Joy Degruy Leary, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. (Milwaukie, Oregon: Upton Press, 2005) 235 Pages.
Book Review By Ozodi Osuji
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (2005 Edition) there is a nosological category called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a grab bag diagnosis because it encompasses symptoms found in other psychiatric disorders such as anxiety disorder and depression, even delusion disorder. The idea is that those who were exposed to stressful and or traumatic situations tend to exhibit certain symptoms.
For example, children who were abused, housewives who were terrorized by abusive husbands, soldiers who were exposed to killing at battlefronts, children who were caught up in war zones and other areas where they were exposed to abuse and see death and dying felt their lives threatened. Generally, when human beings are exposed to life threatening situations they experience fear (anxiety is the name for fear without immediate known cause).
When a person points a gun at you or threatens your life you experience fear (panic). You feel your life threatened and experience a powerful urge to run away or fight back. Your body elicits certain powerful neurochemicals, such as adrenalin and they force you to either run or fight. The neurochemicals make most of the organs in your body to work rapidly. Your heart beats faster; your lungs beat faster. Your lungs drag in more air (oxygen from the outside) and your heart transports that oxygen to all parts of your body via blood.
Your body releases sugar (source of energy) and that energy is rushed to all the muscles in your body by blood. The energy and oxygen rushed to all parts of your body prepare them to either run away from the source of danger or fight it.
In danger, generally you find yourself able to do what ordinarily you were unable to do. When your life is threatened you can run the 100 meters dash at a speed that would make an Olympian athlete proud. You are running to save your life and there is no time to waste for it is do or die.
Your nervous system works faster than it normally does, due to elicited excitatory neurotransmitters that make the neurons fire faster than normal.
Your body sends messages to and from the brain quicker than normal and the brain searches its memory bank asking it how you should respond to the present threat to your life, to stay and fight back or run away. If you have a history of fighting back in such situations you stay and fight but if your memory tells you that you have no chance in hell of overcoming the threat you are pushed to run away.
When you try talking you talk very fast because your vocal cords as all other parts of your body has been speeded up by the various neurochemical reactions in your body.
Essentially, your nature (biological organism) perceives threat to it and does what it has to do to enable you survive, fight or flee. You do not have the time to do calm thinking; you just react, as it were, in an instinctual manner. Nature wants you to survive and makes you do what you have to do to survive.
What I described above is the famous flight or fight response to danger to our lives. The flight part of the response is called fear; the fight part of it is called anger. Fear and anger, therefore, have the same physiological reactions in our bodies; the same neurochemicals are involved in both responses. From a physiological perspective you could not tell the difference between fear and anger response; the body responds the same way except that in one your brain judges you able to fight back and you stay and fight and in the other your brain judges you unable to fight back and forces you to run away. (This probably accounts for the fact that angry people are generally fearful people; the biological reactions are the same. These days the medications given to angry people and fearful people are the same, the various anti-anxiety medications.)
Most people have experienced fear in their lives and understand the reaction I have just described. In normal situations our lives are only occasionally threatened so we experience fear only once in a while. Nature, apparently, anticipated that we will occasionally be attacked and built into our bodies an involuntary fear/anger response. When you are attacked nature does not ask you how you should respond, you just respond with fear or anger.
If one is in a situation where one's life is constantly threatened, such as in an abusive home, one experiences fear and anger most of the time. That which nature made to prepare one to run or fight for one's safety is now employed every day. Worse, in the case of a child who is abused (consider a five year old being raped by her father and or other adults in her life...and these days, boys are also raped especially by Catholic priests) the child cannot even run away. The body reacts as just described and urges the child to run away but where is she going to run to if the father is abusing her? The child is thus caught between a rock and a hard place. There is no escape for her.
Some sexually traumatized children sometimes try to use their minds to escape the abuse. In which case, an abused girl denies that the body and sexual organ being raped by the adult belongs to her. She dissociates from her body and invents another self, a self that is not being abused.
It is hypothesized that this is the origin of dissociative disorders, such as multiple personality disorder. A child subjected to abuse dissociates from herself and invents a different self; the long term consequence is that she now has two or more selves, the abused self and the self that is not abused. Thus, she ends up with many selves: her real self, the abused self and the alter egos that are not abused...Leary did not go into the type of detail I have ventured into here.
