“12 Years a Slave” and “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”

So overpowering is this film’s simple, horrible, and almost entirely true story that it’s hard to get enough distance on 12 Years a Slave to poke at its inner workings. Dana Stevens, Slate

In the Steve McQueen-directed 12 Years a Slave, based on the book published in the mid-1850’s, free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped in the North and sold into slavery in the South. As is well illustrated in the movie, he suddenly and terrifyingly loses all connection to his life as a husband, father, and musician, among other things. He’s forced to take a new name (Platt), has to pretend to be illiterate, and is continually demeaned and brutalized.

Toward the beginning of this nightmare, Northup tells another fellow who’s trying to figure out how to survive, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” It’s not long, however, before he realizes survival is his only choice.

I agree with the general sentiments of the film critics, most of whom have highly praised 12 Years. Just a few examples:

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: “’12 Years a Slave’ isn’t easy to watch, and it shouldn’t be; it’s one man’s tragedy, but it’s also the tragedy of countless thousands of souls beaten down, literally and metaphorically.”

Tom Long, Detroit News: “’12 Years a Slave’ lays out an institution so twisted and wrong that its honest portrayal has been avoided for centuries. Yes, it’s dark and brutal. It needs to be”.

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “The genius of ’12 Years a Slave’ is its insistence on banal evil, and on terror, that seeped into souls, bound bodies and reaped an enduring, terrible price.”

You can see the film trailer below:

Of the questions that haunted me after seeing the film, the one I want to address here: What are the psychological effects of slavery on African Americans to this day?

Dr. Joy DeGruy, a social work researcher and professor, wrote about this in her highly praised Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (2005). She notes that although many in slavery likely experienced PTSD, it’s unlikely that they received appropriate help. Certain adaptive traits were then passed to the next generation, and so on. Moreover, continuing into the present, the African American community has also had to endure newer traumas and their effects.

In different words (i.e., hers), her theory is that Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, or P.T.S.S., is:

…a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.

Accordingly, individuals frequently suffer from the following:

  • Vacant Esteem–includes hopelessness, depression, and a self-destructive outlook.
  • Marked Propensity for Anger and Violence–includes extreme feelings of suspicion.
  • Racist Socialization and internalized racism–with learned helplessness, literacy deprivation, distorted self-concept; also, antipathy or aversion for members of one’s own cultural/ethnic group, the mores/customs associated with one’s heritage, and physical characteristics of one’s cultural/ethnic group.

In addition, though, DeGruy also points out the resilience and strengths the African American community has developed, which she relates in an Essence article:

We are a strong people who survived the Middle Passage, and then later on withstood centuries of violent oppression. In the face of all that, we still retained family, community, and a strong sense of spirituality. We know how to take care of people, to take care of one another. But most important, we have maintained our humanity in that we have not, as a group, become barbaric toward those who committed the worst atrocities against us.

For further info, check out video clips of her talks on P.T.S.S. available on YouTube.

One thought on ““12 Years a Slave” and “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”

  1. Ros, I love this blog. I think the notion of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is profound and should be taught everywhere! Thanks for teaching me.

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