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“Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”: DeGruy talks to Oakland audience about the lingering trauma of African diaspora

on September 17, 2019

“If it gets difficult or if it gets deep or if it gets hard, stay in the room,” Dr. Joy DeGruy told an audience of 600 or so who had filled the pews at First Congregational Church in downtown Oakland on Friday evening. DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, was at the church to talk about race—in particular the unique, multigenerational and still-unresolved trauma of the African-American experience. “Because we can’t deal with this issue,” DeGruy added, “if we don’t stay in the room.”

DeGruy’s talk was part of “The Town Talks” series of speaker presentations and events put forth by Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity. Among DeGruy’s audience in First Congregational’s sanctuary, sitting erect and attentive, were women wearing brightly-colored headdresses, men wearing skullcaps and others in the racially-diverse crowd wearing variations on California business casual and church attire.  DeGruy, herself wearing a multi-colored headwrap, received a standing ovation as she stood to face her audience. 

“I think we fell very deeply in the illusion of inclusion,” DeGruy said, addressing her third audience that day. This we, she said, was not only African-Americans, but all Americans who may believe that a few decades of progress in race relations has effectively solved America’s “race problem.” But these problems persist, she said, because the idea that suffering caused by institutional racism has dehumanized both the oppressed and the oppressor is often left out of the popular narrative. 

DeGruy said she acknowledged that all people—including some sitting in the pews in front of her—might not be equally aware of the legacy of institutional and systemic inequities. “But,” she cautioned the sanctuary, “I don’t have time for those who might say, ‘Are you sure? You had a black president!’” Her wry remark drew bouts of laughter. 

DeGruy, who served as an assistant professor of social work at Portland State University, is a researcher and educator on trauma, race and education.  She earned master’s degrees in social work and psychology and has spent decades researching, holding talks and giving workshops on the intersections of historical trauma, race relations and violence. 

DeGruy said that the inspiration for her work came from her childhood growing up in Los Angeles, when she often found herself asking “Why?” as she observed troubling intracultural behaviors among African-Americans. She said that people in her own community would often use the word “black” as a pejorative term, and view lighter-skinned African-Americans like herself as more desirable.

“I just couldn’t understand it as a child,” she told her audience. “But I wanted to understand its ideology. I wanted to know where it came from.” 

DeGruy said that in her early years, she only understood these behaviors as being passed down from generation to generation throughout the African diaspora. But as an adult working in clinical psychology and social work, she found that variations of these behaviors were common in countries that had chattel slavery (a system in which human beings were treated as individual property), from Brazil to Cuba. “Now I’ve been to seven African countries. It’s not an African thing,” she said. After a brief pause, she added, “It is a Caribbean thing,” to murmurs of affirmation.

To understand this intracultural discrimination, this self-denigration, DeGruy said she had to ask herself, “What was the nature of this injury?”

DeGruy said that generations of trauma in African diaspora communities have created what she called “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” or PTSS, a set of adaptive survival behaviors that were once rational amongst enslaved Africans, but today perpetuate injury within the black community. Reading slave narratives and interviewing African-American elders, DeGruy said, helped her put these behaviors in context. For example, an enslaved black woman working in the fields with her children nearby, she said, might be approached by a white slave master. If this master deemed the woman’s daughter too pretty, or her son too smart and hard-working,  he may have sent her son to work in the fields or raped her daughter. So, as a means of protecting her children, the black mother would disparage them in front of the master. 

But, DeGruy asked, what are contemporary examples of this behavior that characterize PTSS? It might be the black mother, she said, standing in line at the bank who chastises her daughter for leaving her side, while a white mother lets her own daughter explore to her heart’s content. It might be the black mother who denigrates her high-achieving son in front of a white female friend, saying he drives her so crazy, “I could just strangle him,” she said.

“You see, it wasn’t always safe for us,” DeGruy said. “But now we’re doing behaviors that actually hinder development, and we don’t even know why.” 

Through the enactment of restrictive Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, lynchings, mass incarceration and other institutional practices that followed emancipation, African-Americans have experienced a collective and unaddressed trauma, she said. “When we talk about American chattel slavery we’re not talking about a single trauma,” she said, “we’re talking about generations of trauma.” Now, DeGruy said, the resurgence of white nationalism and racial antagonism has reignited this trauma. 

As DeGruy pulled on threads of familiar anecdotes, personal narrative and clinical psychology research throughout her talk, attendees articulated positive affirmations: some snapped their fingers or applauded vigorously, others shouted “Yes!” One man sitting in the front row of pews would shout, “Careful, preacher!” ironically, each time DeGruy touched on a point her audience found particularly poignant.  

Speaking with Oakland North at City Hall earlier in the day before her talk, DeGruy said that she often encounters people of all racial backgrounds who carry burdens like guilt, shame and anger as reactions to an overwhelming sense of racial injustice in America.  She recalled a speaking engagement she had years ago, when a young man came up afterwards and told her that he didn’t know what she wanted or expected from him. “But I’m angry. I am so angry,” DeGruy remembered the young man saying.    

“You know, it’s absolutely OK to be angry, but you can’t stay there,” DeGruy recalled telling him. “If you stay there, it will destroy you.”

“We’re a miracle,” she went on. “That’s what we are.  And I need to remind folks of that.  People who beat themselves up because they don’t understand. They don’t know why. They don’t remember, and they’ve never been taught.”

But she shared a mantra of African-American resilience—“Three hundred and thirty nine years, and no help”—and said that people can only move forward once they understand the origins of their ingrained behaviors and attitudes. “Imagine what we can do if we heal,” she said.

After nearly 40 minutes of engaging Friday’s audience with her words and anecdotes, DeGruy joked that she had not advanced a single slide in her accompanying PowerPoint presentation. Now conscious of her time limitation, DeGruy quickly dove into her presentation: One slide featured an excerpt from slave narratives, another pictures of the harsh interiors of slave forts and one a story about the hidden broken chains at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. She talked about the attitudes of the nation’s founding fathers towards race, and the influence of science in justifying racism.  Understanding contemporary African-American behaviors and attitudes, DeGruy said, requires identifying the nation’s institutions that created and nurtured their trauma, but whose insidiousness is often omitted from mainstream historical accounts.

Throughout the evening, DeGruy repeated her mantra—“Three hundred and thirty nine years, and no help. Three hundred and thirty-nine years of trauma. No help.”—a reminder not only of the suffering of African-Americans over the centuries, but also their collective strength and capacity for healing.

After her talk, DeGruy stayed to sign copies of her book and pose for photos with a long line of her fans. Tanya Henderson, a young African-American attendee wearing a pink headscarf in a bandana style, had come to the event after first hearing DeGruy speak three years ago. “I just feel like her power, her presence, her wisdom and her compassion and love for our people is so abundant, and rich, and inspiring,” said Henderson.  

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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