Most of us have heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD in reference to survivors of war or related to a spectrum of instances of abuse. Many of us have experienced some symptoms of it first hand (although we may never have been diagnosed) or are closely touched by it through the experiences of a loved one. In Dr. Joy DeGruy’s theory and study of Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome or PTSS (a term she gave name to) she applies some of the basic symptoms related to PTSD to offer a new perspective regarding the all-encompassing traumas of slavery (and effectively colonialism) through an understanding of direct, indirect and generational traumatic experience.
With humor and black woman scholarly realness, she addresses the uncomfortable feeling around the histories of slavery that specifically involve European, North American, Latin American and Caribbean people.
Acknowledging the pain of the millions of bodies endured in 246 years of American chattel slavery and the deep cognitive dissonance coupled with the creation of “the other” that allowed colonizers to justify their actions, DeGruy paints a picture that we have context and plenty of material to study in contemporary culture. Cognitive dissonance is when you hold certain beliefs and moralities but at some point in your life experience you are forced to confront actions, within yourself and of other people, that cause a rift in your knowledge. Think about Nazi Germany: one of the reasons that traumatic human event happened was because the government set up a moral environment where Jewish people were something to be hated-- an “other” to be blamed for the problems of society. This kind of mentality also justified the atrocities of colonialism and slavery by presenting African and later African-American people as an “other.” This is the kind of mentality that allows governments around the world to blame immigrants for their lack of resources instead of their corrupt politics.
Throughout this history lesson and scientific analysis, one of the main points of DeGruy’s research is that in order for us to be able to heal we must recognize that ALL of us, but especially black people, have been affected by the traumatic events of colonialism and slavery and are living with this today.But in order to do this we must dive into history and peel back the comfortable and utterly uncomfortable layers of our individual and collective experience, to expose the fallacies of history.
Some of those uncomfortable layers uncovered by DeGruy include Reverend John Newton, whose ubiquitous church hymn “Amazing Grace” has been sung at almost every funeral and black american church service I have ever been to. Even President Obama sang it at the service for South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney who was one of the nine black people murdered in cold blood by Dylann Roof at Mother Emanuel A.M.E in Charleston last month. Newton was candid about his disregard of enslaved Africans by calling them “lesser creatures” without Christian souls and describing how naked African women and girls were prey for sexual abuse on slave ships--in which he admittedly took part in. Take a moment to think about how twisted it is that the man who wrote the song that has given so many black people comfort and strength in times of need, used his Christian faith to justify the inhuman treatment of black people...
After watching this video for the first time I felt an intense anxiety.
I began to dissect parts of my own life and I could see how the things that I have experienced, directly and indirectly, have affected my relationship to trauma, history and my own blackness.
I reflected on the trauma of family members who lived through the Civil Rights Era and the injustices they endured just to keep their children fed, while teaching them how to survive, hoping their blackness wouldn’t offend white people too much.
It’s funny how things change, but more so how they don’t.
I reflected on the prejudices I held as a child against my darker skinned family members because of the subliminal “white is right” media I was absorbing.
The haunting moments I involuntarily re-live in my mind are the things that keep me up at night when I cannot find peace in the world I currently live in.
These things are forever with me, but being born and raised in Miami and only ever living in another state when it came time for college, I realized that I had a different relationship to my blackness because my city did not have the intense racial history of the rest of the Northeast and the rest of the South. Miami is a relatively young city compared to Baltimore or any other city that played an important role in the forming of our nation and offers a different perspective.
All my life I have had positive, male and female black role models telling me that their was no limit to my greatness. Whatever familiar struggles we experienced I am blessed to be able to say they were just financial. Whatever I lacked in material I gained from the love, respect and pride of my family. This is a feeling a lot of people share, but also a feeling that many may not.
This lecture made me reflect on some of the examples of parenting that I see around me and how depressed it makes me feel to see and hear these generational traumas being passed down. Watching a three-year-old little black boy cry because he fell and seeing his mother damn near yanks his arm out the socket, screaming “Don’t be a little bitch!”... In an instant I could imagine all the damage just that one sentence might have done, subliminally damaging a young child’s relationship to maternal love and the necessary human expression of tears.
We hold on to so much more than we know. Hearing the people in the street communicate with each other by yelling and screaming at one another for the simplest things or witnessing the angry, misdirected and unnecessary outburst of my neighbor telling his four-year-old son he would “punch him in the fucking face,” if he didn’t hurry up. It hurts me to know that this was probably not the first time this form of communication was used.
In the end, this is global issue. The instances of trauma that we pass on are related to the collective suffering we have all been survivors of while unknowingly contributing to. But by knowing of interwoven histories we can begin to do better for ourselves and others.