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Why Blacks Cannot Simply Escape the Legacy of Slavery

Why Blacks Cannot Simply Escape the Legacy of Slavery

Why Blacks Cannot Simply Escape the Legacy of Slavery

The Shores family, near Westerville, Neb., in 1887. Jerry Shores was one of a number of former slaves to settle in Custer County. (Credit: AP/Solomon D. Butcher)

When Blacks speak of the far-reaching impact of slavery, what I prefer to call the legacy of slavery — which includes multigenerational trauma, hypervigilance, fear of a foreshortened future, incest, the disintegration of the Black family nucleus, distorted views of property and wealth, etc. — the discussion is consistently interrupted with the suggestion that the fact that chattel slavery ended over 150 years ago means it is time for Blacks to get over it and move on.

While the suggestion that enough time has transpired for Blacks to have recovered from the ill-treatment and traumatic experiences appurtenant to the slavery experience may seem logical, it does not consider the traumatic experiences in their totality, including the lack of proper therapeutic engagement to mitigate their effect (DeGruy, 2005; Akbar, 1996; Wallace, 2016; Wallace, 2017). Additionally, the ideology that underwrites this notion does not give credence to the ill-effects of the continued trauma that persisted long after 1865.

To truly understand the massive impact that slavery had on the Black race, it will be necessary to escape the Eurocentric idea that serves to define the slavery experience. Under the lens of eurocentricity, the worst thing about the slavery experience was the denying of Blacks the liberal rights afforded to White American citizens (Baptist, 2014). Yes, it is true that Blacks lacked the basic rights of citizenship in this country, and even more important they were not afforded the respect of being human, but that is not the worst of the suffering for the Black race under this pernicious system. There is no doubt that American denied liberal rights and liberal subjectivity for Blacks. In fact, the level at which these rights were denied is transcendent to what can be discovered throughout the annals of history. But more than anything, slavey killed people in exceptionally large numbers.

Those who were able to survive the vicious reality of chattel slavery were robbed of everything human. Yet, the darkest reality associated with American chattel slavery is the cruel engineering that was necessary to extract a million people from their homes — brutally transporting them to disease-ridden destinations — while they lived in constant terror (imagine the traumatic impact), all the while working to build and rebuild the what was rapidly becoming a commodity-generating empire. This fact was concealed in the Eurocentric idea that framed the slavery experience, suggesting that once the violent nature of chattel slavery was quashed the denial of rights for African Americans was due to their unwillingness to fight for them. This is why it is so important for Blacks to write their own narrative, not only of their history but of their current reality and their future dreams. The Eurocentric idea does not make room for our advancement and empowerment because it would be counterintuitive to the White experience as it is currently viewed.

Once slavery ended, there was the reconstruction period, a 12-year period in which clandestine organizations like the Ku Klux Klan raided and terrorized Blacks and Union barracks until all Union stations closed — leaving Blacks to fend for themselves in an immensely hostile environment. There were Black codes instituted that Blocked Blacks from owning property, something integral to creating wealth. We cannot ignore convict leasing, which basically continued slavery under another name (Blackmon D. A., 2008). Things only got worse from there as we moved into the Jim Crow era, which included multitudinous laws that legalized and facilitated serial forced displacement (Fullilove & Wallace, 2011), benign neglect, urban renewal, redlining, not to mention the rise in lynching incidents. Then we graduated into what Michelle Alexander refers to as the New Jim Crow era where mass incarceration and the Private Prison Industrial Complex has once again found a way to capitalize on the free and cheap labor of a disproportionate number of Blacks.

Modern-day lynching, in the form of the sanctioned murders of unarmed Black men at the hands of White police officers, also has an immense impact on the current psychological condition of the Black collective.

Serial forced displacement has been a consistent force of disruption in the Black community, beginning with redlining and progressing on through urban renewal, benign neglect and now gentrification. Not only are the psychological implications quite extreme, but the impact on other health issues associated with Blacks is significant (Fullilove & Wallace, 2011).

No other group is told to forget their oppression and trauma at the hands of others except for Blacks. Try telling European Jews to forget about the Jewish Holocaust, which lasted 12 years in comparison to 246 years of chattel slavery followed by another 152 years of slavery by another name.

