July 1, Emancipation and PTSD; Post Taumatic Slave Syndrome

During my student days I first heard of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

PTSD is defined in psychiatry as a stagnant processing of the experience of a shocking event. Generations later, descendants of World War II victims still had to deal with this. I didn't quite understand and wondered how that was possible. After all, they had not experienced the war and had even grown up in a prosperous Europe.

monument2.jpgIf you've seen movies like the Pianist and Schlinder's List, you realize that you can't possibly imagine the atrocities these victims survived. Every normal person is left with a serious trauma. It is logical that survivors preferred to forget all misery as quickly as possible. Inhuman atrocities often inflict wounds so deep that it seems easier to suppress the pain than to face it.

But alas, there is no escaping it. The suffering creeps where it cannot go and traumatic stress can be passed on to the next generation. Feelings of detachment and alienation, difficulty showing affection, mistrust, aggression and relationship problems are just a few manifestations of PTSD that affect offspring of traumatized victims.

Two years ago I first heard of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome; a stagnant processing of the experiences of slavery. Via WBAI radio, Dr. Joy Leary explains in detail what effect the shocking events of four centuries have had on us as a people. I listened in amazement. For the first time, the slaves were analyzed as humans. Not as beasts or über people who do get over everything and survive everything, but as people like you and me, of flesh and blood. People with a psyche and it can't be other than that they've all had to deal with PTSD.

The similarity with the well-known Stress Syndrome is striking. In disbelief, I listened to examples illustrating behavior directly related to the slavery era. The example of how disobedient children were until recently “whipped” gave me goosebumps. After all, using the whip to keep people in check is well-known behavior of slave masters.

It seems very unlikely that as a descendant of a slave two centuries later, I would still be left with unprocessed emotions. But why does discussing the history of slaves always lead to an uneasy feeling? Especially and especially when there are white people I try to choose the right words. It probably requires professional analysis, but why can I very easily discuss the Holocaust and even Zebrenitza passionately without hesitation? Have I unconsciously learned to keep a distance when it comes to slavery, precisely because it feels so close? Or is it the passed-on shame about the servile humiliations of the past that still haunts me?

The final word on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome has not yet been said and it will be different for each individual, but perhaps now through Dr. Joy Leary, placing inexplicable emotions and thresholds and collectively thinking about processing the greatest trauma that has ever been inflicted on us. There has never been time for that. Today July 1, Keti Koti seems like the ideal day to start.