African Americans may still be experiencing the effects of slavery, concluded Joy DeGruy Leary
What if you discovered that you were passing down destructive behaviors to your children-behaviors so ingrained that if you could travel through time you'd see your great-great-grandmother doing the very same thing?
You would stop, of course. But deciding that certain actions are damaging, especially ones you've seen over and over again from your own childhood, is not easy.
Joy DeGruy Leary, Social Work faculty, has created an avenue for African Americans to assess their cultural customs and habits, both positive and negative, through her theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She maintains that the horrendous, centuries-long treatment of African Americans as slaves resulted in emotional and psychological damage. That damage perpetuated certain behaviors-often destructive-that have been passed down from generation to generation. She is not offering excuses for these behaviors, just insight.
That is why she found it disheartening and inappropriate that her theory was used in the defense of a Beaverton African American man accused of murdering his two-year-old son. The boy, who died of a brain injury, had obviously suffered from repeated beatings once autopsy results were revealed.
DeGruy Leary testified about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome at the May trial and explained why the defendant may have participated in self-destructive behavior, but she says her testimony was not intended to explain the child's mistreatment. An African American herself, DeGruy Leary believes blacks are fully capable of addressing the issues facing them. As a social scientist, she is providing information on where to start. -Kathryn Kirkland, editor
American slavery ended more than a century and a half ago. While the physical manifestations of slavery are for the most part buried, I believe the psychological damage has been passed through the generations and still exists today.
To date, there have been few studies conducted to assess the impact of the traumas associated with the slavery of Africans or the generations that followed them. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) takes into account multigenerational trauma. Many studies of African Americans have focused on environmental conditions of poverty and crime as predictors of future problems. Only a small number of studies have focused on their social problems resulting from sustained psychological multigenerational trauma. Thus, there is a need to answer questions regarding how contemporary societal stressors along with historical trauma relate to current problems. Answers to these questions may help to determine the factors that relate to and influence non-productive behavior of some African Americans and more importantly, those factors that serve to protect against such behaviors.I developed the theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome after studying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disorder that has generated profound interest. Many psychological journals, articles, and books have been written with elaborate details of the symptoms, causes, and treatment of this disorder. Individuals and groups said to suffer from PTSD include victims of rape, war veterans, holocaust survivors and their children, victims of incest, heart attack victims, natural disaster survivors, victims of severe accidents, and others. However, absent from this list are the African American slaves and their offspring. The absence of any therapeutic intervention during or after the advent of slavery would suggest that PTSD among slaves most likely resulted but went untreated.
On September 11, 2001, Americans became more familiar with PTSD. Lots of citizens were reported to be suffering from the disorder as a result of witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Towers and those trapped inside.
With what is known about trauma, is it probable that significant numbers of African slaves experienced a sufficient amount of trauma to warrant a diagnosis of PTSD? The following are a list of some of the conditions that give rise to mental and/or emotional traumas which justify the diagnosis of PTSD and which are consistent with the slave experience:
- A serious threat or harm to one's life or physical integrity;
- A threat or harm to one's children, spouse, or close relative;
- Sudden destruction of one's home or community;
- Seeing another person injured or killed as a result of an accident or physical violence;
- Learning about a serious threat to a relative or a close friend kidnapped, tortured, or killed;
- Experiencing intense fear, terror, and helplessness;
- The stressor and disorder is considered to be more serious and will last longer when the stressor is of human design.
It makes sense to me and other theorists that Africans, who were slaves for nearly two and a half centuries and thus labeled as sub-human and treated as chattel, could not possibly emerge unscathed. PTSS theory takes into account the development of survival adaptations necessary for enduring a hostile slave environment and examines how these adaptations, both positive and negative, continue to be reflected in the behaviors of African Americans today.The question remains, how are such effects of trauma transmitted through generations? The answer is quite straightforward, through the family, the community, and society. How do we learn to raise our children? Almost entirely through our own experience of being raised. Most of us learn how to raise our children to a large degree based upon how we ourselves were raised. Of course there are things our parents did that we decide we'll do differently, but for the most part parenting is one of myriad skills that are passed down generation to generation.
Today we know that if a child has an abusive parent, the likelihood that he or she will grow to be abusive and/or abused is greater than if that child came from a safe and supportive home. We know that if a child comes from a violent home, there is a greater likelihood the child will grow to be violent. We know that if a child comes from a home in which one or both parents went to college, there is a greater likelihood that child will go to college. We know that our children receive most of their attitudes, life skills, and approaches to life from their parents. We also know that most of these are learned by the time they are five or six years old.
I recall overhearing a conversation between black parents and white parents at a school meeting. Their children were classmates and in Little League together. The black mother commented on the achievements of the white parents' child saying, "Your son is really coming along." The white parents responded with pride, "Thank you. He is quite the man. He's in the talented and gifted program here at the school, and he's an excellent player on the Little League team. In fact, he has really excelled in school as well as sports this year. He's just like his father."
The white parents went on for some time before they remembered the gifts and talents of the black parents' child. The white couple praised his numerous accomplishments, saying, "Your son is also doing quite well. I hear . . ." But before they could complete the compliment, the black parents, who were also proud of their son said, "Oh, he's such a mess at home. Sometimes we could just strangle him."