In my latest book, Born in Captivity: Psychopathology as a Legacy of Slavery, I identify and anatomize numerous pathological behaviors that have a direct link to the slavery experience. These pathological behaviors are so reconditely and inextricably intertwined with the experience that they have become perpetual in existence and intense in the way of influence. These behaviors are so common that they are often considered an inherent part of the Black culture (Wallace, 2017).

A close look at the economic infrastructure erected to serve a White racists caste system reveals that Blacks have been purposely socially engineered into perpetual poverty, which only exacerbates the existing enigmatic issues that we face daily. The manner in which poverty influences the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual condition of Blacks is far too comprehensive to be hashed out in this brief treatise, but it must be considered.

This is not to suggest that Blacks do not own a substantial amount of culpability as it pertains to our current situation. For example, our proclivity to participate in consumerism underwrites our poverty, but even this mindset can be traced back to the slavery experience. As Dr. Na’im Akbar has so comprehensively expressed, even our perception of poverty and wealth has been shaped by our experiences as slaves. While some of us have no respect for property, destroying anything in our path, others accumulate material goods in hopes of validating our worth. The relationship with property reflects the mindset of slaves, who either destroyed the master’s property every chance they got or relished the hand-me-downs they received — believing that what they wore and held established their worth.

Americans are constantly told to remember 9/11, while Blacks are told to forget their darkest moment when that very experience defines so much of who we are at this current time.

I am in no way suggesting that we use slavery as an excuse for our lack of progression, but I am suggesting that we take the time to gain a lucid perspicacity of just how that experience has impacted us so that we can walk out of it healed and whole. You do not overcome multigenerational trauma by pretending that it does not exist; you must confront it using efficacious mechanisms and modalities that have the power to mitigate its influence on our existence.

Not only have Blacks not experienced healing from the original traumatic experience of slavery, we have experienced constant and consistent reinjury through multiple forms of oppression and hostility (DeGruy, 2005).

One area of White aggression that is often overlooked is the miseducation of African American youth within the public education system, something Dr. Amos Wilson consistently pointed out (Wilson, 1992; Wilson, 1993; Wallace, 2015). The failure to holistically educate, equip, prepare and empower Black youth to enter a world that is inherently hostile toward them and not only compete but win has cost us several generations of quiescent meandering that has facilitated the widening of the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks. And, if the wealth gap continues to widen, Black empowerment will remain a pipe dream, an illusion of grandeur never to be experienced in full or in part.

So, when the argument is made that Blacks should get over slavery and move forward, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, it must be met with an emphatic reminder of the constant pull of racism on the coattail of Blacks. It is impossible to get over something that you are still experiencing.

On a side note: While it is paramount that the Black collective lends itself to the study of our perils in the United States and abroad, we must not neglect the responsibility of undressing the pathology behind the sinister behavior of the White collective (DeGruy, 2005). The almost incessant proclivity of Whites to pilfer and destroy everything they come in contact with is anchored in a psychopathological quiddity that is based on the fear of complete annihilation (Welsing F. C., 1970; Welsing F. C., 1990).

Finally, while it is absolutely essential to the advance of the Black race that be aware of our history as slaves and an oppressed group in this country, we cannot wallow in the misery of it. We can use the understanding of it as a strategical mechanism that allows us to evolve. We can use it as a force of momentum and motivation. We can use it to develop strategies that are designed to counter the forces behind it, but we gain nothing from wallowing in it and complaining about it.

There is a genius in our Blackness that is uncovered and defined through our struggles as slaves and a dehumanized race in this country. Our exceptional humanity, creativity, and spiritual prowess are highlighted in our struggle. There have been great efforts taken to present to us an image of helplessness and hopelessness, but underneath the heartache and pain is an immense sense of resilience and unparalleled power.

As we embrace our history in this country and beyond, we will begin to break free of the tethers of inferiority and self-hatred that have kept us shackled long after the physical chains were removed. This next step will be about the liberation of the Black mind. ~ Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D.

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  • Born in Captivity: Psychopathology as a Legacy of Slavery