Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

Here comes PTSS, the latest concoction in the crowded field of group grievance. That would be Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, the invention of “Dr. Joy,” Joy DuGruy, billed as ” the nationally and internationally renowned” researcher and educator.

I will venture a guess that PTSS hasn’t yet caught the attention of many readers of Minding the Campus.  But in view of this summer’s trauma in Ferguson, Missouri, and the escalating rhetoric on racial division in America, it is a good idea to keep up to date on the latest conceits for group grievance.  PTSS is not, or not yet, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of the psychotherapeutics.  But give it a few more years.

Dr. DeGruy’s book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, appeared in 2005.  In the ensuing almost-decade, the idea has made steady ground.  Dr. DeGruy—on her website “Dr. Joy”—holds workshops around the country on “culture, race relations, and contemporary issues.” She lists among her clients Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Fisk, Smith, the University of Chicago, and Morehouse, all of whom have had what she calls the “Dr. Joy Experience.”  Dr. DeGruy writes mainly as a “healer.”  She has an appointment as an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Portland State University, where she also received her Ph.D. in 2001.

She followed up her PTSS book with a study guide in 2008, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, The Healing, and has published other works on the topic, including an essay on the “Impact of Genocide & Terrorism,” and a co-authored piece on “Reparations and Healthcare for African Americans: Repairing the Damage from the Legacy of Slavery.”

What, apart from an arresting play on words, is this new Syndrome?  Wikipedia in this case is probably a reliable source.  It tells us “PTSS describes a set of behaviors, beliefs and actions associated with or, related to multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans that may be inclusive of but not limited to undiagnosed and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in enslaved Africans.”

PTSS is thus a way of speaking in an exculpatory manner about the current social pathologies among some American blacks.  I am avoiding the expression “the black community” in this context because the term suggests a commonality of experience that would seem out of place here.  PTSS, Wikipedia helpfully points out, is an “explanatory theory” that makes “maladaptive behaviors” that originated as “survival strategies” pass from generation to generation long after they have lost their “contextual effectiveness.”  These maladaptations cannot be cured “clinically” but must be repaired by profound “structural change” in society.

This is, in other words, a just-so story. It provides an evidence-proof explanation that lifts away moral responsibility from those engaged in self-destructive, anti-social, and criminal behavior.  DeGruy describes the “key patterns” that reflect PTSS as “Vacant esteem,” “marked propensity for anger and violence,” and “racist socialization and (internalized racism).”   Vacant self-esteem includes “hopelessness, depression and a general self destructive outlook.”  Marked propensity for violence is what it sounds like and can be directed at friends, relatives, or acquaintances.  Racist socialization accounts for “literacy deprivation” and aversion to one’s own group.

All of these are, unfortunately, easily recognized as prominent characteristics of some segments of the black community, and it is to Dr. DeGruy’s credit that she has found a way to talk about them that has some chance of not being dismissed out of hand as stereotyping or “blaming the victim.”  After all, she doesn’t blame the victim.  She blames “society” and some inherent process of trans-generational transmission.

I would, moreover, give some genuine credit to the idea that families do indeed pass along key attitudes and ideas.  Some of these are highly constructive legacies; others are indeed pathologies.   The Bach family passed along a great musical legacy from generation to generation.  A not-so-great legacy seems to have been passed along to Francis Paul Weaver, arrested in February of this year for murdering a man in Canby, Oregon. Paul is the son of Ward Weaver, III, who raped and murdered two girls in 2002.  He is the grandson of Ward Weaver, Jr. who clubbed to death a stranded motorist in 1981 and then raped and murdered the man’s fiancée.

A grim story, to be sure, but a reminder that a family history of “propensity for violence” is no figment of the imagination.  The real question is whether and how much of this and other such pathologies can be traced back to “chattel slavery.”  It is a bit hard to see how hopelessness, depression, self-destruction, and illiteracy could once have been “adaptive behaviors” that just happened to become inter-generational legacies.  A known capacity for violence is indeed adaptive in lawless situations, but only if the individual has the restraint to use it sparingly and with control.  An “uncontrolled propensity for violence” typically marks out an individual for a career as brief as Bonnie and Clyde’s.

Dr. DeGruy’s PTSS theory stumbles in offering too wide an explanation.  It is too wide because the vast majority of descendants of black slaves do not exhibit PTSS. They lead normal, healthy, and productive lives, and have no more depression and hopelessness than anyone else.  The theory is also too wide because for three or four generations after the end of slavery the supposed symptoms of PTSS were rare.  We have a far better explanation of what happened—better because it is more specific—in the breakdown of marriage and family in the black community.