Roll the scene back a few hundred years to a slave master walking through the fields and coming upon a slave family. The slave master remarks, "Well now, that Johnny of yours is really coming along." The slave parents, terrified that the slave master may see qualities in their son or daughter that could merit sale or rape, say, "No sir, he ain't worth nothing. He can't work. He's feeble and shiftless."
The denigrating statements are an effort to dissuade the slave master from molesting or selling the children, and of course in understanding their motives, no one would fault them. This behavior was nothing special. After all, slave mothers and fathers had been belittling their children in an effort to protect them for a couple of hundred years.The theory of PTSS suggests there could be a connection between the behavior of the slave family and that of the modern day school parents. What originally began as an appropriate adaptation to an oppressive and danger-filled environment was subsequently transmitted down through generations. While on the surface seemingly harmless, such behavior serves to both humiliate and injure the young black children of today who can't understand why their parents speak so poorly of them. All too often these children actually begin to believe the demeaning criticisms. Furthermore these criticisms create feelings of being disrespected by the very people who they love and trust the most, their parents.
We know from research conducted on other groups that experienced oppression and trauma that survivor syndromes exist and are pervasive in the human development of second- and third-generation offspring. The characteristics of survivor syndrome include stress, self-doubt, problems with aggression, and a number of psychological and interpersonal relationship problems with family members and others.It stands to reason that the African American experience carries with it a host of stressors that are compounded when the issue of poverty is added. The "American Dream" historically promised economic prosperity to anyone who simply worked hard; however, slavery relegated Africans to an inferior status and barred this group from ever having access to the dream. The dismantling of slavery suggested that African Americans were now allowed the opportunity to achieve the dream, yet Jim Crow laws enacted a system of discrimination against African Americans that eliminated access to jobs, housing, education, and other survival needs. The Jim Crow laws were not ruled illegal until 1954.
Today, the African American community is made up of individuals and families who collectively share survival behaviors from prior generations. Most of these behaviors ensured our survival at one time or another. However, today many of these behaviors will inhibit our ability to survive and thrive if they are not brought to light, examined, and, where necessary, replaced.
The following is an example of a socially learned behavior that PTSS theory suggests can trace its roots in historical adaptations.
Whenever I am in a place of business, I like to observe the behaviors of people waiting in line. I am particularly interested in the behaviors of African Americans, which are often in stark contrast to the behaviors of European Americans and other groups. On one such occasion there was a black mother in a bank with three small children. The children were standing close to their mother. Whenever one of them would become curious about someone or something in the bank and attempted to leave the mother's side, the mother would verbally chastise the child, snapping her fingers and gesturing to the child to immediately return to her side.
In the same line there was another mother standing and waiting for an available teller. Only she was white. She also had several small children similar in age to the black mother's children. The mother had her hands full trying to stay in line while her little boy wandered about skipping, twirling, rolling on the floor, and asking questions of the bank security guard. The white mother did not insist that her children stand by her side. Instead, she tried to keep an eye on them and apologized to the people in line who her children were obviously annoying.
Once the black mother was busy with the teller, one of her children, a little girl, slid down the length of the counter hidden from her mother's sight. Another black mother waiting in line saw her down beneath the counter and did something that is all too familiar to African American children; she gave the attempted escapee the "black mother's death stare" and gestured with a slight move of her head for her to return to her mother's side, which the child did with lowered head. Both women had sent a message to the black children that this is not a place for them, but the children could see that it was an OK place for white children to play, explore, and interact freely.
With the historical lens of slavery one can now better understand why the mother in the bank insisted that her children be near her. In the slave environment, it was inherently unsafe for a black child to stray, wander, or question white people. Such behavior could result in severe punishment or even death. Thus, black slaves were hyper-vigilant about the whereabouts of their children, for such hyper-vigilance meant survival.
This is just one possible example of an adaptive behavior that could have been passed down through generations. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands more.Two of the great strengths that African Americans possess are our resilience and our ability to adapt. These have allowed us to survive and thrive in the presence of seemingly insurmountable obstacles with courage and faith. These adaptive behaviors were invaluable throughout the duration of slavery, and the need for these behaviors continued after emancipation. Thousands of lynchings, beatings, threats to life and property, the rise of the Klan and Jim Crow segregation all obviated the continued need for adaptive survival behaviors. And reminders still exist: the 1989 beating death of Mulugeta Seraw by skinheads in Portland; the 1992 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles; the 1997 burning and beheading of Garnett P. Johnson in Virginia; the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas; and the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo by New York police officers, to name but a few.
Adaptations from slavery have generated behaviors that have led to assumptions about who and what we are as a people, and additionally, what we can become and achieve. While what we have learned from generations past is a significant part of our story, it is not our whole story, and many new chapters need to be written that bring to light the destructive nature of some of our survivor behaviors.I am not alone in recognizing the need for greater understanding and research with regard to historical, multigenerational trauma. Scholars like Alvin F. Poussaint, James P. Comer, Yael Danieli, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, and Mikihachiro Tatara, to name a few, continue to explore the consequences of extreme suffering on generations of diverse people.
There is still much work to be done in assessing our needs as African Americans and understanding the impact of the traumas and injuries sustained during and after slavery.