Dr. DeGruy-Leary’s Theory, written by Donna Lamb, 28 September 2004.
Brooklyn – Among the many fine presentations offered here recently at the 10th Annual MAAFA Commemoration held throughout the month of September by the St. Paul Community Baptist Church was an excellent session by Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary, Assistant Professor at Portland State University. In it, she laid out her theory of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), explaining what it is, how it’s been passed down through the generations, and its ongoing ill effects on the Black community today. She made a clear case for the need to identify PTSS so it can be dealt with, because, as she stated, “We can’t heal what we don’t understand.”
Leary’s concept is based on the theory of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is firmly accepted by the psychiatric establishment. It’s now taken as a given that there are people who will need treatment for the ongoing damage they suffered psychologically from the trauma of experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events such as military combat, a terrorist attack, natural disaster, serious accident or a violent personal assault, including rape. People afflicted with PTSD, Leary explained, often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks.
They may have difficulty sleeping, be irritable, have outbursts of anger, exaggerated startle responses and feel estranged from others. Their ability to function in social, work or family life is also impaired. This includes having trouble holding down a job, marital problems and difficulties in parenting. As Leary also pointed out, PTSD is not a new disorder; there are written accounts of similar symptoms going back to ancient times. During the Civil War, there was documentation of a PTSD-like disorder known as “Da Costa’s Syndrome.” Following the Second World War and every war since, countless combat veterans have been treated for “shellshock.” Both are now recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Nor is it new to look at this trauma theory in a collective way, applying it to people as a group, such as the Indigenous Peoples or Jewish Holocaust survivors, who suffered historical injuries. The thing that is new – and very much needed – is the application of this theory to Africans who were enslaved in American and to their descendants. That is what Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary has brought to the table with her identification of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome.
It is her contention that African Americans today are badly affected by past centuries of slavery in this country because the original enslaved Africans were never treated for the severe trauma of being degraded, beaten and abused, seeing relatives whipped, raped and killed, being forced to breed and having their babies taken from them, and all the other unspeakably horrible things that occurred during slavery. Even after slavery officially ended, nothing was done to help Blacks recover from the trauma resulting from it. In fact, as Leary illustrated, the traumatizing circumstances continued – and one might even say increased – with the Black Codes, peonage, sharecropping, lynchings, Jim Crow laws and all the other things that, for all practical purposes, kept Blacks in bondage.
Even with the passage of the civil rights acts of the 1960s, Leary explained, no measures were put in place to help African Americans cope with all they had suffered, and to rectify the damage that the maltreatment had done to them mentally, spiritually and physically over many generations. Plus, today Blacks in America still face racism, oppression and societal inequality. “There was never a period of time when Africans in this nation were given the permission or the wherewithal to heal from our injury, so the trauma has continued,” she stated. Leary brought across how you don’t have to be the direct victim of a horrible occurrence to be traumatized by it. That was clear after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon when people all over the nation were traumatized even though they, themselves, were nowhere near either event. She showed how attitudes and behaviors resulting from trauma can be passed down from generation to generation without people even being conscious of doing it. She also broke down for her listeners how survival techniques developed during slavery have been carried down inter-generationally, even when they were no longer needed, to the detriment of the Black community.
She addressed some of the specific difficulties among African Americans and illustrated how they are symptoms of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She showed, for instance, how various problems between Black men and women today have their origin in slavery, and how the “Crabs in a Barrel Syndrome” as it’s been called, is a leftover from coping mechanisms begun when some enslaved Africans were made over-seers of others working in the fields. There was much food for thought presented during Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary’s gripping two-hour presentation. Certainly everyone went away with important new information to ponder and digest.