By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, May 29, 2020)
Last week Monday was celebrated across the world as African Liberation Day. These days, very little is done here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) to mark this significant day, but in the 1970s and 80s, huge rallies, pickets, panel discussions and demonstrations were held demanding an end to colonialism and Apartheid in Africa. The demand for independence was widespread among colonized peoples. Some took up arms and resorted to revolutionary violence to secure their freedom.
When we speak of slavery and colonialism, crimes such as kidnapping, rape, mass murder, exploitation and human degradations come to mind. Continental Africans and those in the diaspora endured centuries of mistreatment. And then, in the 19th-century, legal Emancipation of the enslaved was achieved mainly through the efforts of our ancestors.
No one stopped to think or study the impact of slavery and colonialism on the body and mental health of the formerly enslaved. Our ancestors were simply “freed” and made to eke out an existence the best we can.
The trauma of enslavement must have been great, but who cared?
Then in 2005, Dr. O’Leary-DeGruy published a critically acclaimed book entitled “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS)”. The study describes a set of behaviours, beliefs and actions associated with or related to multigenerational trauma experienced by African Americans that include, but not limited to undiagnosed and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in enslaved Africans and their descendants.
Dr. O’Leary-DeGruy argues that centuries of slavery in the United States, followed by systemic and structural racism and oppression, including lynching, Jim Crow Laws and unwarranted mass incarceration have resulted in multigenerational maladaptive behaviours, which originated as survival strategies. The syndrome continues because children whose parents suffer from PTSS are often indoctrinated into the same behaviours, long after the behaviours have lost their contextual effectiveness.
DeGruy states that PTSS is not a disorder that can simply be treated and remedied clinically; it requires a profound social change in individuals, as well as in institutions that continue to rationalise and justify inequality and injustice toward the descendants of enslaved Africans.
Central to Dr DeGruy’s argument was that trauma can and does pass from generation to generation through the genes of trauma victims. Many in intellectual circles condemned her work as a new form of racism, until well, white people started acting in ways which were diagnosed as post-traumatic stress — soldiers returning from Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq or those who experienced major disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.
Susan Pease Banitt says, “PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.” Intergenerational trauma is the idea that serious trauma can affect the children and grandchildren of those who had the first-hand experience, due to living with a person suffering from PTSD and the challenges that can bring.
What’s new is — thanks to the emerging field of epigenetics — science is discovering that trauma is being passed down to future generations through more than simply learned behaviours.
Researchers offer the example of survivors of the Jewish holocaust passing the effects of trauma to children and grandchildren. It seems that trauma or its effects are being passed down through our genes, and it has enormous consequences for us as a species.
Professor Judy Atkinson in her book “Trauma Trails” says the worst examples of intergenerational trauma occur when a generation is born carrying the trauma of their parents, and the parents and children are still living in circumstances that are traumatic. In some cases, this can go on for generations, particularly in cases of on-going war, colonisation, and genocide.
According to transpersonal psychologists, when the trauma is so overwhelming that our only defence mechanism is to avoid feeling it, then we continue to carry it until someday, we have the courage and strength to finally feel all of it and come to emotional completion, though the physical event may have ended long ago.
Several problems can prevent this: a person may not feel like they are in a safe enough environment, or not supported enough to go into the vulnerability of feeling their old pain in order to release it; the person may struggle with being re-traumatised by going back into the memory of what happened.
Dr Joy DePruy made all of these points in her 2005 book, but they were rejected presumably because they laid bare the cause of many problems confronting African people.
If Jewish people whose horrible experience at the hands of the Nazis, less than a century ago, is believed to cause transgenerational trauma, and soldiers returning from war zones are diagnosed with serious physical, mental and psychological problems, why is it so difficult for the intellectual community, and more significantly African people themselves to recognise and accept that after centuries of brutalisation during the slave trade and slavery, colonisation and the dehumanising practices that flow from racist policies, that there is a post-traumatic slave syndrome that continues to negatively impact and affect our people?
Could this disorder that follows our people from conquest, genocide and slavery be an explanation for why so many of our people find it so difficult to cope with life’s challenges? That we are overwhelmed and feel we don’t have the tools or skills to find our way through?
Could the trauma of our past help to explain what some describe as re-traumatisation, when a person wakes up their old pain and trauma to try to release it, but then instead of accepting and thereby allow it to flow out of them, they contract around it with their judgment that this is something they don’t want? So, they experience the pain again but do so without releasing it?
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome can include any moments of pain and tragedy that have occurred throughout our life, but by far the biggest factor of whether the pain remains with us as trauma, is whether it was overwhelming and whether it continued to be overwhelming.
As we continue the struggle for African redemption and liberation, a proper understanding of our history is indispensable. Unless we emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, many of us will continue to self-hate and engage in destructive actions with far-reaching implication for our families, our race and countries.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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