Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Traumatic Reverberation, Part II

In Part I of this post, I argued that American slaves endured conditions that would have induced high rates of the psychological disorder known as PTSD. Today, I would like to build on this assertion and investigate the possible ramifications of such a psychological epidemic.


First, let's review the array of symptoms that is commonly associated with PTSD, broken down into the three major categories: intrusive, avoidant, and hyperarousal.
  • Intrusive
      Dissociative states
      Intrusive emotions and memories
      Nightmares and night terrors
  • Avoidant
      Avoiding emotions
      Avoiding relationships
      Avoiding responsibility for others
      Avoiding situations that are reminiscent of the traumatic event
  • Hyperarousal
      Exaggerated startle reaction
      Explosive outbursts
      Extreme vigilance
      Panic symptoms
      Sleep disturbance
  • This list demonstrates, clearly I hope, the seriousness of the disorder. Severely traumatized individuals have the potential to become utterly dysfunctional in nearly every aspect of traditional existence.

    Of course, the life of a slave was characterized by one traumatic experience after another. If you were born in Africa, you were potentially traumatized by the four months spent crammed into the hold of a trans-Atlantic slave ship. If your psyche survived that assault, or if you were born on American soil, there was ample opportunity to be damaged by the violence perpetrated against you by your white master. Therefore, it is quite likely that slaves frequently displayed many of the disruptive symptoms listed above.

    But, that's just the beginning.


    Like many psychological disorders, the negative consequences of PTSD are not limited to the affected individual. Those displaying PTSD symptoms typically find healthy social interaction to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The intrusive symptoms are the most disruptive, as individuals may have only a tenuous grip on reality. But, in terms of familial distortion, the avoidant symptomatology may be nearly as bad. One who avoids emotions, relationships, and responsibility for others has essentially abandoned the core elements of social connection. Even those symptoms associated with hyperarousal transform the individual into a extremely difficult personality. It is hardly surprising that one of the primary complications associated with PTSD is divorce and separation. It is often simply impossible to remain bonded to an individual so affected.

    So, imagine for a moment what ramifications this condition would have had in the context of an American slave family. Remember, of course, that slave families already exist in an incredibly caustic environment. The constant threat of separation would have meant that these families consistently endured in extremely high stress levels. The needs of the slave family were always subservient to the whims of the slave owner. In this context, even the healthiest and most robust among us would struggle to maintain a semblance of familial normalcy.

    But many slaves were not psychologically healthy -- in fact, far from it. In a situation where social support would be necessary to merely retain sanity, many would be incapable of providing it. The connection between husband and wife would be fragile, often characterized by a cold detachment between them. Children would be born into families with parents unable to provide them with the love and security so necessary for healthy development. They would be deprived of the emotional modeling the parents traditionally provide to their children, and would thus reach adulthood lacking emotional maturity and find themselves unable to form healthy bonds of their own. All this in what is already a horrifically disruptive state of existence.

    Yet, it gets worse.

    A psychology professor of mine, in his discussions of PTSD, told us of the research he conducted on traumatized Bosnian refugees who had immigrated to the United States. Many of these refugees had either witnessed or experienced acts of unspeakable cruelty. Predictably, their symptoms were quite debilitating. However, my professor noted that the severity of their symptoms and the resistance to recovery was significantly affected by the strength of their post-trauma social network. Individuals who were surrounded by trusted family had a tendency to recover much faster than those who were isolated and alone. In some cases, the social network was more predictive of the ultimate outcome that was the initial trauma.

    Therefore, if we transpose this knowledge to slavery, we can see that a vicious cycle was put in motion. Slaves were traumatized, which led to a savage disruption of their social structure, which in turn made the following generation even more susceptible to PTSD. After 200+ years of progressive deterioration, it's a miracle that anyone escaped the ravaging effects of the disorder.

    And this is what differentiates the slave experience from so many other community-based traumas. The victims of the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, the Jews of the Holocaust, and the veterans of our modern wars were all assaulted over a comparatively short period of time. Those who escaped returned to a relatively normal existence within the scope of a single generation. Their families were undoubtedly damaged by the victims’ suffering, but their children did not have to endure the same horrors that they did. For these individuals, the passage of time provided healing. The same cannot be said for the American slave community. For them, time was an enemy.


