The Multi-Generational Trauma Of Being Black

The news and video footage that has been circulating the media this past week has left us all with heavy hearts and fears/concerns about the future of our well-being as people of color in America. The lives of black men are being taken away by police officers and regardless of the evidence showing cold-blooded murders, the black community still has to beg for justice through hashtags and new social movements.

It’s hard for us to grasp that this is our reality in 2016 when, since pre-school, we have memorized the phrase, “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all,” and at one point… We believed it to be true. In school, we are taught “facts” from history books that state that slavery, racism, and unequal rights for African-Americans are things of the past… History… And in order for us to be able understand why this is our current reality, we have to first understand that the “history” of slavery and unequal rights we’ve been taught and conditioned to believe is not history at all; it has been present our whole life and we experience effects from it every day, possibly without even noticing.

Many of us who were raised in black families and/or communities are affected by something called Post Traumatic Salve Syndrome. I learned about this theory and diagnosis from a YouTube video based off of a book titled, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary. Since this video was introduced to me last summer, I have been able to look at myself, my family, and the black community as a whole in a different light; with a better understanding of why we are the way we are and why other races treat us the way they do. I feel like it’s important for me to share what I have learned from Dr. Leary’s research and what Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome means from my personal perspective as a 24-year old black woman.

If you are reading this as a millennial person of color, you’ll most likely be able to recognize and relate to those “Angry Black Mom” vines that have been shared through social media. We always catch ourselves laughing together when we can recall times when we were having a peaceful day playing video games and sipping on lemonade until our mom comes home, finding reasons to yell at us for everything from the blinds not being opened properly to us failing to take the chicken out the freezer for dinner… But have you ever wondered why so many of our black peers can relate to these “Angry Black Mom” stories? Why have almost all of us experienced our moms snapping on us so often that we accept it as the norm?

Well for one, it’s because the stereotype of an “Angry Black Mom” is the norm in the majority of black families… And even though our moms trip and snap on us for getting our dirty fingerprints on the walls of our homes, most of us try not to take it personally, accepting that she still loves us and just wants us to be more considerate of what she works so hard to provide for us. The reason why an “Angry Black Mom” is a norm in most black families, though, is explained through what Dr. Leary identifies as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

During the centuries in which black people were enslaved, black women witnessed their husbands being murdered, stolen, or sold in front of them. Afterwards, they had to endure being raped and abused by white men and then still had to find the strength to raise their children as single mothers. As a result, they became “Angry Black Moms” with thin patience and outbursts of anger towards their children, passing this behavior as mothers to their daughters from generation to generation through social learning… All the way to 2016 where the personality traits of black mothers have spread virally across social media in the form vines, unknowingly, as a reflection of how our families are still being affected by the emotions and traumas our ancestors experienced during slavery. Contrary to popular belief, black women, and black people in general, are not viewed as “angry” people because it’s part of our culture or genetically part of our DNA; anger is an emotion that was forced upon us in the past and that is still being forced upon us today.

Image Credit: Kevin Kelley
Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, Image Credit: Kevin Kelley

Dr. Leary explains how African-Americans have not been the only group of people to experience a multi-generational tragedy. Studies have been done on the effect the Holocaust has had on the Jewish community, studies have been done on tsunami victims, studies have been done on various tragedies… But when it comes to the study of the way slavery has impacted African-American behaviors, many people shut down the conversation saying that slavery is “a thing of the past,” and that outbursts of anger are just a part of “black culture.”

Dr. Leary expresses that the conversation about slavery and its effect on the behaviors of our generation is so essential to understanding black people (and for us to understand ourselves) today because slavery was the longest-lasting tragedy to ever occur without ever reaching a point of healing. When most people are traumatized by traumatic events, whether it be something as minor as being rear-ended in a fender-bender car accident or something as major as being present at Ground Zero during the 9/11 attacks, they go through therapy that helps them cope with the trauma… But after 246 years of African-Americans being enslaved by white Americans, African-Americans were set “free” with no therapy or guidance on how to go about living a normal life with mental and emotional stability… And after 246 of African-Americans being enslaved by white Americans, those white Americans also exited slavery with no therapy, guidance, or ability to genuinely acknowledge that slavery was inhumane and that African-Americans should be treated equal to other races (which evidently has affected the mental stability of the white community for generations to come). Slaves were never given mental health assistance and the behaviors of whites who were pro-slavery were never attempted to be corrected through psychotherapies.

Fast forward from the abolishment of slavery to America today, and we now have a generation of African-Americans dealing with anger and violence within their own families and communities plus the outside world due to Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, as well as a generation of white Americans with systematic racism and the belief that it’s acceptable to kill and mistreat black people, with no consequence, being spread within their own families and communities. With the realities of the world today, it is clear that although this generation was not present for the 246 years of slavery, we have all been affected by it indirectly as it motivates our behaviors and shapes the structure of our families and the communities we live in.

Image Credit: Jalani Morgan

After seeing videos and reading stories about the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this past week, the only words I could find to express my feelings were: terrifying, heart-breaking, awful, traumatizing. And what hurts even more is that I wasn’t even surprised; I know that the cold-blooded murders of African-Americans have been going on forever and the people who kill them are almost never convicted.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin and the court decision that his murderer was “not guilty,” I haven’t been able to avoid fearing that someday I’ll open my Twitter app to see a name of someone close to me as a hashtag and a new #BlackLivesMatter story…. I can’t avoid fearing for the lives and safety of my father, brothers, cousins, uncles, and male friends every single day. And this fear I feel… The fear you feel… The pain the families of the men and women who have been murdered by police officers and white-privileged, self-proclaimed authorities feel… All link back to how the trauma caused by slavery and racism remains a part of our everyday lives.

Symptoms specific to race-based trauma in African-Americans may include avoidance of white people, fears and anxiety in the presence of law enforcement, paranoia and suspicion, and excessive worries about the safety of family and friends. — Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary

Now more than ever, it’s important for people of color to come together with a real understanding of the past and why we are where we are today. With emotions being so raw, healing seems out of the question right now… But healing starts with learning and knowing ourselves. We must learn all we can about black history, the real black history, so that we will be able to free ourselves rather than waiting for the right to be free from people who never intend to let us be. Civlil rights movements will always be important, protests are always going to be an action with a great possibility for a change, but before we can be great activists who change the world, we have to educate ourselves on this world and we have to open our eyes to the reality of EVERYTHING. We have to make changes in the way we eat, shop, and consume information. We have to find out what our individual talents are and how we can use them to identify our purpose in the world. We have to stop competing and fighting with each other and understand who it really is that is against us. We have to love ourselves more.

I don’t know how much longer black people will have to work harder, fight harder, and be harder just to survive in this twisted world… But evidence proves that we were built strong enough to do it; strong enough to have the focus, determination, and poise to constantly earn back what was stolen from us at birth… And strong enough to overcome any obstacle placed in our way.

This lecture video by Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary is over an hour long, but I STRONGLY suggest you take the time to watch it and learn more about what Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome means and the reality of slavery — what they don’t teach us in school… And share it with your family and community, too.

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