Slavery’s Enduring Legacy
A slave master walking through the fields comes upon a slave woman. The slave master approaches her and her children and remarks, “Well now, that Mary of yours is really coming along.”
The slave mother, terrified that the slave master may see qualities in her daughter that could merit being raped or sold, says, “Naw sir, she ain't worth nothin’. She can't work. She stupid. She shiftless.” Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, by Joy DeGruy, Ph.D. p.14.
This passage from Joy DeGruy illustrates a sophisticated form of resistance on the part of the slave mother who denigrates her child to protect her. Slaves were powerless to protect themselves and their families against slaveholders, slave traders, and white people in general because of the slaves’ status as property. The mother's response to the slave master is clever, given the circumstances and time period, but it also comes with consequences. “She ain't worth nothing.” The slave mother demeaned her daughter’s value to prevent her child from being raped or sold by the slave master. The child would not understand her mother’s intention and came away feeling wounded. Ideally, the mother would pull the child to the side and explain why she responded in such a manner. Or communicate her love for her child through other behaviors. However, chattel slavery in America was so demoralizing, so mentally and physically abusive it’s hard to imagine the mother having the resources to repair the damage to the daughter’s feelings. Even if the mother could repair the damage from that exchange with the slave master, over time, the cumulative effect on the self-image of both the mother and the child would reduce the effectiveness of any repair attempt.
Another vestige of slavery is corporal punishment or spanking. During chattel slavery, African Americans were tortured and beaten with impunity. Blacks could be raped, sold, and killed for no reason. During that time, it was imperative for parents to bring their children under control quickly so many parents turned to violence as a means of disciplining them. The legacy of American chattel slavery casts a long shadow. To this day, corporal punishment is preferred by many parents though school districts now are prohibited from using corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure. Yet African American school children are often viewed as a threat and as needing more harsh discipline than white children. They are more routinely suspended from school. For example, many charter schools following a military school model of discipline have been established in California and enroll predominantly children of color. These erroneous beliefs condition society to expect less from children of color, and unfortunately, conditions the children to enact those negative stereotypes which often lead them into the criminal justice system. Even though scientific evidence shows the ill effects of spanking, and numerous online videos show unarmed black people shot by the police, many black people continue to argue for spanking their children and community policing.
The slave woman in her effort to protect her daughter “dumbs down” by reinforcing the prevailing stereotypes of white society. Blacks who were being abused, exploited, and dehumanized used “masking” as a survival strategy; they would pretend that they were unaware of the abuse to avoid drawing unwanted attention to themselves. In fact, historically, there have always been two ways blacks have coped with slavery in America: by rising to the top by trying to assimilate into the dominant culture, or by racing to the bottom by manifesting the prevailing stereotypes. Both are tactics for coping with oppression and they are both forms of resistance that one may not recognize, especially the race to the bottom.
Black people’s inability to recognize various forms of resistance─even passive one─has been one of the main reasons that our community has been unable to sustain unified resistance. We remain unable to embrace each other. Slavery’s children find themselves rejected at both ends of the spectrum by both black and white society. There are consequences for acting “too white” and there are consequences for acting “too black.” Many black people are left with nowhere to turn.
For slavery’s children demeaning each other and corporal punishment have become “factory settings” ─not because of what happen then, but because of what is happening now. There is something not so “post” about the ongoing violence against black people in today’s allegedly post-racial America. Many of us continue to feel powerless to protect ourselves and our families against the system because of our skin color. Just like the slave woman, black people continue to resist in subtle ways and, many times, in ways that have long term negative consequences for us. To survive we must recognize resistance in its many forms to avoid turning away from our blackness and each other.
How will we go about protecting ourselves and our children in more constructive ways? How urgent is the need? What is the harm in seeing it as “cultural?” There are no easy answers to the questions DeGruy’s work raises. As a mental health professional, I believe interventions need to be sensitive to the residual effects of slavery on both blacks and whites in this country. Many of the problems we confront in our society have much to do with the stress of racism and oppression in all its forms. Low self-esteem and violence are not cultural but rather learned behaviors that can be unlearned over time. We need to start now.
“The past isn't dead. It isn't even past”
─William Faulkner, “Requiem for a Nun”