slavery and transgenerational trauma

On The Run by Alice Goffman (Erving Goffman’s daughter), is a book about inner-city policing. It’s based on field research (living with small-time crack dealers and getting to know the neighborhood). Apparently, it’s a common practice for police to camp outside of births, weddings, and funerals with video cameras, looking for people with warrants, unpaid fines, etc. to arrest [EDIT:  This  has been disputed]. It’s the kind of book I wish more people would read, because it humanizes poor drug dealers in the inner city. The cops and the court system make it inordinately difficult to “break the cycle,” which I guess is their unspoken point.

It also goes to show how hypocritical and outrageous a lot of the things said by racist people really are. What kind of “family values” are encouraged by discouraging fathers from attending the birth of their own children? Blah blah blah they shouldn’t have warrants in the first place.  Is nothing sacred to these supposedly religious people?

Barbara Fletchman Smith has an interesting perspective on the underlying cause of social dysfunction in (Caribbean/UK) black communities: transgenerational effects of slavery on the Oedipus complex. How does the situation look if we grant that blacks have feelings? How much might slavery account for, at least in part? Smith explains, in Transcending the Legacies of Slavery:  A Psychoanalytic View:

For instance, it is not “inevitable” that girls should be pushed by their mothers into expecting that men cannot take care of them, and that they alone must take care of themselves; nor that women are never to be wives and mothers, but mothers only, burdened with the total care of their children; nor that boys should be humiliated inside and outside the home; nor that men are incapable of providing more fully for themselves and their families; nor that individual men and women should live isolated lives. None of this is inevitable. It is also not inevitable that ordinary people in Africa or among the African diaspora should be poverty-stricken forever more.

Slavery was so awful that just hearing about it is psychologically traumatizing, for everyone. We all know this, but it’s usually not described so well:

There was a time when shame was borne entirely by the descendants of slaves, while the descendants of slave owners were filled with the opposite emotion: pride in the British Empire. But today shame has shifted and is shared more with the descendants of the slave owners. The old rage and despair resurfaces more acutely in the descendants of slaves when inhumane treatment is felt to be continuing in the present. Learning how to handle these feelings remains to this day one of the major tasks which adolescents from this heritage must master on their way to adulthood.

The s-word still has power. It belongs to a secret past and is associated with bad sexual intercourse and with making babies. Children come to a knowledge about slavery unconsciously through a realization that something quite terrifying happened in the past. It is picked up through parental anxieties and fears about personal safety; through states of utter despair and helplessness; through states of complete rage and destructiveness, all of which are communicated from adults to children. Consciously, knowledge comes from eavesdropping on adult conversation. Sometimes there is a dramatic revelation.

Mrs. Henry, at the age of nine in the Caribbean, heard something she thought was derogatory from some white neighbors with whose children she had gone to play. She heard them say “black people were in slavery.” She refused to believe that this was so until the family’s African Caribbean maid informed her that it was the case. Forty years on, she recalled the scene and described her feelings, of disappointment, shock and feeling sick. She left for home straight away to tell her mother what she had heard.

Today, children sometimes have similar feelings to Mrs. Henry’s as they try to engage with the meaning of the s-word. They are utterly bewildered, sick in the stomach, they feel grief, shame and rage, as Jewish children might feel about the Holocaust. As Caribbean heritage children reach adolescence and are able to access another level of knowing, stronger feelings emerge with the question: “How can people treat others like this?”

It seems that when people are given information about this aspect of their history, even very carefully, it is hard for them to receive it, hold onto it, to make sense of it and experience it fully at a feeling level. Therefore a gap is left where history should be. This is the nature of the trauma. There is confusion and fragmentation precisely because distressed feelings interfere with thinking. The distress can only be borne gradually, in the process of thinking about it, talking it through, growing up and of growing older. Silence, which is meant to protect us from becoming unbalanced, often actually fails to do so.

It is my belief that most thinking young men of Caribbean background go through feelings of depression as they experience a grief-reaction to the full meaning of slavery for black males. It can still affect their position within this society for the simple reason that slavery was accompanied by false notions about white racial superiority, which still persist.

Today, a lot of attention is being paid to attachment theory and the effects of maternal depression and anxiety on child development. In American slavery, children were systematically separated from their parents. Moreover, slaves were bred deliberately. Those two things destroyed parenting traditions and separated sex from parenting. Male slaves had to watch helplessly while their wives and daughters were raped, and that produced resentment and contempt for men, which finds expression as “strong black women.” All of this creates masculinity issues.

