Breaking the Chains

Essence asked three experts to explain how the bonds of slavery continue to hold Black folks captive, and how we can set ourselves free.

Though slavery ended nearly 140 years ago, the brutal, savage servitude endured by our ancestors continues to haunt our very souls, long after we’ve been “set free.” In fact, a growing number of our most critical thinkers believe that African-Americans suffer from a form of psychological trauma that has been dubbed post-traumatic slave syndrome. Though not everyone has bought into this controversial theory, those who have believe that the sheer breadth and scope of slavery’s assault on the Black spirit created an extreme, long-lasting kind of stress. And because the fears and coping and survival strategies were never alleviated or analyzed, many believe that they have been passed from one generation of African-Americans to the next.

Essence asked three of the many experts who have looked at this syndrome to help us understand why the model of post-traumatic slave syndrome is useful for explaining how some troubling problems in our community—from Black-on-Black violence to skin-color drama—may have their roots in slavery. According to our authorities—Joy DeGruy-Leary, Ph.D., a professor of social work at Portland State University, who has studied the centuries-old effects of slavery on today’s Black behavior; Brenda Wade, Ph.D., a San Francisco clinical psychologist and coauthor of the book What Mama Couldn’t Tell Us About Love: Healing the Emotional Legacy of Racism by Celebrating Our Light; and Gail E. Wyatt, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives—only by understanding how a terrible legacy from our past continues to play out in our present can we begin to heal. —the editors

THE CONTINUING BONDS OF SLAVERY

Essence: None of us are slaves today, and we don’t know anybody who is or was a slave. So why would we be traumatized by something we haven’t actually experienced?

Joy DeGruy-Leary: We know that people do not have to directly experience an event to be traumatized by it, and research has shown that severe trauma can affect multiple generations. For example, some children and grandchildren of World War II European holocaust survivors have also suffered trauma related to those events even though they were born years after the war ended. That horror lasted for approximately 12 years and resulted in considerable suffering through generations. Compare this to the slave experience in which a similar series of atrocities were perpetrated on a group of people over the course of 250 years. But no one has ever measured the impact that slavery had on us, what it’s meant for us to live for centuries in a hostile environment. We have been hurt, not just by the obvious physical assaults, but in deep psychological ways that are connected to centuries of abuse.

Our ancestors learned to adapt to living in a hostile environment and we normalized our injury. And because they didn’t get free therapy after slavery, these behaviors were passed through the generations.

Essence: Everyone, regardless of race, has dysfunctions. But what are some of the specific behaviors we exhibit today that can be traced directly back to slavery?

Gail Wyatt:
Parenting is a good example. During slavery, to keep their children out of harm’s way, parents tended to be overly punitive. They would punish their children, often with aggression, to keep them in line rather than allow them to be punished by someone else: the master or the overseer. Parents also may have been overly punitive to look powerful to their children to hide the fact that they were powerless. For these reasons, this overly punitive parenting has been perpetrated by families. Though parents of other races punish children physically, many of us grew up in families where corporal punishment was the norm and where even a child’s questioning was often met with a great deal of aggression from parents.

DeGruy-Leary: I’ve seen so many other parents struggle with this, and they had to learn to hug their own children. For some of us, there’s a fear of loving too much, because during slavery there was never any guarantee that families wouldn’t be split apart. In a word, it’s abandonment, abandonment deep down. And so there’s this difficulty that we have in really embracing each other the way we need to, even our own children. It’s similar with praise. The slave master may have noted that the child is “coming along,” but the mother would state his bad qualities—he’s stupid, shiftless, unruly, can’t work—to keep him from being sold. Many of us normalized that pathology and now, even though a parent may be very proud of a child, there is a downplay of praise. That creates children who wonder Am I not good enough? or who are desperate to make their parents proud.

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