Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by Dr. Joy Degruy: A Review
Favorite quote: "Whenever an oppressed black man shouts for equality he is called a racist. This was said of Marcus Garvey in his day. Imagine that! We are so inferior that if we demand equality of opportunity and power that is outrageously racist. Black people who speak up for their rights must beware of this devise of false accusations. It is intended to place you on the defensive and if possible embarrass you into silence. How can we be both oppressed and embarrassed? Is it that our major concern is not to hurt the feelings of the oppressor?" -- Walter Rodney.
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is based around the question: What do repeated traumas visited upon generation after generation of a people produce? What are the impacts of the ordeals associated with chattel slavery, and with the institutions that followed, on African-Americans today? Dr. DeGruy says that “the primary purpose of this book is to encourage African-Americans to view their attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors through the lens of history and so gain a greater understanding of the impact centuries of slavery and oppression has had on our lives.” (DeGruy 16) According to Dr. DeGruy, many of the behaviors that African Americans exhibit are a direct result of the trauma we have suffered for centuries. Dr. DeGruy has termed this condition “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”. What is trauma? Dr. DeGruy defines trauma as “an injury caused by an outside, usually violent, force, event, or experience. We can experience this injury physically, emotionally, psychologically and/or spiritually” (DeGruy 13) “If a trauma is severe enough, it can distort our attitudes and beliefs. Such distortions often result in dysfunctional behaviors which can in turn produce unwanted consequences” (Dr. DeGruy 13) For example, during slavery a black family could be separated at any time. To prevent her children from being sold away from her, she might say negative things about her children as a way to dissuade the master from selling them away. “The slave mother’s denigrating statements about her daughter were spoken to dissuade the slave master from molesting or selling her, and of course, no one would fault her. Yet what originally began as an appropriate adaptation to an oppressive and danger-filled environment has been subsequently transmitted down through generations.” (DeGruy 14)
In the next few sections of the book, DeGruy lists many of the traumatic events that African-Americans were effected by throughout the centuries. Upon European arrival on the North and South American continent, Africans were used as a labor force to make the newly discovered lands (to Europeans) economical viable. To justify this exploitation of human beings, it became necessary to dehumanize them. Dr. DeGruy writes, “When material gain becomes the god before which all must be sacrificed, even one’s own humanity, all manner of crimes and pursuant justifications become possible.” (DeGruy 45) One well known example of dehumanization is found in the Constitution of the United States, where the 3/5ths Compromise was enacted. Instead of being counted as a person, 3/5ths of a state’s slave population would be counted toward that states population. This is the way that slaves became three/fifths of a person.
Dr. DeGruy notes that at the time of the American Revolution, most people believed that Africans, as well as Native Americans, were an inferior class of human being. As Dr. DeGruy states, “When we commit a negative act or think about doing so, most of us get uncomfortable. This discomfort is caused by the difference between our action and what we believe about ourselves. This discomfort is called cognitive dissonance. Humans do not like this discomfort so whenever it occurs we try to resolve it in one of two ways. One way is to own up to the negative act and address the harm caused by it. The other way is to justify the negative act rather than admit any wrongdoing.” (DeGruy 52) This dissonance led to justify the mistreatment of African people. “During the past 500 years Europeans has spent significant resources to prove that African and those of African descent are inferior. The difference between the actions of the Europeans (i.e., enslaving, raping, and killing) and their beliefs about themselves (i.e., We are good Christians) was so great and so painful that they were obligated to go to great lengths in order to survive their own horrific behavior. Chattel slavery and genocide of the Native American population were so Un-Christian the only way they could make their actions acceptable and resolve the dissonance was to relegate their victims to the level of sub-human.” (DeGruy 52) With the daily murders of unarmed black people, we see that even today attempts are made to justify this cruelty. Sadly, many black people have come to internalize this sense of inferiority.
The next section of the book, detailing the various crimes against African people, was “the hardest part of the book to write”, says Dr. DeGruy. “American History has been greatly sanitized”, says Dr. DeGruy. “The fact that the delegation from the United States walked out of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in August of 2001, a conference that declared American chattel slavery as a crime against humanity only serves to highlight America’s refusal to acknowledge this period in her own past” (DeGruy 73) Dr. Joy does an excellent job bringing to life the horror of the Middle Passage, life in bondage, rape and medical experimentation on African people. In particular, the founder of modern gynecology, Dr. James Marion Sims, created the vaginal speculum by conducting various experiments on African women without anesthesia. “Sims reasoned that slave women were able to bear great pain because their race made them more durable, and thus they were well suited for painful medical experimentation.” (DeGruy 78) Even now, many doctors are under the belief that black people are able to endure pain better that other races, and are less likely to prescribe black people pain medication after surgery or injury. Even after the end of formal slavery, the continuing abuse of African Americans continued. Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, exclusionary acts, sharecropping, convict leasing and lynching, were just some of the crimes that African Americans were confronted with in the years after slavery. Dr. DeGruy says “We have only discussed the physical violence visited upon these people. What about the psychological violence? What must it be like living in community where your life is in jeopardy on a daily basis? Where you have to shuffle to survive? Where your dignity and pride are assaulted at every turn? What must it have been like being treated as a third-rate citizen in a seemingly first-rate society whose benefits you are consistently denied access to?” (DeGruy 96) These questions still hold great significance, in light of the continuing issues such as police brutality, mass incarceration, miseducation, environmental racism that affect Black people to this day.
“During the 398 years since our ancestors were brought here against their will, we have barely had time to catch our collective breath”, says Dr. DeGruy. “That we are here at all is a testament to our willpower, spiritual strength and resilience. However, three hundred and ninety-eight years of physical, psychological, and spiritual torture have left their mark” (DeGruy 108) Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is defined by Dr. DeGruy as “multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression and absence of opportunity to access the benefits available in the society” (DeGruy 121) She identifies three categories of behavior: vacant esteem, ever present anger, and racist socialization. Dr. DeGruy defines vacant esteem as “the state of believing oneself to have little or no worth, exacerbated by the group and societal pronouncement of inferiority” (DeGruy 125) “Society”, Dr. DeGruy states, contributes to the formation of vacant esteem in a number of ways, through laws, institutions, and policies, as well as through the media.” (DeGruy 126) Ever present anger is another one of the symptoms of PTSS. William Grier and Price Cobbs point out in their book Black Rage that “the history of slavery and failure of America to successfully integrate its black citizens into the social and political fabric of America, to allow them fair and equal access has led to a very real and lasting rage in African Americans, especially in view of the lies perpetuated about equality of access by the powers that be.” Racist socialization is the internalizing of racist beliefs and opinions and adoption of the slave masters value system. “At this system’s foundation is the belief that white and all things associated with whiteness are superior and that black and all things associated with blackness are inferior” (DeGruy 134)
In the books closing section, Dr. DeGruy addresses the issue of healing and becoming healthy. Part of becoming healthy is knowing who you are i.e., having knowledge of self. “In the future, if we are to move ahead and thrive we need to truly understand and accept who we are as a people. It is through knowing who and what we are that we can identify our strengths and build upon them. Then, using our strengths, we need to heal from the injuries of our history” (DeGruy 181) Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is an exploration that will lay the foundation to beginning the healing of generations of trauma. Thank you for reading the blog, and our next review will be Powernomics by Dr. Claude Anderson.