This past week was Dr. Martin Luther King Week, which featured several events such as the MLK Challenge and the MLK Candlelight Vigil. One of the latest in this series of events is a lecture by Dr. Joy DeGruy, a sociologist and author of the book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” This book, as well as her lecture, deals with the issue of generational trauma. DeGruy described the lecture as “a ten hour course condensed into a week.”
Generational trauma, as DeGruy says, is the reason behind many of the issues affecting African Americans, and is “due to 339 years of slavery.”
She states, “America’s pathology is the denial of race and racism.”
To corroborate this, DeGruy told a story of a black mother and a white mother. The black mother notices that the white mother’s son is doing very well, and congratulates her. Yet when the white mother congratulates the black mother on her son’s accomplishments, the latter will often understate his achievements.
DeGruy said that this is “not a normal, natural or healthful thing to do.” She compared this to an African slave mother who is told by her owner that her son is doing well at his work, and she does the same because she does not want her son to be sold. She emphasized this claim by drawing attention to the work around epigenetic inheritance, and related a story of work done on mice that caused them to fear a scent, and that fear was also found in the offspring.
Dr. DeGruy continued with her lecture by covering various examples of racial discrimination that are not known about by most Americans, either due to neglect by the government or little to no coverage in history courses. For example, she noted that the original plans for the Statue of Liberty included chains in her right hand, to represent the struggle of slaves in the United States. Instead, the chains were removed and placed under her feet.
She displayed a photograph of the statue’s feet from the ground.
“That’s me, hanging off the edge,” she said, as she pointed to the edge of a chain link that can barely be seen on top of the structure’s base.
There are various other examples of African American history that Americans readily forget, such as some of the aspects of the slave trade. She noted our willingness to discuss the Holocaust, but not slavery. This led her to talk about easily forgotten parts of the Middle Passage, such as slave castles. These buildings held the slaves temporarily, and housed rooms where women that defied their captors were repeatedly raped in front of their husbands. Men that fought against the slave traders were sent to rooms where they were starved to death.
Other revelations from DeGruy included the ways that slavery has continued to exist many years after emancipation. For example, in 1906 (43 years after Lincoln’s declaration), the Bronx Zoo displayed an African man in the monkey enclosure. Ota Benga was an exhibit intended to showcase humanity’s “earlier stages” and his use by the zoo was defended by an opinion article in the New York Times.
The article stated “We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter,” and that Africans “are very low in the human scale.”
This happened yet again in 1958, this time with a little girl being fed bananas in her cage. DeGruy also compared a United States propaganda poster from WWII to a 2008 Vogue cover featuring LeBron James. The poster displays a gorilla (representing the Germans) carrying a white woman and a club under the words “DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE.” She pointed out that James had a similar expression on the cover, remarking that “You can be on our cover, but you have to show the animal you are,” and that the women’s dresses are the same in both pictures.
Following the presentation, Rebecca Leigh, a senior, said she felt “enlightened,” and that “there was so much [she] didn’t know, and now [she] know[s]…I thought I knew and I didn’t.”
The organizer for the event, Courtney Jones-Addison, is the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s Associate Director. She said that she has heard DeGruy speak many times, but she learns something new every time.
Given the scenario of trying to convince a skeptic, DeGruy admits that she does not have an “elevator pitch” for the ideas she is championing. Instead, she would ask them to look into “the literature around multi-generational trauma, and how traumatic events impact the next generation, and how it gets passed along.”