I would suggest that black psychologists look into the possibility that some of the behaviors of African Americans are dissociative, as in abused persons dissociating from their real selves; that is, African Americans are not being their real selves in their behaviors but are being alter egos they evolved to adapt to a terrorizing environment? If so, the question is: what is their real self?
Soldiers at the battle front are constantly shot at and shoot at others. They kill and fear being killed. The killing business takes a toll on their psyche. Many of them experience what used to be called shell shock (now called PTSD). Their minds quit the battle front and they simply go numb, and they are now in shock. They become unable to do anything. Folks used to say that such soldiers were pretending illness trying to avoid being at the war front to go kill for their political leaders and their nations (recall the famous scene where George C. Scott enacted out what General Patton supposedly did when he saw shell shocked soldiers at a military hospital: dressed them down as cowards). No, something in them had had enough of this unnatural business of training people to go kill or get killed when they would rather be loved and love their fellow human beings.
All told, those exposed to constant danger to their lives tend to experience trauma to their psychological selves as well as to their bodies. If a child has been raped or abused his mind and body is traumatized. Thereafter that person shows certain symptoms, mainly anxiety, depression and paranoia, the syndrome called post-traumatic stress disorder by psychiatry.
An abused woman could now be walking down a street and see a man that looks like the man that raped or abused her and feel all the fear she felt when she was been abused (she may run across the street to get away from him, even though he is not the person who abused her). She could be walking down a Street and see a house that reminds her of a house where she was abused and she experiences the intense fear, panic she had felt when actually abused.
Once traumatized, abused the human mind is easily triggered by danger that reminds it of that abuse. Once traumatized a person could be sitting in the comfort of his home and then suddenly for no apparent reason experiences all the symptoms of intense fear, feel as he felt when he was being abused and his life was in actual danger. Now he is supposedly in the safety of his house and experiences panic and terror.
Anticipatory fear could be at work. Once traumatized your mind could anticipate similar trauma or think of the past abuse and your body elicits reactions as if it is actually being attacked now.
A soldier who had been at the battle field can now be in his room and feel as he felt when he was at the battlefield. He feels intense fear and stress and reacts with the same fear and or anger response.
He may go buy alcohol and other drugs in an effort to calm his body down. Stress and traumatic reaction often leads to abuse of drugs that calm one's body (such as alcohol, anti-anxiety agents...Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Librium, Klonipine; heroine, morphine, anything that calms the body). Past abuse and trauma tends to lead to abuse of drugs and to drug addiction in the abused person; additionally, it messes up that person's emotional state and of course interpersonal relationships (would you be able to deal with a person who is often panicking and running from situations that you do not consider life threatening or would you be able to cope with a person who falsely accuses you of trying to harm, kill him?).
Post-traumatic stress disorder is found in many soldiers who returned from battle fields (such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan). The various VA hospitals are filled with soldiers suffering from PTSD. They are usually treated with a combination of medications and psychotherapy (they are often given anxiolytics but since those are addictive, anti-depressants such as Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft are tried).
Psychotherapy entails understanding the nature of the trauma the individual went through and working through the issues aroused for him. Individual, group and family therapies are often tried. Generally, it takes years to work through the issues associated with PTSD. It is doubtful that anyone can be completely healed of their traumatic experiences; such experiences tend to stay in the individual's mind and affect his or her behavior for the rest of his life.
And, worse, such persons often develop behavior patterns that they may pass on to their children (hence multi-generational effect of abuse). For example, if you abuse someone and make him fearful most of the time he may develop paranoid tenancies.
In paranoia the individual anticipates that other people could attack, him or even kill him. He defends himself by avoiding those he believes are out to harm him. This behavior pattern, anticipatory avoidance of danger, may be passed to the individual's children. He socializes them to be afraid of other people and the children learn to anticipate danger and avoid it. These ways paranoid persons produce paranoid children! However, there may be biological factors involved, such as tendency to higher somatic arousal, more or quicker adrenalin elicitation etc.
I hope that I have, more or less, given a bird's eye view of what PTSD is. What Dr. Leary did in her book is extrapolate from what psychiatry knows about PTSD and apply it to the African American situation. She considers the experience of African-Americans in America traumatic hence caused PTSD in many of them (she called her diagnosis post traumatic slave syndrome or PTSS).