Does any of this apply to Michael Brown?  If we think of him solely through the lens of being the victim of a police shooting, no.  But the larger story seems to require that we take into account the trajectory of his life.  Though he has been praised by some as a gentle soul, millions of others have watched the video of him (or his likeness) committing a strong-arm robbery of a convenience store, and he was sufficiently violent to assault a cop.  Brown was the son of teenage couple who went their separate ways.  He did, however, keep up a relationship with both his parents.

We will probably learn a lot more about him in the fullness of time and we shouldn’t be too eager to make him out as either the “gentle giant” that some call him or the out-and-out thug that others see in his rap video.  Teenagers try on different persona, some good, some bad.  How bad Brown had been when he was in his tough-guy mode is not yet known.

We can, however, pretty safely say that his strong-arm robbery of the convenience store and his fateful encounter with the police had nothing to do with the legacy of slavery.  They might well have had something to do with a disordered childhood that left him free to take drugs, swagger in the middle of a busy street, and get into trouble with the law.

16 thoughts on “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”

  1. Dr. De Gruy has not only opened my eyes as a white man to some of the centuries of unconscionable evil and injustice our forefathers have committed against our black brothers and sisters, but the knowledge has galvanized my efforts, strengthened and energized my commitment to spreading the message of the need to recognize the oneness of humanity as the only means by which this planet will be able to experience true peace.

    If I may, let me also just ask the author this, “if your grandparents lived in Greenwood, OK(Tulsa) in 1921, had just started a little business in that town right before the riots occured(that literally destroyed the town), would your life be any different than it is now? I think you know the answer.” I would also suggest the author read, Racism Without Racists (Bonilla-Silva).

    1. Equally important, reading W. E. B. DuBois’ 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk”, or anything by him or Fredrick Douglass, where author’s attempts to simply justify or debase Dr. DeGruy’s Slavery Shell-Shock theories are perhaps better attributed to slavery’s brutal, physiological, emotional and brutal dismantling of the nuclear black family. DuBois specifically asserts that even at the turn of the last century, African-American males, may not have had an affinity, association, nor understood their emotional connection to stay with his wife and children or wife, as it was forever erased for dozens of generations during slavery.

      1. Equally important, reading W. E. B. DuBois’ 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk”, or anything by him or Fredrick Douglass, where author’s attempts to simply justify or debase Dr. DeGruy’s Slavery Shell-Shock theories are perhaps better attributed to slavery’s brutal, physiological, emotional and systematic dismantling of the nuclear black family. DuBois specifically asserts that even at the turn of the last century, African-American males, may not have had an affinity, association, nor understood their emotional connection with his children or wife, as it was forever erased for dozens of generations during slavery.

    2. Equally important, reading W. E. B. DuBois’ 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk”, or anything by him or Fredrick Douglass, where author’s attempts to simply justify or debase Dr. DeGruy’s Slavery Shell-Shock theories are perhaps better attributed to slavery’s brutal, physiological, emotional and systematic dismantling of the nuclear black family. DuBois specifically asserts that even at the turn of the last century, African-American males, may not have had an affinity, association, nor understood their emotional connection with his children or wife, as it was forever erased for dozens of generations during slavery.
      Other reads, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, by Michelle Alexander, where she argues how Jim Crow laws have actually worsened since one commenter’s “last lynching in 1968”. These laws whereby many of the ACLU and Civil Rights advances have been reversed. Yet, much of her dissertation includes psychological effects upon the African American community and perhaps aides Dr. DeGruy’s arguments, as its focus is males and laws from slavery till today.

  2. Some children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors experience PTSD symptoms. Starvation can affect the health of the descendants of famished people. Perhaps you have compassion for those people? Or do you expect everyone to have a high level of resiliency?
    Most people that experience trauma do not choose to experience it. The last lynching was in 1968, not that long ago. The least we can do is be kind, even if it’s compassion given to their great-grandchildren.

  3. Often the perpetrators and the perpetuators of evil activity find it difficult to see what their personal activities do to others . Often people are allured by the evils that make their attractive lifestyles possible. This is very visible in this piece. The idea that it cannot be true because I have not experienced it strikes me as the lesson of the Bible in that it speaks about our responsibility toward other people.

