The Epigenetic Transmission of Trauma

The Epigenetic Transmission of Trauma

The Epigenetic Transmission of Trauma


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The Epigenetic Transmission of Trauma


For years, great minds have been put to task in an effort to gain a lucid perspicacity of inexplicable behavior of a substantial number of African Americans. While there have definitely been a number of African Americans who have done extraordinary things and accomplished what many believed to be the impossible, the overwhelming majority of the descendants of American chattel slavery have not progressed one iota since 1865. We learned a great deal from Frantz Fanon and his masterful work in the mid-twentieth century. We were able to gain a reasonable resipiscence of the influence of colonization on the minds and behavior of those who have fallen victim to it. While American Chattel Slavery was far more than the colonization of a race of people, the basic principle of psychological influence is still at play.

Great master teachers like Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Amos Wilson and others went to immeasurable lengths to explain the psychological influence of forceful domination and the presentation of an alien image of God, creating an identity crisis and inferiority complex in one move. Dr. Na’im Akbar and Dr. Joy DeGruy both showed how the trauma of chattel slavery and the subsequent years of perpetuated trauma through convict leasing (the precursor to the private prison industrial complex), reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the mis-education of our youth, the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, forced serial displacement, the disintegration of the black family nucleus and more has negatively impacted the vast majority of African Americans.

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So, I entered this arena, having some very broad and powerful shoulders on which to stand, and I am grateful to my ancestors, elders, and contemporaries for the paths that they have paved, and it is my passion and goal to take it as far as I possibly can, before passing it on to other great and youthful minds. I have invested a substantial amount of time over the last 20-plus years in understanding the cognitive nature and origin of much of the erroneous behavior displayed by an overwhelming number of blacks. I have not been willing to accept the suggestion that the destructive and counterproductive behavior of African Americans as being inherently a part of who we are.

We have been warned by scholars of multiple nationalities and races not to ignore the impact of 400 years of slavery and the carnage that followed, understanding how the mind responds to trauma, I have to agree. However, my studies and research led me to something that had not been given much attention in our attempt to understand how we arrived at where we are today.

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What if I told you the phrase “failure is in your DNA” was more accurate than you ever realized? Then, what if I told you that despite what you have been told about DNA and how it works, while you cannot change the genetic code itself, you can alter gene expression, meaning that although you are the person created by the 23 chromosomes from your mother and the 23 chromosomes from your father, you are not doomed to repeat their failures, or carry their demons. Their trauma is not yours to hold and protect. You can refocus your gene expression, and reshape your destiny, but it will take hard work, especially when it involves an entire collective.

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The Epigenetic Transmission of Trauma

Welcome to the World of Epigenetics

Before moving forward, it is important to provide a simple definition of the term “epigenetics.” Epigenetics is the function and the study of heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that does not involve changes in genetic sequence — a change in phenotype without changing the genotype. Basically, it is the genetic transmission of certain proclivities toward thoughts, behaviors, disease vulnerability, etc.

It is important to understand that the field of epigenetics does more than expatiate the behavior of a specific person or group. It also deals with micro-genetic adaptation, vulnerability to disease and mental disorders, and more.

This short entry is not meant to be an in-depth explanation of epigenetics and the manner in which it impacts African Americans, nor is it an academic submission on the topic. This is simply meant to give the reader a peek inside of the very explosive possibility of freeing the descendants of slaves from the intergenerational expression of trauma-related behavior associated with the slavery experience.

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Epigenetic Tags

Avoiding technical vernacular as much as possible, an epigenetic tag is an impression upon a gene that functions as an on and off switch — turning certain genes on and others off. It is epigenetic tags that can either increase the proclivity for violent behavior or make a person completely docile. It can make a person more vulnerable to mental disorders, such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, and more. While these epigenetic tags can be passed on to the progeny of the carrier, nature has a way of removing the majority of them during the reproduction process. Let’s take a quick look at how this happens.

The body has an awesome way of repairing and replenishing itself known as mitosis. During mitosis, a single cell divides itself, creating two new cells that are identical to itself. However, the reproductive cells — the male sperm and the female ovum — are produced through a special process known as meiotic cell division. During meiosis, the cell actually reduces itself to half the normal chromosome count and it also changes its shape. Meiosis is the basis for genetic variation — the reason one man and woman can procreate multiple times and not create identical children — with the exception of identical twins — the result of a split of the ovum after fertilization — meaning that the twins share the exact same DNA sequence (their genetic code is identical).

What is ironic here is the fact that it is epigenetics that explains how identical twins become more distinct from one another as they age.

The process of meiosis involves several different types of cell divisions, with the first being the reduction of chromosomes to half (down to 23 from 46). What this allows is the merging of 23 chromosomes from the mother and 23 chromosomes from the father. The meiotic process shuffles the genetic code within the chromosomes to create the variance in the genetic code of the couple’s progeny, with the exception of identical twins.