Consider what happened. Africans, some of them under ten years old, were yanked away from their homes in Africa. They were packed like sardines in slave ships and brought to the Americas (many died in the middle passage). In the Americas they were sold as slaves and used to do farm work by their white slave masters. They were worked like animals, in fact, often worse than folks worked their mules. They were worked until they dropped dead.
They were not considered human beings, just farm animals. Even as they were considered animals their white masters and their children gratified their sexual urges on them. When the slave master felt sexual he took any female (perhaps males too) slave he wanted and raped her (that way many African Americans became mixed race, all due to the man who is preaching racial superiority!).
White teenage boys learned all about sex by raping black women, some often as young as twelve years old. Rape is a terrorizing experience.
African slaves were subjected to such terrible treatment that it is difficult to believe that those who did this thing to their fellow human beings are human beings. Are white folks human beings?
Bobby Wright, a black psychologist believes that white folks are born psychopathic and sociopathic; that is, are brutes. He thinks that they have no conscience, no sense of guilt or shame or remorse feeling.
Dr. Leary provided what she called the symptoms of post traumatic slavery syndrome, PTSS. Actually, what she did is package most of what most people already know as issues in the African American community and attributed them to the trauma of slavery and racism. In other words, she attributed causality without proof.
Going along with her hypothesis, she said that PTSS is characterized by the tendency for black folks to be prone to anger. We all know that black folks appear to have smoldering anger in them and any little trigger leads to the explosion of that anger. Friends could be having fun and one says what annoys the other and he goes home and grabs a gun and blows the others head away. Dr. Leary thinks that this tendency to rage in the African American is attributable to slavery and the frustrations African Americans, especially the males experience in America.
We all know that African Americans are usually the last hired for jobs and the first fired. We know that they are disrespected by the white community. We know that police harass them, especially black males; we know that they are disproportionately represented in the penal community. All these issues cause anger and the African American has anger issues. Whether this anger issue is directly caused by slavery is debatable but one suspect that it probably has something to do with it.
Dr. Leary talked about low self-esteem (in her words, vacant esteem) in the African Americans. What is racism but the propaganda that black folks are less intelligent than white folks and are supposedly closer to animals than people? We all know that the intention of racism is to make black folks doubt their worth; everything in the American polity is deigned to impress on Africans how stupid they are. It is therefore not a wonder that many African Americans have low self-esteem.
Kenneth Clark's doll experiment in the 1950s showed that black kids preferred white dolls to black dolls; one doubts that the situation has changed greatly today.
Black children generally do not have positive expectations from their society. Indeed, they see bleak futures for them. Dr. Leary talked about ten year old black boys already making plans for their death and funeral in the Washington DC area; they were already planning about what clothes they would be buried in! In their neighborhoods (called the murder capital of the USA) black kids kill other black kids as if they are rats. Drive by killing is part of their everyday experience. If they are not killed by their fellow blacks they can expect to have run-ins with the police and probably wound up in jails and prisons in their teenage years.
In jails and prisons (where one out of four black youth are) they are likely going to be raped and eventually marked for murder. (The jail experience is probably an immediate traumatizing experience for African Americans.)
Racism does wonders in these United States of America; it socializes black children to expect death at a very early age. You find young black men not expecting to live past twenty four years old. You find forty year old black men who tell you that most of the people they grew up with are either dead or are in prisons. And they tell you all these as a matter of fact. Theirs is a hopeless existence.
Dr. Leary talked about the effect of PTSS on black male and female relationships. We know that during slavery marriage was discouraged by the slave owners but after slavery blacks did make a valiant effort to restart and rehabilitate marriage between them. Today, over 70% of black children are raised by single black women.
It seems that black men get the sisters pregnant and do not want to stick around for marriage and raising the children. And before you start blaming any one you had better realize that the brothers may be unemployed and do not have money and may have been in and out of prisons since age twelve. They feel their manhood denigrated by poverty. It takes money to support children and if one does not have money one is no good to the children. We also know that generally speaking women tend to prefer men with money and tend to respect men with money. Poor and unemployed men are seldom respected by women (black or white women).
The few black men that manage to make it through some kind of college education, Dr. Leary said, appear motivated to run away from the sisters and shack up with white women. In America white womanhood is presented as ideal womanhood and some of the brothers apparently have internalized the idea that white women are preferable to black women, she said.