  4. I have not yet read Dr. DeGruy’s book so I cannot comment clearly on what she has to say. However as a pastor and grandmother in the Recovery Churches of America who has dealt with Recovery Christianity over twenty years I can speak to some of the issues she raises. That the same PTSD circle of self hatred, violence, illiteracy and depression is also found among people in the Native American communities, Migrant workers and women who have been sexually abused.

    These people also have learned helplessness and a lack of resources to get out of the mess their lives are in. The markers for these populations are abuse, shame over the abuse and a sense of injustice that simmers below the surface of affability. Anyone who doubts what I am saying should talk to raped women, poor Black people, Natives living on the reservations and migrant workers. Get past their silence and you will understand where I’m coming from on this.

    Many of them have adapted and healed from their life pains. Many have not. They are all from various backgrounds racially, sexually and culturally but one thing that inner city Black people, Reservation Native Americans, Migrant workers and Raped Women all have in common is imposed Shame. Someone hurt them because of _________ and they all carry the shame of not “fighting back” inside where it festers and rots and causes them to substance abuse and act out.

    Notice that they also all are the focus of society’s disgust, outrage and dismissal of shame. I found out very early in life that if you want to get along with most White people who are in a position of power you had better not express any negative emotions about race, rape or poverty. KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT was the message. If you even hint that there is a culture of exploitation that targets these populations you will be hooted down as an excuse maker, ungrateful, living in the past and un-American.

    The sad thing is that the more people are shamed about their scars the more likely they are to hid their pain and develop their own coping skills. DeGruy hit that one on the head. These groups simply give up on entering into the larger community and its successes. They figure, why bother? If you say anything about your pain as a raped woman, an inner city Black person, a reservation Native American or a Migrant worker, people will just say you are a whiner and ignore you or shame you even more.

    But the shame doesn’t go away. People just hold it in and explode into various forms of rage, even against themselves. And when that happens the people who aren’t in those groups shake their heads and want to know why “they” can’t get over it and act better.

    It’s a sad circle that heals no one. I just wish people would stop hiding their shame and others would listen without fear and judgment long enough for an open and honest dialogue on sexual and racial politics. I have seen it happen. I’ve even sponsored such talks. But will we be able to do this openly? Or will we continue to blame and shame each other into a war that tears us apart and leaves us in ashes?

    Does anyone have an answer?

  5. Thank you, Mr. Wood, for your thoughtful and insightful article on what Dr. DeGruy calls PTSS. I do believe that slavery was a grave and traumatic experience for this country and its inhabitants. I do believe that the effects of such a trauma have been transferred generationally to people of all ethnicities in this country. Individuals may respond differently and groups may respond differently but all are affected to some degree and in some manner. The concept of race (a vestige of human exploitation) still festers in the collective mind of the Americas, the West and most of the “developed” world. This country, as a whole, still suffers from the trauma of slavery. Just the knowledge of the history alone, unresolved, creates a rift in one’s psychology. This obviously doesn’t only effect those who are descendants of slaves, but anyone who becomes aware of this particular inhumanity or lives with the societal and institutional vestiges of it. Perhaps Dr. DeGruy’s “PTSS” definition needs to be expanded because the effects of the trauma are too widespread and diverse to pin down to a “singular” set of symptoms. Many of the symptoms have probably become so “normalized” that only someone from outside its effects could see it, or someone gifted with a considerable amount of objectivity. That being said, we can’t, then, be so sure that Michael Brown’s actions had nothing to do with the legacy of slavery. How is it possible to live in this country outside the legacy of slavery? Slavery and the ideas associated with it were, for centuries, part of the social, economic and psychological character of this country. The legacy of slavery is an inseparable part of the identity of this country. You will, obviously, never have a U. S. of A. without the history and legacy of slavery. It cannot be erased from the truth of who we are as a nation without creating some other type of psychological injury (which has been done). In what year would you say the effects of such a legacy ceased having an effect? I’m not saying that because of PTSS or whatever you want to call it, anyone who is a descendant of a slave should be excused for bad behavior, but I think any good doctor would say that you can’t properly treat an illness unless you first accurately diagnose it. Otherwise your treatment will be ultimately a mistreatment. Thank you.

    1. “..I do believe that slavery was a grave and traumatic experience for this country and its inhabitants…”

      Lol.
      No. Slavery was a grave and traumatic experience for the enslaved, overwhelmingly black people.

  6. Peter,

    EXCELLENT piece! If you should decide to expand it (well worth the effort, I think, because a good deal of this PTSS tripe has been spread around), a terrific way to do so would be to develop the point that you make so well here:

    …. The theory is also too wide because for three or four generations after the end of slavery the supposed symptoms of PTSS were rare. We have a far better explanation of what happened—better because it is more specific—in the breakdown of marriage and family in the black community.

