In Honor of Juneteenth¹, a Book Review of "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome"

Dr. Joy DeGruy

by Nina Kennedy

While in the midst of researching and editing my documentary film², I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Joy DeGruy present a lecture as part of Fisk University’s Spring Arts Festival in Nashville. She was promoting her then new book titled Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, and quoted several passages from the book during her presentation. The accompanying slide show contained several disturbing images, and fulfilled DeGruy’s intentions of making the gruesome violence of American slavery as real as possible.

At the time, I did not purchase the book. But a dear friend who is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology sent me a copy of the book just last month. I couldn’t put it down. It has turned out to be one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

DeGruy painstakingly quotes several of the “fathers” of the North American Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and states that the European Slave Trade began as early as 1440. Up to that point, “… most people who became slaves became so as the result of war. Two societies went to war and the winners enslaved the losers. Sometimes, as was the case with [Ancient] Rome, a dominant society would need more laborers, so they made war on a weaker state and took the manpower they required. Europeans, however, systematically turned the capturing, shipping, and selling of other human beings into a business, a business that would develop into the backbone of an entire economy, providing the foundation for the world’s wealthiest nation.”

Evidence of the horror of slavery

So how was this even possible? DeGruy explains, “During the past 500 years Europeans have spent significant resources to ‘prove’ Africans and those of African descent are inferior. The difference between the actions of Europeans (i.e., enslaving, raping, and killing) and their beliefs about themselves (i.e., ‘We are good Christians’) was so great, … that they were obliged to go to great lengths in order to survive their own horrific behavior. Chattel slavery and genocide of the Native American population were so un-Christian that the only way they could make their actions acceptable … was to relegate their victims to the level of sub-human,” she writes.

In the section called “Science and Fiction” DeGruy asks the question: “How did Europeans convince themselves that those of African descent were a lesser class of human?” She quotes “scientific” European propaganda written by biological scientists Carl Von Linnaeus (1707-1778) and Johann Friedrich Blummenbach (1752-1840), as well as American pro-slavery propaganda written by presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. DeGruy writes, “Thomas Jefferson, considered one of the most learned men of his era, expressed disdain and contempt for blacks, stating that:

They smelled bad and were physically unattractive, required less sleep, were dumb, cowardly, and incapable of feeling grief.

James Madison, framer of our Constitution, viewed slaves as,
inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the level of free inhabitants; which regards the slave as divested of two-fifths of the man.

Further efforts to dehumanize those brought here from Africa were written into law. The Virginia Code of 1705 removed criminal consequences for killing a slave in the act of correcting them.

Yikes!!! But hold on. There's more.

The American physician J. Marion Sims (1813-1883) has been called the “Father of Gynecology,” and is credited with the creation of the first vaginal speculum. But DeGruy informs us of the fact that, “Sims built a makeshift hospital in his backyard where he conducted surgical experiments on countless un-anesthetized African slave women. Many of the women came from slave owners who complained to Sims that these women were ‘not fit for duty.’ They were said to suffer from a particular disorder called ‘fistula.’ An obstetric fistula is the breakdown of tissue in the vaginal wall, frequently as the result of childbirth, and the perforation of the bladder and/or rectum. The disorder causes leakage of urine and/or feces into the vagina, which made for a smelly and humiliating existence for the women. However, this condition did not preclude slave women from participating in their daily work on the plantation, such as picking cotton, house cleaning, cooking, etc. So what duty were these women then unfit for?”

As you can probably guess… “The obvious answer is that while black slave women were required to do manual labor alongside their black male counterparts, one of their other inescapable duties was to sexually serve their masters. Their malodorous condition made them less sexually desirable and thus, they were ‘unfit for duty.’”

[And what about the millions of children conceived as a result of this "duty"? What kind of human would sell his own children for profit?]

Sims conducted more experiments on infants which rivaled the sadistic experiments of Nazi “physician” Josef Mengele, and the resulting deaths provided “… bodies for autopsies and further experimentation.”

Depiction of J. Marion Sims with a slave woman

DeGruy goes on to list the Black Codes, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, and the Convict Lease System as explanation for the impoverished conditions of so many African-Americans today. In tracing the history of mass incarceration of African-Americans, DeGruy explains: [After slavery was abolished,] “… southern plantation owners once more found that they were without a cheap source of labor. At the same time southern states had their own dilemma: what to do with free blacks who had committed crimes. Building and maintaining prisons was expensive, and states’ coffers were all but empty. The solution, rather than imprison those ‘convicted of crimes’ [Quotes mine], was to lease them to plantation owners, as well as proprietors of other businesses, for the duration of their sentence.”

Horribly, in some cases, the living conditions for the leased prisoners were so deplorable that they died from exposure or from various contagious diseases before their sentences were completed.

DeGruy continues, “Convict leasing was so successful that by 1898 nearly three quarters of Alabama’s total state revenue came directly from this institution. Other states that employed this practice reaped benefits until its eventual end in 1928. But it did not end. Convict lease rapidly was replaced by chain gangs; a similarly brutal form of forced labor which continued until its final abolishment in the 1950’s. For almost 100 years after emancipation, southern wealth continued to be built on the backs of what amounted to a slave workforce." [Italics mine]

The chain gang - "slavery by another name."

Photograph of a 20th century lynching Dr. DeGruy uses in her lectures. "Look at the people in the background. Look at their faces! Why aren't they disturbed by this?"

And it doesn’t end there. Dr. DeGruy explores the psychological effects of such multi-generational trauma and points to a possible excess of the stress hormone cortisol in our collective bloodstreams, and reveals that cortisol can be transmitted from the pregnant mother through the placenta to the infant. “Some people,” she states, “can live in a constant state of crisis, becoming, in a way, addicted to the stress and finding ways to trigger the release of cortisol and live in a perpetual cycle of conflict.”

Oh, Lawd! Somebody pass me a joint, a martini, SOMETHING!!! The fact that we have survived such a history shows that we are super-human, indeed!

For more information, contact Joy DeGruy Publications, Inc.:

1. From
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.  Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19ththat the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

2. The documentary film titled Matthew Kennedy: One Man’s Journey, directed and produced by Nina Kennedy.


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