Black women, too, judge their beauty relative to white ideals of beauty: consider what they do to straighten their hair and lighten their color etc.; it may well be that racial influences also dispose black women not to respect black men, after all the white world does not respect black men and the white man at least finds black women tolerable as sex toys hence has value for him and that kind of gives black women perverted sense of more worth than black men in racist America?
What Dr. Leary did was enumerate what we all know are the problems found in the black community and attributed them all to PTSS; she appears to say that the social breakdown we find in the black community is symptomatic of the past and present traumatic experience of black folk in the hands of white folks. Whether she is right or not is a different story.
Her book is her perception, her opinion, not a social-psychological study that finds correlation between two variables. I am supposing that it is a gold mine for those who want to do actual studies to take specific ideas from her book and study them. Is there really correlation between PTSS and, say, drug taking?
Couldn't drug taking be due to a whole set of causes including perceived meaninglessness of life in North America? Those living in the great cities of America, such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York are essentially like animals in a zoo; nature probably did not mean for people to live like that; ghetto living, it seems to me, is unnatural living.
Not too long ago people lived in country villages where they lived in nature and breathed fresh air. These days they are inhaling fumes from the millions of cars on the streets of big cities. This is not exactly how life is meant to be?
This kind of life is probably enough to give people a feeling that life is pointless and they then try to escape from their pessimistic perception of being by taking recourse in alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, excessive sexual activity and over eating, anything to make them feel pleasurable in a depressing world. (A few weeks in Washington DC depressed me; I kept asking: how could people live in such a bleak and depressing environment; why can't they escape to the country side and inhale fresh air and enjoy the beauty of unspoilt nature; I left as soon as I could to the greener pastures of the pacific northwest where one could live in the country side).
I am saying that the causal factors for all the problems that Dr. Leary enumerated may not be what she thinks that they are. It is very easy to reduce everything wrong with black America to supposed origin in the trauma of slavery and racism. Her book is probably another reductionistic social science; it reduced complex issues to sociological causes only.
There happen to be biological and existential factors at work in people's lives. Indeed, biology probably determines over 75% of human behavior. There is a tendency for black scholars to totally ignore biological variables and only harp on self-evident social factors at play in folk's lives. Those social factors are only the partial causes of folk's problems.
Even if you improve people's social lives they would still grapple with biological and existential issues, such as why are they alive, what are they living for, is life worth living.
Dr. Leary obviously is not a philosopher or even a psychologist; she is a social worker and her book reflects her social work background; it lacks grounding in theoretical understanding of human nature and human behavior; it is a string of hastily thrown together ideas that may not be causally related.
A good portion of Dr. Leary's book is narration of the history of slavery in the United States. She gave an acceptable history of the African American experience from 1619 when the first slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia to the present USA. She gave us a picture of the slaves' lot in America: unmitigated abuse from sun up to sun down.
She told us about how slavery and subsequent discrimination against black Americans amounted to terrorizing them. I agree. Slavery was terrorism. Let us stop minimizing what white Americans did to black Americans. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other slave masters were terrorists; they terrorized their slaves. Of course, that was not how they saw their victims; they fancied themselves Christians giving benighted Africans the light of Christ. Christians indeed!
Jesus asked his followers to love all people and these predatory monsters exploited people's labor for free, worked them to death and did not even mark their burial grounds.
I have on a number of occasions visited Jefferson's Monticello, Washington's Mount Vernon, Madison's Montpellier and the other mansions of the founder terrorists and saw where they buried their kindred and asked the tourist guides where they buried their slaves and they looked at me as if I was crazy. The slaves were apparently thrown into unmarked graves (if indeed they were buried; who knows whether these savages calling themselves civilized folk ate the bodies of their slaves, too; one wouldn't put it pass them!).
Dr. Leary made an acceptable argument that slavery and racial discrimination was traumatic to African Americans. Her argument is persuasive and one accepts it.
Since we know that the effects of trauma are often passed to future generation, even when the abused is no longer abused, Dr. Leary believes that former slaves passed the behavior patterns developed during slavery to contemporary African Americans.
Although she did not really develop this hypothesis beyond anecdotal extrapolations I think that she is telling the truth. I think that contemporary African Americans are still suffering from the effects of slavery on their ancestors.