    I’m sure you … are familiar with the Moynihan Report and the scholarly debate over the black family that it sparked, but one particular slice of that debate speaks directly to this PTSS nonsense — specifically, Herbert Gutman’s criticism of one of Moynihan’s claims (and the E. Franklin Frazier work on which it built) in his still monumental book, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (1976).

    Moynihan, following Frazier, blamed the disintegration of the black family that he documented on slavery, which he claimed was responsible for creating a mother-centered family pattern where men were not allowed by the system to provide for and protect their families, a “tangle of pathology” passed down through generations. Gutman demonstrated, however, that at the end of the Civil War most slave families had two parents, most older couples lived together for a long time, etc. As the New York Times obit for him stated (7/22/85):

    [The Moynihan Report] argued that centuries of injustice had caused “deep structural distortions in the life of Negro Americans.” It focused on the modern urban black family, which it asserted was typically centered on the mother in the absence of a father.

    Professor Gutman, however, contended that the black family had essentially remained intact through slavery and the first great wave of migration to the urban centers of the North. While he acknowledged a deterioration in the family during the migration of blacks that resumed after 1940, he rejected as spurious “‘historical’ and ‘cultural’ explanations for their vulnerability.”

    Never mind that Herb Gutman … was a lefty who in effect blamed capitalist industrialization for the problems of the black family. The point that is relevant here is his convincing evidence that the experience of slavery can’t be blamed for all future ills.

    cheers,

    John

    1. Dear John… Rosenburg,

      The breakdown of “marriages” in the black community… specifically???? Hmm… How many hundreds (or thousands) of years has your last name been in the family? Is it “X” chromosome name, or is it “why” as in WHY? Or is it “just trite?” I’m not sure about mine and I have plenty of reasons to feel that way especially when it comes to Jim Crow Economics.

      Maybe you and all of you similar learned gentleman reading and/or placing similar comments here about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and in the following similar commentaries that tend to think that Dr. Joy is not on point, should read a few chapters out of Fox Butterfield’s book… ALL OF GOD’S CHILDREN..; because first reading that book and then encountering Dr. Joy’s work recently is all it took for me to understand that “Dr. Joy” is indeed on point, and even more pointedly, at intersecting points it corresponds with historian Prof. Edward H. Baptist’s book, SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM… The pieces fit together.

      Furthermore, every community in America “is” affected by these phenomena, not to mention globally as well. I would have read more of Butterfield’s book, but someone took my copy out of my car in parking lot of Krispy Kreme not too far from ECU Campus (home of the “Pirates”) several years back.

      However, if you are not familiar with the theme of Butterfield’s book, he writes about the outcome of generational trauma. In the opening chapters, he cites as an example, the ongoing feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and another in a cultural practice if you will, about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr dueling to the death (settling their differences without a hint of legal consequences), he felt that in a generational sense, black slaves as innocent bystanders to these acts of violence were influenced by this violent behavior generationally and found out through research and follow up that the descendants were affected by indirectly affected by the trauma of their forebears witnessed. This New York Times reporter discovered that variations of this behavior were passed down from one generation to another (literally from great-great grandfather to great-great grandson. And from that point the book delves deeply into the culture of violence in America, especially in reference to certain social and ethnic groups proclivity for war, as I recall.

      On other the hand, when she explained that sexual deviance was also a mutated generationally, one only has to recall the Abner Louima story when he was brutally sodomized with a broomstick handle while locked away in jail, and in the custody of New York City police.

      A century earlier Belgium King Leopold as a result of policy and practice was decapitating limbs and other atrocities in the Belgium Congo, [to quote: “Because there was little oversight and no form of organized government control, Europeans were free to adopt brutal policies of kidnapping, mutilation, robbery, and murder to extract desired labor and resources from the local populations (or communities if you will),” unqoute], and it is behavior that has persisted up to this day in various African states experiencing conflict.

      Finally; for you “bible thumping” conservative academeians, I believe there are a number of references to generational curses… and as for the concept of cognitive dissonance, what about “The Good German” as a citizen during WW2? “Dr. Joy” has put the ball in your court if you will. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is fact not fiction… and me, I’m just a layman who stumbled into this discussion while I was reading about poor Halle Berry ‘s being persecuted for her recent divorce… poor “woman.” Straddling two worlds, certainly having her problems…
      Dr. Joy deGruy’s scholarly work has definitely deepend my insight. I gotcha’ back girl…

    2. Dear John… Rosenburg,

      The breakdown of “marriages” in the black community… specifically???? Hmm… How many hundreds (or thousands) of years has your last name been in the family? Is it “X” chromosome name, or is it “why” as in WHY? Or is it “just trite?” I’m not sure about mine and I have plenty of reasons to feel that way especially when it comes to the impact of Jim Crow Economics.

      Maybe you and ‘similar’ learned gentleman reading and/or placing similar comments as Mr. Rosnburg has about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and tend to think that Dr. Joy’s research is not on point, then you should read a few chapters from Fox Butterfield’s book… ALL OF GOD’S CHILDREN, because upon first reading that book several years ago, and then encountering Dr. Joy’s work recently took no time for me to see or understand that “Dr. Joy” is indeed on point, and even more pointedly, that at intersecting points it corresponds with historian Prof. Edward H. Baptist’s book, SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM… The pieces fit together.

      Furthermore, every community in America “is” affected by these phenomena, not to mention it’s global impact as well. I would have read more of Butterfield’s book, but someone took my book out of my car while parked at Krispy Kreme’s lot not too far from ECU Campus (home of the “Pirates”) several years ago.

      However, if you are not familiar Butterfield’s theme, he writes about highlighted with stories about the outcomes of generational trauma in the black community. In his opening chapters, he cites as an example, the ongoing feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and then another in a cultural perceptions and practice if you will, of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr dueling to the death in settling their differences without a hint of legal consequences. He felt that in a generational sense, black slaves (their slave) as innocent bystanders to their acts of violence were influenced by this violent behavior and generationally in follow-up research discovered that their descendants were affected by indirectly by the trauma of their forebears witnessed in terms of their descendants emulating that behavior with punitive outcomes. This writer, a reporter who wrote for the New York Times for 30 years discovered that there were patterns of violent behavior that were being passed from one generation to another (literally from great-great grandfather to great-great grandson, but initially validated through court records, newspaper articles and such, that behavior seemingly resulted from masters who were violent. And from that point the book delves deeply into the culture of violence in America, looking for answers he researched the differences between southern and northern during the 19th Century, especially in reference to certain social and ethnic group’s proclivity for war, as I recall. Scots tended to be more aggressive.

      On other the hand, when she explained that sexual deviance was also a mutated generationally, one only has to recall the story of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, and off-duty security guard who was wrongfully arrested for what began as a civil disturbance, and was brutally sodomized with a broomstick handle while locked away in jail, and in the custody of New York City police.

      Just a century earlier Belgium King Leopold as a result of policy and practice was decapitating limbs and promoting other atrocities in the Belgium Congo, [to quote: “Because there was little oversight and no form of organized government control, Europeans were free to adopt brutal policies of kidnapping, mutilation, robbery, and murder to extract desired labor and resources from the local populations (or communities if you will),” unqoute], and this type of behavior that has persisted up to this day in various African states experiencing conflict.

      Finally for you “bible thumping” conservative academicians, I believe there are a number of references reflecting the dynamic generational curses (leave Ham out of it) … and to close, as for the concept of cognitive dissonance, what about “The Good German” as a citizen during WW2? “Dr. Joy” has put the ball in your court if you will.

      Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is fact not fiction… and me, I’m just a layman who stumbled into this particular discussion while I was reading about poor Halle Berry being persecuted and criticized for her recent divorce… poor “woman,” in straddling two worlds, she certainly having her problems… I pray that she is a survivor.

      Meanwhile, Dr. Joy deGruy’s scholarly work has definitely deepen my insight. I gotcha’ back girl…

    1. My ancestors were Irish. And the Irish were slaves too. But you don’t see me nor any of us having racial marriage problems. AA just are a self destructing race do to self hate.

      1. Carol… First of all how much cotton did your ancestors pick??? Enough to build a nation…. AND not get paid for their enormous labors to boot…!??? Secondly, how well can you trace your heritage… your legacy?? Do you know who your ancestors were and are, and where they came from or better yet started from??? Oh it’s Ireland you say now lassie… Hmmm, Isn’t Africa a continent and Ireland a country. You’re very naïve…. Maybe my ancestors whom I know very very little about were too busy being forced to pick cotton then to raise whatever little family they had left… And finally as a broadcaster perhaps because it’s mainstream media is so busy pointing the camera at us; you know more about my business then I know about yours…

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