Keep in mind that this process is also where epigenetic tags are removed from the chromosomes, at least for the most part. While the parent does not pass on all of their tags, they do pass on the most profound, so a parent that has suffered extensive trauma will likely pass on their epigenetic tag created by that trauma, and that tag can turn on genes that will cause the progeny to react to the trauma although they did not directly experience it. There have been reports of the children of Holocaust survivors having vivid dreams of actual events that took place before they were born, events their parents did not share with them. While this is still being studied, we can at least be cognizant of the genetic connectivity in the way of reality perception.



I Quick Peek Inside

Epigenesis has been an accepted field of study since the mid-twentieth century; however, the focus has always been on micro-adaptation, at least until recently. We now know that the epigenetic transmission of what can be called genetic scarring associated with mental and physical trauma can be passed to the progeny of the person who experienced the events, making them more susceptible to the same occurrence, and more likely to behave like the progenitor.

These relatively new discoveries come on the heel of the advancing genome-wide high throughput technologies that have allowed more comprehensive genotype screenings that involve both, diseased and controlled groups. Currently, there is an effort taking place within the world of clinical research, that is focused on supplementing the current empirical data with efforts on the genomic level involving endeavors in elucidating the proteome, epigenetic profiles, and transcriptome.

What has proven to be most appealing about epigenetics is the rapidly accumulating evidence that reveals the powerful and lasting impact of adverse life events, as well as how it is reflected in covalent modifications of the chromatin.

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The Jewish Holocaust

My introduction to the world of epigenetics was by chance. It was something I discovered while studying the manner in which European Jews dealt with the trauma associated with the atrocities they suffered during the 12-year span of the Holocaust. Studying the Jews revealed a number of powerful elements that differentiate how they have responded to their traumatic event in comparison to the African American response to slavery and the subsequent atrocities that followed it.

  1. The Jews don’t refer to themselves as victims of the Holocaust; they refer to themselves as survivors.
  2. They were cognizant enough of their trauma that they invested significantly in the study of that trauma to determine the best ways to ensure that they recovered as soon as possible. Basically, they did not want their grandchildren to still experience dysfunction based on what they had endured. What the current data reveals is that the third generation expresses very little influence from the Holocaust, outside of being aware of it and its significance.
  3. They were even willing to examine their trauma on the genetic level. They were never in denial. They knew that something was wrong and they were determined to discover and confront it. This is where epigenetics comes in.
  4. Jews were immensely racially socialized, understanding who they were as individuals and as a race. With this understanding, they were aware of their responsibility to one another. It was this responsibility that drove them to invest in research to understand their trauma.

What we do know now, about epigenetics is that although a child is stuck with the genetic code passed on to them by their parents, they are not doomed to repeat the failures of their parents. They can improve the quality of their gene expression by the environment and stimuli they expose themselves to. Conversely, they can diminish the quality of the gene expression by exposing themselves to hostile and counterproductive environments, including abusive relationships, drug abuse, untreated mental disorders, and more.

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I personally believe that we start with our youngest members, and we develop programs that introduce them to who they are. Identity is key. We must use this identity to reconnect ourselves to one another in a manner in which we recognize the value and worth in every black life. We have to make ourselves responsible for the environment in which every black child is reared and educated. We must stop looking to exogenous sources for elevation, liberation, and empowerment. That has to be an autogenously responsive action.

At The Odyssey Project, I have designed and implemented numerous programs and initiatives designed to address the enigmatic issues we face, and these programs are the result of the research done through The Odyssey Project. From the Black Community Empowerment Initiative (Which includes holistically educating youth, teaching financial literacy to parents and children, promoting black enterprise, etc.) to helping parents nationwide create African American Parent Advisory Councils to oversee public school districts and their treatment of African American students, we have planted ourselves in the heart of the struggle.

It is my belief that the only way that we can rise as a people is to live as a unified people. We cannot stand alone, each in his or her sphere of influence and expect to topple this machine of institutional racism. We must develop an organized and focused spending agenda that will allow us to leverage our money to create power and influence. We must recapture the understanding of the importance of the black family, and rebuild the family from the ground up. We must holistically educate our youth from the moment of self-awareness. Black men have to be willing to assume the role of protector, provider, and leader — not only in the home — but in the community as well, because we will only get as far as our men (as a collective) can lead us. The black woman must learn to exercise her extraordinary spiritual strength to encourage and empower the men and elevate our communities because we will only go as high as our women can lift us. We must be unified.

While many may not understand how epigenetics plays into this, it, along with cognitive biases and cognitive distortion, are key components that we must master in the way of understanding.

This morning, I posted that white people don’t have superpowers. They are not superior to Blacks. The only thing that white people have that we don’t is a strategized plan, and they are working the hell out of it at our expense. My people, it is time for us to get a plan! ~ Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D.


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  • Born in Captivity: Psychopathology as a Legacy of Slavery