Much of what seems like unnatural behaviors found in contemporary African Americans can be traced to their history of abuse. Drug abuse, dropping out of school, criminal behavior, lack of self-respect and respect for other black folks and tendency to fear white folks and so on could all be the after effect of slavery and abuse African Americans suffered in the hands of white Americans.
Having made her case that slavery produced post traumatic disorder in African Americans she proceeded to make a case for what seems to her healing interventions. Her suggestions were in the nature of social work, reflecting her social work background. In my judgment they are not worth consideration, just namby-pamby social worker feel good talk.
She did elaborate on the role of religion in enabling African Americans cope with their ordeal. It is doubtful that they could have survived their torture chamber, for that is what America is for black folk, without the consolation provided by religion. Religion enables people to try to make sense of their life.
Unfortunately, the religion that most African-Americans are socialized into is Christianity, the religion of the racists who terrorized them.
Is it a good idea to practice the religion of one's terrorizer? There seems a contradiction in terms here. To solve this problem many African Americans walked away from Christianity and walked right into the religion of other terrorists, Islam.
Muslim Arabs actually enslaved more Africans than white Americans did; therefore, their religion is hardly the panacea that black folks are looking for.
Thus, realizing that Islam is also the enemy's religion many African Muslims are jettisoning it. Now what is the alternative?
Dr. Leary appears to have toyed with Baha'ism; an Islam derived religion that talks about human unity and oppressed folks find solace in it (provided they allow Bahaullah and his children to rule them forever).
Some African Americans are now identifying with ancient Egypt as their origin and thus go to Egypt looking for religion. With the understanding that ancient Egypt was an African civilization these African Americans seek to resurrect ancient Egyptian religion and see it as their own. They call their new religion Kemet (I will do a review of it in this ten part series).
How about looking into West African religions since most African Americans came from West Africa, not Egypt? Unfortunately, each West African religion tends to be limited to each tribe hence do not appeal to those from different types. African Americans came from most of the tribes in West Africa, from, Senegal to Namibia, it is therefore doubtful that any specific West Africa religion would appeal to them.
Perhaps, African-Americans need to formulate their own religion; why not? They are after all another African tribe!
Alas, willy-nilly they are also partly European and Indian! Clearly their religion must encompass their multiracial experience, that is, not specifically African but universal?
Franz Fanon (who I will focus on in my next review) had his own ideas on what needs to be done to rehabilitate formerly enslaved and or colonized people.
In sum, Dr. Leary gave us a simplistic picture of PTSD and applied it to the African American experience. Her book is interesting. However, it did not take much thought to write it; all she did was read DSM IV and extrapolate from it and apply it to the African American experience, and injected a bit of African American history into her write up. The rest of the book was filled with her personal experiences with racism and travelling around the USA and South Africa sharing her views.
I urge folks to read her book, especially since it is a very simple read and the ideas are not difficult to grasp. More sophisticated readers, especially mental health professionals would not benefit from the book. I found it overly childlike.
I do not want to sound sexist but I must observe that there is something feminine about this book; it is the type of thing one expects to hear from ones grandmother. In the real world life is a bit more complicated than the solutions she proffered.
Those who caused the trauma she talked about are still bent on continuing it. Therefore, the solution would seem to require manly political intervention. There needs to be a concerted effort to throw off the oppressor. Omelets are not made without breaking eggs so blood may be required in righting wrong.
Until someone pays a serious price for abusing human beings I doubt that he would give up his war on people's bodies and minds.
Those in power seldom give it up willingly; they generally need to be defeated in a battle field for them to see the reality of not oppressing people.
As a man I see the need for death and dying in order to checkmate other men's aggression. Therapeutic talk does not seem enough to alter horrible political situations, although it certainly does help.
*The next review is Franz Fanon's writings, followed by an examination of the Egyptian religion, Kemet. I will thereafter do a heuristic paper on whether the high level of paranoia found in many west Africans is a residue of their traumatic experience during slavery; imagine what life looked like in West Africa, with slave catchers roaming all over the place capturing people, including children (as narrated by Olauda Equano in his biography); it must have created tremendous fear and insecurity in the people and this probably accounts for the high level or paranoia I see in West Africans?
July 3, 2012