    In nature, complex systems can be broken down into two general categories (this is, of course, a gross oversimplification -- but for our purposes here, the general statement is true). The first category describes systems whose solution set is rather small and is largely independent of its defining variables. Regardless of the opening state, the system approaches equilibrium in a reliable and predictable fashion. The pluck of a guitar string is an example of such a system: regardless of how the string is put in motion, the string's oscillation will quickly arrive at a defined frequency.

    The second category, by far the most common, includes systems that are highly dependent upon initial conditions. Small changes of its starting position radically and chaotically alter its concluding state. Weather is an example of such a system.

    While it may be difficult to demonstrate conclusively, I believe that it is fairly clear that community systems follow this second example. Thus, when the African American community was released from its bonds in 1865, even a small differentiation and its initial conditions could have dramatically altered its trajectory. However, in this instance we are not talking about a small differentiation.

    1865 was undoubtedly a dramatic improvement over the preceding 250 years. The institutional subjugation of African-Americans had finally ended and the importance of that moment cannot be overstated. But one must not forget that many hurdles to success remained. At this point in time their access to economic resources was almost nonexistent. The racism that became entrenched during the era of slavery did not evaporate upon its dissolution, only now African-Americans were suddenly competing in the free labor market, which deepened the resentments of lower class whites. Reconstruction was a period of dramatic improvement in terms of the political power wielded by black Americans, yet for many, freedom represented a decreasing stability in their day to day existence. And, of course, this was a community that was already experiencing deep psychological damage. The incidence of trauma would have markedly declined, but the healing that would normally ensue following the cessation of hostilities would have been stunted at best.

    Moreover, the environmental conditions did not consistently improve over the next 140 years. There were several periods of discriminatory regression (most notably during the era referred to as Post-Reconstruction), the depths of which challenged those of the years preceding emancipation. Healing within that community would have been further retarded, halted, or even reversed during these periods.

    Given these initial conditions and the state of affairs during the ensuing 140 years, is it reasonable to assume that the traumatic effects of slavery have completely receded into the past?


    In this and the preceding post, I have attempted to examine the challenges facing the African-American community through a clinical lens by examining one specific issue: PTSD. In doing so, I am not claiming that this was the only psychological disorder that this community faced. A similar argument could be made by examining the incidence of depressive disorders, personality disorders, and anxiety disorders, as well as a host of other conditions that would have been undoubtedly exacerbated by the inherent cruelties of the peculiar institution. A complete examination of these issues could not be fully addressed in a doctoral dissertation, let alone within the space of a pair of blog entries. If I have adequately demonstrated the issue’s daunting complexity, I have accomplished my goal.

    Also, one might wonder whether or not I am claiming that the African-American community is, due to its history, presently disordered. This is a delicate issue that pivots on what it means to be disordered -- which is, in and of itself, difficult to define. To answer this question, I would say "yes, it is" -- but only in the sense that a community that suffers from high rates of cancer due to its proximity to a chemical waste dump is also disordered. The disorder is not inherent to the community. It is the result of the immoral actions perpetrated by the larger society, and the ultimate resolution will only be achieved through collective action taken by all individuals alive in America today.

    Finally, while I have gone to great lengths to describe the deep psychological scar that the African-American community wears, there is a factor that I have neglected to mention until this moment. Given the hurdles faced, be they economic, prejudicial, or psychological, the ever improving advancement of the African American community demonstrates a humbling strength and resilience that is truly awe-inspiring. It is a testament to their ability to endure and succeed in an environment where nearly every external factor conspired against them. It is a tale of heroic perseverance that should overwhelm any willing to honestly face the historical reality. It is, without question, the stuff of legends.

    Of course, the African American community was not alone in suffering the detrimental effects of slavery. But that discussion will have to wait for another day. Again, stay tuned.

    Proceed to Extension of Toxicity.

    Return to Slavery and History Index.
    Weblog Commenting and Trackback by