When I look at my life, family, and community, I wonder: which patterns are authentically ours, and which are a result of cultural PTSD?
In recent years, talk about cultural trauma and its impact on Black families has made its way to mainstream media. There’s been a desire to understand how we’re affected today by what our ancestors experienced.
Over the years I’ve been curious about the patterns and practices I’ve observed in my own family. Sitting under my grandmother’s feet asking questions about her life was the start of a journey for me. To better understand myself, I needed to understand who and what I come from.
During my exploration, I came across the work of Dr. Joy DeGruy. She’s a clinical psychologist with a doctorate in social work research and author of the book“Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury & Healing.”
After attending one of Dr. DeGruy’s lectures, I began to contemplate the depth of the impact American chattel slavery had on my family and community at large. The concept that something experienced centuries ago could impact habits, practices, behaviors, perspectives, and fears beyond a person’s lived experience was fascinating.
Epigenetics is the study of how certain genes are turned on or off. It is not an actual change in the sequence of your DNA, but rather changes in the structure of your DNA.
Specifically, scientists who study epigenetics have found that trauma experienced by parents can impact the DNA and behavior of their offspring for generations to come. One study conducted on worms found the residual effects of trauma lasted for 14 generations.
For the Black community, the impact of centuries of unaddressed trauma still manifests today. And while part of that is certainly due to ongoing social injustice, some of the impact might very well be inherited.
Basically, being Black in America means living with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused not only by one’s lived experiences, but the experiences of our ancestors. Dr. DeGruy asks, “How does… being Black in America impact your stress level, therefore your body’s ability to operate its own immune system? Once you understand it then you can deal with it.”
Some of these behaviors can be found in the African American community today, not just on an individual level, but overall on a cultural level.
When the question comes up whether these behaviors are inherent or learned, society generally believes the former. But we’re not taking into account that all habits, practices, and beliefs are created first before they are reinforced.
A common teaching in the Black community is regarding work ethic: We must work twice as hard to be just as good as the next person. This philosophy is based on cultural conditioning, anthropological assertion, and lived experiences of our ancestors.
On any given day, an enslaved person would have to work from sunup to sundown. If they appeared fatigued or unproductive, they would be called lazy and would be beaten.
Many parents today may not fear that their children will receive actual lashes, but the trauma from those experiences is embedded in our DNA. On a cellular level we still recall the negative outcomes. The stress on work ethic is a hypervigilant response to a centuries-old trauma, and is reinforced by a desire to disprove stereotypes that are still circulating today.
Similarly, during slavery a parent would downplay their child’s intelligence or strength to protect them from being seen as valuable and sold on the auction block. This practice can be seen today in families where Black parents may be proud of their child’s achievements and celebrate them at home, but in the presence of mixed company, downplay their children’s talents so they aren’t seen as a threat.
Connections like these can be made in many different areas of our everyday existence. J. Marion Sims is considered the father of modern gynecology, and most of his test subjects were Black enslaved women. Because it was believed that Black people do not feel pain, they were experimented on without any anesthesia.
Fast-forward to the early 20th century Tuskegee experiments and current high infant and maternal death rates in the Black population, and the Black community’s general distrust in the medical system makes sense. These responses are not only a survival response, but one generated from DNA-encoded information. The impact of these traumas are lodged in our DNA.
The feelings of fear and mistrust so many Black people feel can be attributed to the experiences both lived and inherited. When we consider that we are not only walking around with our own lived experiences and traumas but also those of our ancestors, we must slow down and take a hard, honest look at our past. To truly heal, we must address the cultural trauma that has always been there, shaping our perspective from birth.
For healing and repair to begin, we need honest acknowledgment, investigation, patience, and safe spaces. The truth of the matter is that the effects of trauma are not one-sided. As much as the Black community has been affected by the experience of chattel slavery, so has the white community. To get to the root of the systems, beliefs, practices, and ideals, we all have to do the work.
Dr. DeGruy explains, “The root of denial for the dominant culture is fear, and fear mutates into all kinds of things: psychological projection, distorted and sensationalized representations in the media, and the manipulation of science to justify the legal rights and treatment of people. That’s why it’s so hard to unravel.”
Without a doubt we have our work cut out for us. As science discovers more and more about how trauma negatively impacts our DNA, it is also discovering how intentionally healing the trauma through methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy can help reverse the negative impact.
As the story unfolds about how our past affects our future, we can do the work in the present to be mindful of what we are currently creating. Starting with our own families, we can begin to address what has been handed down to us. We can then decide what is worth keeping and what is worth letting go. Choose well.
Jacquelyn Clemmons is an experienced birth doula, traditional postpartum doula, writer, artist, and podcast host. She is passionate about holistically supporting families through her Maryland-based company De La Luz Wellness.