nor was anyone she freed ever remanded to slavery. She was, in a very real sense, a prophet who found a way to the future, paving a new and unexpected path carved from her commitments and visions.

About the Author

Prentis Hemphill
Prentis Hemphill is a writer, embodiment facilitator, political organizer, and therapist. They are the founder and director of the Embodiment Institute and the Black Embodiment Initiative, and the host of the acclaimed podcast Finding Our Way. Their work and writing have appeared in The New York Times, HuffPost, You Are Your Best Thing (edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown), and Holding Change (by adrienne maree brown). More by Prentis Hemphill
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