Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome...it's really a thing.
Updated: Sep 10
The Transatlantic Slave Trade happened a long time ago. Since then, we’ve had a war to end Slavery, which was successful, and the Emancipation Proclamation which declared all enslaved Blacks to be free. Since then blacks have been educated, owned businesses and even held the highest office in the land! So, what’s the problem Now?
To answer this question, let’s take a quick look at what happened before all of the wonderful victories. In the way of specifics, there were people whose home was Africa, who were ambushed and captured (Trauma). Shipped by the hundreds across the ocean in extremely tight quarters, where they lay confined against others in intense heat (Trauma). There was dehydration, dysentery (diarrhea), where up to a third of the captives died during transport (Trauma). These people were then sold, beaten, raped (men and women), experimented on regularly (Trauma). After about 300 years, enslaved Africans were freed into the wild with no food, money, shelter nor land (Trauma).
When there is sustained trauma, it follows that there will be sustained impact of that trauma. Dr. Joy DeGruy has done extensive research on this phenomenon starting back to Slavery. She states that there both Adaptive and Survival behaviors that explain much of the way African Americans navigate through daily life.
Blacks experience what is called Trans-generational or multigenerational Trauma, trauma which can be transferred in between generations.
There are very clear connections between the survival behavior of slaves and contemporary living and the behaviors exhibited by Black Americans today.
An interesting example she gives is that of a Black mother and a White mother who have sons attending the same school. The moms find themselves at a meeting together. The Black mother leans over and states “I noticed that your son is doing quite well”. The white mother thanks her and begins to proudly state that her son has won the science fair, that his uncle is an Astronaut etc. Then the white mom realizes that the black women’s son has been out performing her own son, and she says “Wait a minute, your son’s the one who’s really coming along!” The black mom then responds “Oh my God, he’s a handful, and he just works my nerves…”
If you asked most blacks if the black mother is proud of her son, they’d likely chuckle and say “of course she is.” They know that despite her statements, she’s actually quite proud of her son. The black mother is operating from an age - old secret practice. In order to make sense of this, Dr. DeGruy suggests that we look back 300 years. If the white enslaver says to the black mother, who’s working out in the field, “Wow, that boy is really coming along…” The mother is likely to say “ No, he’s not, he’s stupid, he’s shiftless and can’t work!” Why? Because she doesn’t want her son to be sold. This black mother realizes that she must Denigrate in order to protect her child. It’s called “Appropriate Adaptation” when living in a hostile environment.
Blacks when discussing successes of their kids, may say denigrating things about their children, even though they are proud of their achievements. The little white boy takes joy in his mother’s words of affirmation, but the little black boy is left wondering why his mom cannot be proud of him…he doesn’t understand the secret, and by the time he does, he will already have been injured by it. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.
It’s not PTSD, which can be the result of a single trauma. It can occur even if you were not there to witness or directly experience the trauma. You can hear about some horrific happening to a loved one. With Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, some have experienced it first- hand, some have witnessed it in their environment and others are continuing to be oppressed. This trauma becomes normalized and one becomes socialized to it, as when inner city youth begin planning their own funerals at age ten, because they’ve seen so much death amongst children in their neighborhoods. When we look at stress in general, we may think of financial stress, work related stress etc.
Dr. DeGruy asks us to consider the stress of being black.
Multigenerational trauma compromises our immune system, literally preventing our bodies from being able to heal themselves. To deal with this, a portion of it can be addressed in a clinical setting, as having the information and the tools enables us to understand and heal. But at the same time, we must stop the assault from society. It requires social justice and change, fairness, equity and safety are paramount. We must deal with the fact that we have a system that is set up to oppress blacks and continue to injure us.
Author: Chazz Williams
Reference: Dr. Joy DeGruy, PhD
Book: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing