The Pervasive Impact of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome on Women by Derek Porter

Summary: A black husband and girl dad responds to the pervasive impact of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome on our ambitious women with tips on what men might do to support the healing journey. 

“My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had many children, but no family!” ~Frederick Douglass (My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855) 

Have we once again misunderstood the black mother? 

In our modern conception, there is a relentless expectation of our mothers. They must be everything, for without them, we have nothing. They are to be stalwart and unflappable in our times of crisis, ever willing to sacrifice their dreams for the next iota of security. 

This is a form of trauma that the academy has termed Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). 

A Clinical Definition Dr. Joy DeGruy is a trained clinical psychologist and social worker. She published her theory in the 2005 release, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She defines PTSS as, “a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.” 

How PTSS Differs from PTSD Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome differs from the more widely known Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in several key ways. First, PTSD is often the result of a single trauma. Second, you do not have to experience or witness an event firsthand to suffer from PTSD, which is why watching violent videos of police brutality can be harmful, says The New Republic. PTSS on the other hand is how history colors the worldview of African Americans. It impacts everything from 

what we traditionally eat, where we congregate, and how we view friendship. However, there is hope. 

Those Who Heal Alone are Forever Broken No one heals alone. While I acknowledge that men are never the solution to trauma, we have the opportunity to come alongside our sisters in this healing journey. 

“If you don’t have a father in the home who can act as a source of support and one of your pillars for your formation of resilience, then you’re less likely to be resilient in the face of a lot of sources of trauma,” Howard Pinderhughes professor at the University of California San Francisco

As a black husband and father, I play a meaningful role. Here are three things black men should practice to combat PTSS with those we love. 

Listen to Affirm First, listen to affirm. According to Psychology Today, men often refuse to engage in conversation unless they foresee it being constructive. Many men are problem solvers, so fear of failure is a primary reason men shut out our own healing and oppress the journey of others. However, we must learn to embrace inconclusive conversations that are replete with ups and downs. And we must stop punishing ourselves and others for venting and sharing their trauma with no actionable conclusion. Under slavery, we were trained to speak for compliance and listen for obedience. No one cared about slave narratives. Their cries found no compassion. But we are free now. Our stories matter. Our relationships must transcend their traditional task-orientation. Use your linguistic liberty to love. Affirm the struggle. Don’t wait for achievements, celebrate endurance. 

Load Up Your Arms Second, load up your arms. Raising children is not solely a woman’s role. In fact, the U.S. Census reported, about 50 percent of African American boys under age 17 live with a mother only, compared with 16 percent of their white counterparts. This inequity has repercussions on household income, educational attainment, the prison industrial complex, among other sectors of society, which compounds the damage already meted out under 400 years of bondage. Under slavery, the nuclear family rarely remained intact. Our wives remained enslaved as we obtained freeman legal status. Our brothers were sold away from us. Our children were neglected at their most critical stages of development until they were old enough to be fed into a lifelong system of illiterate menial labor. I urge you therefore brothers to do the opposite of the American slave culture by being present and prioritizing the wellness of your family. Share the burden before the breakdown. Volunteer yourself for active service to reveal your value to those who need you most. 

Lead the Adventure 

Finally, lead the adventure. Encourage the women in your life to develop healthy habits. Diet and exercise matter to our mental health. Also, this may include regular professional counseling or therapy. According to the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Minority Health, “African Americans are 20% more likely than the general population to experience serious mental health issues.” Practically, this may mean fathers taking on the role of primary caretaker so that their partner can obtain services without shame. 

Further, Michele Meyer-Shipp, Chief Diversity Officer of KPMG reveals, “a woman who takes the risk to lead a new company division or start her own business may be perceived as overconfident, bossy, or even unqualified.” She makes that argument that despite these perceptions, women of color take more risks to advance their careers, “57% compared to just 38% of white women.” This is no surprise. We know the prowess of our women, and it is wonderful to see their labor affirmed. My concern is that our women are drowning their historical pain with their visionary dreams, deafening their traumatic past with promotions. Much of the contemporary independent woman movement is rooted in a survival mentality necessitated by chattel slavery. Under this system, a woman’s work was her identity. She literally had no control or protection over her wellness. She was a tool to be worked, worn, and replaced. Love was replaced by lust. Intimacy was raped, and her only way of winning a favorable lot in life was through pleasing those in authority over her. Today, many women feel autonomy and independence will restore their identity. However, it lands many women on a never-terminating ladder of comparison and insecurity. This is akin to playing King (or Queen) of the Hill where to win the game, you must keep others down. 

Our women are not valuable for what they can produce. Our women are valuable. Therefore, as men, we must promote self-care for our ambitious, career-oriented women. She needs to know that life is not a competition and that she embodies the victory she seeks. Human dignity can never be earned, but it must be affirmed.

How might our community better process the contemporary trauma of racial inequity? 

About Derek Porter

Derek is a middle school history teacher, doctoral candidate at William & Mary, and graduate of Yale University. He writes from Richmond, VA, where he loves his wife Tiffney and their daughter Jael.