Old traumas breed fresh resistance

Post-traumatic slave syndrome (PTSS) is the term used by Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary to describe what ails much of America much of the time.

Leary, who has a bachelor's degree in communications, a master's degree in social work, a master's degree in psychology, and a doctorate of philosophy in social work research, is an assistant professor at Portland State University. Her research on the subject appears in her book "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing."

Too many people fail today because they are using the strategies of their ancestors. According to Leary, some of the strategies necessary for survival during slavery are detrimental today.

"Multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression and absence of opportunity to access the benefits available in the society leads to post-traumatic slave syndrome," she writes in the latter half of the book after discussing race, dehumanization, and crimes against humanity.

The multigenerational trauma of slavery profoundly affects all of us today. Honest descriptions of slavery show slaves being traumatized repeatedly: stolen or sold from their homes in Africa, forbidden to speak their languages, bound and stuffed in ships for weeks while given the least sustenance possible, auctioned off as property they weren't created to be, compelled to work from sunup to sundown, provided with minimal food and drink, often forced to move from place to place without notice and certainly without choice.

Slaves learned to be on guard constantly. They learned to live with limitations of every kind. And when they managed to form a family, there was no guarantee how long that family would exist. Unlike other systems of slavery in other countries, where families were kept together, the American system quite often demanded separation of husband and wife, child and parent.

The end of slavery did not end the trauma. With the Emancipation Proclamation, a terrible system was made less terrible. Still former slaves were at the mercy of the former slave owners. They had only what the oppressor chose to give despite the quality of labor or the length of time they had provided that labor.

Clearly slavery was as disadvantageous to the slave as it was advantageous to those who owned slaves. For a brief time Reconstruction improved life for a significantly small number of the oppressed. Then came the trauma of Jim Crow - separate but never equal - and segregation. Integration brought with it another set of traumas. A constant throughout slave history was the lack of safety for self, family, and property. Rarely did the law provide protection for current or former slaves. Descendants of the slaves have often not fared well.

Never has there been a space, a period to recover from these traumas. Perhaps, more than any other groups of people anywhere, African Americans have exhibited resilience. This is good. However, America must recognize its heinous crimes. This recognition would most likely help the recovery of those with PTSS, but first, African Americans must recognize the toll the syndrome has taken on them.

They must, as individuals, begin by acknowledging slavery and the injuries it caused. They must then extend their understanding to others, help them recognize the culprit. Now they can build good, strong, safe communities. The combination of these communities could then begin to create a society wherein the truth is acknowledged and slavery understood: behavior would change.

There is hope. Leary herself works tirelessly to reduce and eliminate the effects of PTSS. Her expertise on culture, race relations, and social issues show she's practicing her passion. Leary's book is a most important contribution to the healing in several ways. She has applied a name to what ails us.

Being able to say PTSS makes discussing the condition, and its results, easier. In great detail Leary defines the term. Her research sets forth history which may have been known in bits and pieces, but she has collected it and put this history into context.

Leary has not confined herself to the classroom, sharing only with those who can take her classes. She spreads her findings and shares her discoveries wherever she encounters individuals who see and understand her premise. She comes to the people to assist them with the healing.

Leary also encourages these people to create the communities that can create the society America needs. In addition to presenting workshops at educational institutions, Leary carries her information to government agencies from state departments of parole and probation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and speaking at corporations is often on her agenda.

On Tuesday, Feb. 28, you can judge Leary's work for yourself when she will be at Garfield Community Center for a 4:30 p. m. workshop for youth and a 6:00 p. m. public presentation concerning black-on-black crime.

Southeast Seattle writer Georgia McDade may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.

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