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Exploring Post Slavery Trauma
By Antar Bush, MSW, MPH

According to Joy DeGruy, PhD, MSW, “Post traumatic slave syndrome [PTSS] is a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States” (Campbell, 2018). It is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. The challenge many have to this theory is “Well, it happened so long ago.” However, when you consider human beings captured, shipped, sold, beaten, raped, and experimented on, is the next question for social workers, “Did the trauma continue?” According to DeGruy the answer is an absolute “Yes!” (Campbell, 2018).

When individuals have a sustained trauma, the impact of this event can be persistent. When exploring multigenerational trauma, as social workers we tend to look at clients who are survivors of natural disasters and their families (Michel, 2019) or to clients who have experienced war. We understand there are lingering emotional and traumatic impacts on African Americans’ experience with slavery as a real, clear long-lasting trauma.

Understanding PTSS
Social workers must make the connections between survival behavior and modern living experiences. Adaptive and survival behaviors are commonly defined as evolved solutions to recurrent environmental problems of survival. Individual differences commonly arise through both heritable and nonheritable adaptive behavior.

Picture it: 2020, Mall of America, a black mother and a white mother walking with their 4-year-old children. Both mothers understand the mall is large and will require a lot of walking. However, the white mother decides to put the 4-year-old in a stroller because the child will protest when they begin to feel exhausted. The black mother decides not to take a stroller because she feels the child is too old for a stroller and needs to learn how to walk on their own. When walking through the mall, the black child begins to complain about walking.

As a professor of social work, I would ask my students why the black mother is being so stern and stoic with the 4-year-old child? No matter what the class or race of the students, most look puzzled.

So, let’s rewind the same scene back 300 years. You have a black mother on a planation with a 4-year-child picking cotton alongside her in the southern heat. The black mother knows if the child does not pick their share of cotton the child will certainly receive lashes (no matter what their age). Since the 4-year-old slave does not understand they are in bondage it is up to the black mother to ensure the child picks their portion of cotton to keep the child safe from the master. The black mother denigrates and shows little emotional support to her own child because of her desire to protect them; this is called appropriate adaptation when living in a hostile environment (Douglas, 2017).

Fast-forward back to the mall; the white child feels happy and comfortable complaining about the walk and then gets into the stroller. On the other hand, the black child looks at their mom and wonders, “Why is Mom making me walk when I am tired? She doesn’t really love me.” The black child does not understand the secret yet. And by the time the child does understand the secret, the damage would have already been done (Douglas, 2017).

PTSD is a condition that occurs as a result of a single trauma, and a person does not need to have been present to be diagnosed with PTSD; a person could simply hear about a horrific event happening to someone they love (Dugan, Behrens, & Sameh, 2019). African Americans have experienced slavery, heard the stories about enslaved relatives, and then continue to be oppressed. These factors make it very challenging to heal from the trauma.

It is difficult to compare PTSD with PTSS, because PTSS becomes a part of the African American socialization process. African Americans begin to normalize the way of living and being (Dugan, Behrens, & Sameh, 2019). This could include everything from what we eat to what we believe in; all of these factors are affected by a white supremist framework of history.

Social Work Response
If African Americans do not have an understanding of these effects, we may assume these behaviors are normal. However, PTSD exaggerates startle response, outbursts of anger, and a feeling of foreshortened future. In a study by the Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office and the FBI, African American children in certain urban settings didn’t expect to live to be adults because they saw so much death. These young people began to plan funerals at the ages of 13, 12, and even as young as 9 (McPherson, 2019).

When one looks at the biology of African Americans and the impact of stress on health, social workers explore general stress, such as finances and illnesses. We must look at being black as a factor.

How does being black in America affect stress levels and result in compromising the operation of one’s immune system? When we understand what is causing the stress, we can begin to address it.

African Americans will see the behavior is habitual; we are socialized, it is part of our being. The first way social workers began to address the multigenerational trauma is to hear from and work with people it directly impacts. When social workers give people the information, they then can use it.

The hard conversations about race must continue and educate the larger society. Social workers must be on the front line to stop the assault. This will require social justice and change as we become a part of the healing process. This is not going to take place in a clinical setting nor with a pill; however, it will be in the pursuit of fairness, justice, and equity. But we also must teach clients in clinical settings how to address their panic and anxiety around race, then acknowledge to the client there is a system that is set up to oppress them and will continue to injure you. Social workers cannot work with these frameworks in isolation. We must work with both entities collectively.

— Antar Bush, MSW, MPH, is a PhD candidate, public health advocate, educator, and author specializing in HIV prevention and social justice. He trains and collaborates with nonprofit organizations, medical schools, shelters, and university counseling centers to help them create safe, justice-oriented policies and practices.


Campbell, B. (2018). Past, present, future: A program development exploring post traumatic slave syndrome (PTSS) using experimental learning and dance/movement therapy-based approaches. American Journal of Dance Therapy, 41, 214-233.

Douglas, K. B. (2017). The race of it all: Conversations between a mother and her son. In: C. Bischoff, E. O’Donnell Gandolfo, A. Hardison-Moody (Eds.), Parenting as spiritual practice and source for theology. (pp. 23-39). London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dugan, L. L., Behrens, M. M., & Sameh, A. L. I. (2019). U.S. Patent No. 10,407,374. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved from https://patents.google.com/patent/US10407374B2/en.

McPherson, C. (2019). You can’t kill Chairman Fred: Examining the life and legacy of a revolutionary. Journal of African American Studies, 23(4), 276-298.

Michel, S. (2019). The effects of intergenerational trauma on resiliency and post-traumatic growth among Japanese American internment survivors and their families (Doctoral dissertation, Pepperdine University). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/openview/6c2bee656ed20f6ce0fbc4862583b429/1.pdf?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y.