In the 1980s, at a school in Maryland, a teacher introduced an eager group of students to the rigors of history by stating that slavery was not that big of a deal. Most people, this person said, only had one or two.
Those comments, while shocking, didn’t come from a place of isolation. Sadly, more than a third of adults don’t know how widespread slavery was in America, according to a 2019 Washington Post-SSRS poll.
As a girl in that Maryland classroom, I was flabbergasted by comments from a person I once admired.
It was obvious to me that my teacher’s assessment of slavery (in addition to being inaccurate) was missing a sense of humanity. Bondage, abuse, deprivation and exploitation of just one person is a big deal. We’re rightly reminded of that every time we see a news report about a teen girl (usually white) who is missing or has been trafficked, sexually assaulted and kept from her family. The reports are filled with the empathy that anyone experiencing tragedy deserves. But their frequency is out of proportion with the reality of the actual problem. America’s 200-plus years of chattel slavery, breeding and mistreatment (which is rarely looked at through the lens of empathy for the slave) was inflicted on millions of African Americans.
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Today, more than 30 years after that misguided lesson, I analyze that moment as one surrounded by multigenerational trauma. The Black students in that classroom were essentially told our history of struggle didn’t rate in the schema of human tragedy. And that white teacher lacked the empathy to properly inform students about the horrors of one of the worst periods in American history – a desensitization toward Black America that is also a relic of this nation’s slave past.
The harm of this objectification goes well beyond detrimental teaching. Nearly 50% of white hospital residents don’t believe Black people feel as much pain as whites. The same study revealed that Black patients are not treated as effectively for pain, and that the problem is systemic.
The fact that Black emotions don’t get acknowledged – whether hundreds of years ago or in a classroom in the 1980s – is a hard truth in America. So is the relatively new revelation that Black people are still psychologically traumatized by slavery. And those scars don’t just appear after new forms of discrimination.
Dr. Cheryl Grills, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist specializing in Black trauma, says that Black hypervigilance is a carryover from bondage – one reenforced every time we see a video of a police officer killing a Black man on camera. Dr. Joy DeGruy, who also focuses on Black trauma, calls these lingering multigenerational coping mechanisms Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.
Congress is taking small steps toward publicly acknowledging the nation’s history of racist oppression. Last month, members of Congress heard from victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre. And Juneteenth, which recognizes the end of slavery, became a federal holiday with Congress’ passage of legislation in a matter of days.
But as activists tally the economic hardships caused by slavery and racism – the wealth gap, low rates of homeownership, employment discrimination – to push for federal reparations and the passage of H.R.40, how does repairing psychological trauma (rarely mentioned in this country) fit in? How do we reconcile the much less visible but no less damaging mental health vestiges that slavery left behind in both Black and white America?
Hypervigilance then and now
Plenty of slaves documented moments of mental anguish. Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass is among the most well known. He described being taken from his grandmother – a woman who provided the only comfort and home he had ever known – when he was not even 7. He was thrust into the house of a slave master with brothers and sisters he had never met, and he cried himself to sleep. The absence and death of his mother also gave him a lifetime of depression.
DeGruy talks about slave women and girls having been raped much more frequently than most people today realize and cites census records that show some 600,000 mixed-race children being born in the mid-1800s.
Charles Ball, a slave who was sold throughout the mid-Atlantic, witnessed a beating so severe, the slave was confined to bed for three months. The white men who committed the brutality and others gathered near the battered body to have drinks while waiting for their dinner. How could that moment not instill a sense of paranoia and paralyzing fear in the slaves who witnessed it – fear of being human, fear of standing up, fear to attempt, in any way, to control their lives? Terrorizing slaves was in fact the intent of public displays of abuse and discipline.
Social media videos and bodycam footage of police brutality trigger the same fear stressors and responses today, says Grills. And though we now can certainly fight back against systems of brutality in ways that slaves couldn’t, the hypervigilant response (worrying about an incident of police brutality happening at any moment, for any reason, no matter how illogical the rationale of the abuser) is still present.
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Ask any Black person you know whether that fear isn’t somewhere in their mind nearly every time they pass a cop while driving. Raise your hand if you are a Black person in America who has never had that thought. (Please pause while I count the number of arms in the air on one hand.) The feeling of helplessness, like there is no escape, not just from the brutality, but from the injustice that inevitably follows, is another stressor that mirrors what many slaves who witnessed and experienced brutality also felt.
While everyone, regardless of race, feels stressed after watching videos like that of the murder of George Floyd, who died at the knee of a white Minneapolis officer in 2020, the stress levels are higher and the dread more personal for Black people.
Some slaves sued for economic repair and won. Tallying individual economic loss is comparatively easier than sussing out the repair needed to tackle mental health.
Slaves built America. And slavery was codified by our Constitution. The United States was one of the last countries in the world to abolish it. While other nations were taking steps to mitigate the terrors of the slave system, our Founding Fathers were giving Southern slaveholding states more power by adding a three-fifths clause to the Constitution.
