Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing is a 2005 theoretical work by Dr. Joy DeGruy. P.T.S.S describes the multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans that leads to undiagnosed and untreated posttraumatic stress disorder in enslaved Africans and their descendants. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post_Traumatic_Slave_Syndrome)
This book focuses on the impact American chattel slavery has had on the mindset of African Americans many generations after their emancipation. Dr. DeGruy makes us familiar of her experiences in South Africa and how comparable the attitudes of the people are to those in America. By explaining this, she emphasises the deepness of the wounds of slavery within the African American community, and how the survival mechanisms of the African people who were forced to be slaves have been passed down the generations.
Consequently, to this very day, many of these mechanisms which included lowering the value of the black child to protect them from white oppressors have become the root of self hatred, fear and low self esteem within the black community. We are also introduced to the term Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome; firstly the word trauma is defined as an ‘injury’ which may have been inflicted by an ‘outside, usually violent, force, event or experience’. This injury may be experienced in various ways which impacts the individuals overall outlook on life. Finally, the author emphasises the need for us to not only understand the causes of the mental enslavement and trauma, but the need to also embrace the courage and strength of our ancestors, and focus on how we can harness that strength in order to advance as a people.
Chapter 1: I Don’t Even Notice Race
The author continues to dwell on her South African experience. This time, she focuses on the difference in the attitudes of people after the Apartheid which ended only a short time before she visited, to the attitudes of Americans whose similar situation had theoretically ‘ended’ over 30 years before. She saw that to many of the South Africans, the ending of the Apartheid was enough reason to move foreword and create a more equal South Africa. However, she accredits the continuous racial hostility in America to the constant denial of Americans, particularly white Americans that racial injustice still exists. This denial prevents Americans from moving foreword as South Africans did. The author also nullifies the myth of race, stating that its meaning is not related to the biology of an individual, because all humans are practically the same in this sense. The division of racial categorisation can contribute to people’s belief that a particular racial group is superior, and that all others outside this group are inferior. This has existed and still exists in America today. This is racism. Finally, the author mentions the importance of relationships within the African American community. Our progress may be affected or encouraged when there is a sense of connection with what we are learning or experiencing. Focusing this idea into the lives of African American children may be a very positive thing as she expresses that the ‘most effective motivator for black children is love’. She begins to touch upon the effect of a lack of relationship in the society as a whole, which is dehumanisation.
Chapter 2: Whole to Three Fifths
This chapter evaluated the racial divide scientifically. It took us through the differences between, and the meanings of facts (being something that is proven and exists), beliefs (someone’s own theory) and truths. These were linked to various ideas proposed by famous scientists. Many of their ideas and theories can be experimented and proven, however their studies which tried to prove the natural existence of racial superiority were simply beliefs and not facts. This is dangerous as people believed them despite their lack of factual evidence. Phrenolgical studies tried to prove that black people and in fact people who were not white, were less superior to white people. One reason why people wanted this to be true was to lower the status of other races to the extent of dehumanizing them. This is a psychological coping mechanism known as cognitive dissonance which eases the conscience by separating the mind from the idea that you are doing something wrong. This links to the idea that slave owners and law makers over the last 2 centuries had: By presenting the African American individual as 3/5ths human, they are committing a lesser crime, or even no crime at all because an emotional being is not being hurt or affected.
Chapter 3: Crimes against Humanity
This chapter compiles many of the injustices African American people have faced from the moment they were captured from their homeland in Africa, until they “illusionary freedom”. Discrimination in the workplace and overrepresentation of African Americans in prisons is also a cause for concern. Half of prison inmates in America are African American (statistics around 2005), however only 12% of the population consists of them. If this pattern continues, it is predicted that for every black male that attends university, 100 will be arrested. It is evident to both those who are black and who are not, that “three hundred and eighty five years of physical, psychological and spiritual torture have left a mark” on the black community.
Chapter 4: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
This chapter focuses on this idea, and helps us to understand that we should explore how our past influences our present. From self esteem to devaluing others, this chapter investigated the psychological effects slavery has had on the black community in greater depth. By reiterating what was said in previous chapters, the author links these effects to the idea of trauma. We are asked what trauma is and how it manifests itself in order to clearly see the link between slavery, and behaviours in and towards the black community today. Trauma happens as a result of an event, and in this case, this very long event was slavery. The syndrome aspect of the abbreviation is defined by “ a pattern of behaviours that is brought about by specific circumstances”. So in addition to living with internalised mental trauma, one can also exhibit behaviours as a result of an incident. We are also told in this chapter that these behaviours and ideals can be passed on to the next generation of the peoples affected. In addition, this trauma and its effects can be experienced by those who are not black. This chapter tied in the ideas that have been presented to us throughout the book and told us why we actually do certain things even though we are unconscious of our actions and unaware of their origins.
Chapter 5: Slavery’s Children
This chapter speaks about how the effects of Slavery have been passed onto the descendants of those who fought the original battle. By giving us an anecdote, DeGruy also tells us that not only is their pain still around, but their triumphs and strength in times or hardship have made our society what it is today and we are enjoying many things our ancestors did not because of their lives. It is because of their lives that we are where we are today, or can reach where we want to be. So inasmuch as we may think about and also be victims of the long lasting effect slavery had on our ancestors, we are also reminded that we are products of their victories. In addition, The author continues to talk about PTSS, and also introduces us to healing methods for example positive racial socialisation. Understanding PTSS and also ways to heal it are key to the growth of the black community and help us to deal appropriately with the disrespect we may face, and know when “insult becomes assault” and how to deal with it accordingly.
Chapter 6: Healing
“The task of becoming a better human is never ending…” is one of the most inspiring lines of the chapter. The healing process is just one step to completing the task. By acknowledging our past, we can become stronger as we remember how brave and resilient our ancestors were. Therefore negative connotations associated with being black e.g. laziness can be discarded. Our past helps us to have a brighter future, we must ensure that the things which try to hold us back are unsuccessful. This chapter emphasises that we must go through a healing process in order to continuously develop ourselves into better beings. We must build upon our strengths which are within, and remember the strength our ancestors had. We must build on our self esteem which comes from answering the question of whether or not we’re creating or destroying. Finally, we as a community must “increase our capacity to love and to assess whether or not our people, our culture, and our environment are made better as a result of our environment.
The book ends with an extract of a note from Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding leaders. He acknowledges the consequences of slavery and legacy it will leave. In years to come the “unremitting despotism” and “degrading submission” on either the part of the “slave” or “master” would eventually haunt the nation. But in our community, the author admonishes us in the last line to “Let the healing begin”.