Black families have inherited trauma, but we can change that

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When I look at my life, my family and my community, I ask myself: which patterns are authentically ours and which are the result of cultural PTSD?

In recent years, talk of cultural trauma and its impact on black families has made its way into the mainstream media. There was a desire to understand how we are affected today by what our ancestors went through.

Over the years I have been curious about the patterns and practices I have 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 is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate in social work research and author of the book“Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Lasting Injury and 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 the community as a whole. 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’s not an actual change in your DNA sequence, but rather changes in your DNA structure.

Specifically, scientists who study epigenetics found that trauma suffered by parents can impact the DNA and behavior of their offspring for generations to come. A study carried out on worms revealed that the residual effects of the trauma lasted 14 generations.

For the black community, the impact of centuries of unresolved trauma still manifests today. And while some of that is certainly due to ongoing social injustice, some of the impact could 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 also by the experiences of our ancestors. Dr. DeGruy asks, “How… does being Black in America impact your stress levels, therefore your body’s ability to operate its own immune system? Once you figure it out, you can deal with it.

Symptoms of PTSD include a sense of a shortened future, exaggerated startle reactions, difficulty falling or staying asleep, tantrums, and hypervigilance.

Some of these behaviors are found in the African-American community today, not only on an individual level, but on a cultural level as a whole.

When the question arises whether these behaviors are inherent or learned, society generally believes the former. But we ignore the fact that all habits, practices and beliefs are created before they are reinforced.

A common teaching in the black community concerns the work ethic: we have to work twice as hard to be as good as the next person. This philosophy is based on cultural conditioning, anthropological assertion and the lived experiences of our ancestors.

Every day, an enslaved person had to work from sunrise to sunset. If they seemed tired or unproductive, they would be called lazy and beaten.

Many parents today may not fear that their children will receive real whippings, but the trauma of these experiences is ingrained in our DNA. At the cellular level, we still recall the negative results. The emphasis on the work ethic is a hypervigilant response to age-old trauma, and is reinforced by a desire to refute the stereotypes that still circulate today.

Similarly, during slavery, a parent would downplay their child’s intelligence or strength to keep them from being considered valuable and auctioned off. This practice can be seen today in families where black parents can take pride in their child’s accomplishments and celebrate them at home, but in the presence of a mixed society downplay their children’s talents so that they do not are not considered a threat.

Connections like these can be made in many different areas of our daily existence. J. Marion Sims is considered the father of modern gynecology and most of his test subjects were enslaved black women. Because it was believed that blacks did not feel pain, they were experimented with without any anesthesia.

Fast forward to the Tuskegee experiments of the early 20th century and today’s high rates of infant and maternal mortality among the black population, and the black community’s general mistrust of the medical system makes sense. These responses are not just a survival response, but a response generated from information encoded by DNA. The impact of these traumas is housed in our DNA.

The feelings of fear and distrust that so many black people feel can be traced to lived and inherited experiences. When we consider that we are walking around not only with our own lived experiences and traumas, but also with those of our ancestors, we need to 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, inquiry, patience, and safe spaces. The truth is that the effects of trauma are not one-sided. As much as the black community was affected by the experience of chattel slavery, so was the white community. To get to the root of systems, beliefs, practices and ideals, we all you have to do the work.

Dr. DeGruy explains, “The root of denial for the mainstream culture is fear, and fear turns into all sorts of things: psychological projection, distorted and sensationalized portrayals in the media, and manipulation of science to justify legal rights. and the treatment of people. This is why it is so difficult to disentangle.

Without a doubt, we have our work cut out. As science increasingly uncovers how trauma negatively impacts our DNA, it is also discovering how intentional healing of 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 aware of what we are currently creating. By starting with our own families, we can begin to address what has been passed down to us. We can then decide what is worth keeping and what is worth giving up. 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.

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