In Howard University political science professor Clarence Lusane’s book “The Black History of the White House,” he describes how slave carpenters worked in freezing temperatures in 1795 to build the presidential residence. The slave owner who designed the building was paid $500. He also took the money that his slaves, among the more than 200 who worked on the White House, earned during construction.
Well into the 19th century, the Southern economy was booming because of slavery. Yale history professor David Blight describes the antebellum South as the fifth or sixth slave society in human history, making large and small plantation owners incredibly wealthy.
If colonists had to pay for the labor that built America, would we still be one of the richest nations in the world?
Lusane chronicles the nature of slavery in the nation’s capital as a horrid affair. Slave pens lined the streets, slaves’ screams were heard throughout the city and slave sales were prevalent. It’s hard to imagine a world in which those sights and sounds were normalized, but slaves and free Blacks were surrounded by unrelenting reminders that their lives were not their own, and the psychological ramifications are undeniable.
Douglass was among the few to escape and likely relied on his newfound community for psychological stability. But millions more (in 1861 there were nearly 4 million slaves in this country) never got the chance to do what Douglass did. Instead, the majority of African Americans moved from the trauma of slavery to the traumas of sharecropping, massacres, convict leasing, lynchings, medical experimentation and, today, police brutality and mass incarceration. And still, we’ve managed to rise. But not without a cost.
All of these stressors are detrimental to Black physical and mental well-being, and they account, in large part, for many of the adverse health disparities we face today.
To fix disparities, address trauma
In short, racism is killing Black people in America. That’s how Harvard University professor David Williams, who studies the stresses of racism, sums up the problem. Black people – regardless of socioeconomic background, access to health care and educational attainment – have, on average, higher blood pressure, disproportionate rates of chronic disease and shorter life expectancies than whites in America.
“Good health becomes a casualty of simply living in America for people perceived as ‘violent’ and ‘dangerous’ – words attributed to Blacks and Hispanics at a higher rate than whites,” said a column Williams co-wrote for USA TODAY in 2017. “In New York, Hispanic men who were frequent victims of stop-and-frisk showed heightened levels of anxiety and trauma resembling those of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
DeGruy’s PTSS theory also plays out behaviorally. Black mothers downplaying the accomplishments of their children, she says, originated with slave mothers who feared a child who was publicly praised as gifted or smart would be taken from her.
Researchers around the world are studying the ramifications of epigenetic changes (actual alterations to our DNA) that could be responsible for passing stress responses associated with trauma down through generations.
“So one way to think of racial disparities in health is over 200 Black people dying prematurely every single day in America,” Williams said during a USA TODAY interview. “Congress would move heaven and hell if a plane were crashing every day … with 200 Americans on it.”
It’s impossible for Black people in America to achieve health equity and economic uplift if whites don’t deal with their psychological biases that continue to fuel Black trauma. Healing the former supports the progress of everything else.
Dr. John Rich, who teaches health management at Drexel University, is making a start. He is the co-director of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, which gives young Black men a place to heal from the emotional traumas of racial violence.
Grills and Enola Aird, founder of the Community Healing Network, established emotional emancipation centers, places for Black people all over the world to talk about long-held psychological traumas.
Congress should fund places of psychological and emotional healing modeled after Rich’s emotional trauma centers and Grills’ and Aird’s emancipation hubs all over the country. And the services should be free to both Black and white people trying to work through issues related to race.
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Asking for repair is not about placing blame or evoking shame or guilt among white America. Talking about the psychological ramifications of slavery in modern-day society is not an attempt to downplay the progress, capabilities or successes of African Americans. The conversation surrounding repair is a call for the nation to face the hard truths of our history, look deeply at the role that various institutions, including the federal government, played and find ways to rectify the abuses that caused long-term damage.
Slavery didn’t just damage Black people in America. It damaged white people, too. My teacher’s inability to express empathy for Black suffering wasn’t created in a vacuum. That mentality – whether held by members of Congress, health care professionals, teachers or cops – has to die for our country to make progress that benefits everyone.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee recently talked to me about the importance of H.R.40 – a bill brought to the House floor in a historic April vote that calls for the study of discrimination and reparative proposals – and choked up at the thought of Juneteenth legislation passing in the House and becoming law. On Thursday, it did.
“If we can pass this and if we can feel the joy instead of the pain, then I think we’ll open the door for H.R.40,” she said, a day before the historic vote. “The world understands reparations. They understand curing an ill, a devastation, an act of violence. … It is an international concept of human rights.”
If all of that happens, no teacher should ever again perpetuate the misguided and damaging notion that slavery was not that big of a deal.
Eileen Rivers is the projects editor for USA TODAY’s Editorial Page, and the editor and founder of Policing the USA.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Slavery’s trauma: Teacher’s lack of empathy generations in the making.