For instance, the father of the family [in a case report] seems to have submitted internally to castration anxiety. He is rather like the men who submitted to violence from their owners, who lost their manhood and were transformed into what they must have felt to be nothing better than women. Bullying and being bullied were thus internalised as a result of slavery. Alongside this are the effects of a knowledge that people act the way they do in the present because they were driven crazy in the past. Allowance is made for madness in a society which has experienced slavery, and is tolerated in a way one does not encounter elsewhere. Men know–inside themselves–of a time when they could do nothing to help their women. This knowledge paralyses them.

To have a bullying wife, like Mrs. Flood, presents a husband like Mr. Flood with an enormous amount of anxiety, against which he must defend himself. His search for prototypes of this situation leads him back to his mother–who more than likely bullied him also–and, in addition, to archaic bullies such as ancestors and slave-owners. During slavery people’s bodies were violated–male as well as female. This process spread terror, which resulted in castration fear becoming conscious fear. Furthermore, the greatest trauma for men made slaves was that through the sexual act they themselves became implicated as abusers, by producing children which become other people’s possessions. In this way, men felt robbed in a fundamental sense, and–at the same time–they felt part of the system which abused their women. The men, therefore, were placed in a quite impossible situation, in which they felt like abusers whilst being abused themselves

Nevertheless, for a man to assert himself and to gain respect in his family–even whilst respecting his wife and children–is to be riddled with anxiety, conscious or unconscious, of being identified or identifying with the slaveowner

Cultures which have experienced slavery possess a memory of men being useless. By “men” I mean more than just father, husband, brother–but instead all males in general. Consequently, if men are so useless, why bother to include them in families?

The hypocrisy of white people standing in judgment of black people’s family problems cannot be stressed enough. Black families were deliberately and systematically undermined by slave owners, for generations, to control black people. This caused severe and lasting psychological harm. Let’s now make fun of people for the consequences of what we’ve done to enrich ourselves! It’s tacky:

Attempts made by slaves to recover from their ordeal and maintain their humanity through relationships were interfered with and destroyed by the slavers. Planters and their employees physically and sexually abused men, women, and children. Relationships between slaves had to be kept absolutely secret, if the relationships were to survive, because to become a couple was one of the surest ways of being sold off. Then, as now, it was thoroughly understood how potentially powerful a well-functioning family could be. Relationships between slaves, therefore, were broken in order to ensure better control of them by the planters who, although powerful themselves, lived in constant fear of rebellion.

The results of these events of long ago are conspicuous gaps in personal family histories. These gaps create problems for individuals, because they lead to feelings of not belonging, leading to discomfort and unhappiness. Any person whose family background has been influenced by slavery, and who knows something of the history of the slave trade, must choose for themselves whether to blame one side or the other (the buyers or the sellers) for what happened…

The legacy of fear passed on by the slave trade has disrupted the capacity of individuals for basic trust. It is well known how fundamentally important this basic trust is to the work of psychoanalysis. What I wish to stress, then, is that in our work with people affected by the legacy of slavery we must pay very careful attention to establishing and maintaining trust. As I hope to have shown, fear handed down through the generations plays a crucial part in the difficulties surrounding the resolution of the Oedipus complex…

Fear also finds expression in the vigilance which is necessary to prevent racial discrimination from growing worse. This vigilance can sometimes take on the form of suspicion, or the milder forms of paranoia. However, it would be wishful thinking to assert that this vigilance were no longer required in any form.

I was annoyed when, in 2008, the desire to elect Obama caused high turnout among black voters, who then voted against the civil rights of gay people in California. What might explain the homophobia?

The practice over centuries of humiliating men and of herding them together; of regularly bringing in vulnerable new young male slaves to fill the labour gap; of placing prohibitions on marriage, together with other interference in slave relationships must have facilitated the establishment of both sexual abstinence and homosexual practices as an important part of slave culture. I have come to think this in relation to the very high level of hostility towards homosexuality–especially male homosexuality–among Caribbean people.

That sounds a lot like prison, which is known for extremely high levels of rape, and for sending black men there disproportionately, something which is widely popular.


The answer to racism is whatever it takes to get people to read about these things and allow themselves to feel their emotions. We’re talking about one of the most brutal, sadistic, and widely-approved things that ever happened. If we’re honest, it still has major effects on society. The appropriate and truly human response to that is a period of overwhelming negative emotions. The direction of our society discourages “wallowing in the past” and feeling sad. The fundamental message of psychoanalysis today is that you are allowed not to enjoy: