Tatyana Rhodes didn’t grow up afraid of anybody. Even last year, when the Texas teenager’s social media feeds became a window into the ugly, sometimes deadly reality of police brutality, she never imagined she’d be exposed to such violence. Then in June, at an end-of-school gathering organized by Rhodes and her mother near an admission-restricted community pool in their Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas, she found herself in the middle of a nightmare.
Rhodes says she was approached by two White women who hurled racial insults and told her to “go back to subsidized housing,” even though, she adds, she and her friends, mostly African-American adolescents, were residents or guests of residents of the subdivision and, as such, had a right to be by the swimming pool. “I felt threatened; they were yelling, being verbally violent,” recalls Rhodes, 19. The abuse then got shockingly physical: One of the women struck Rhodes in the face with a closed fist. A short time later, once police arrived in response to complaints that the party had turned rowdy, a White officer grabbed a friend of Rhodes’ younger sister—a slender, bikini-clad 14-year-old. After pushing the girl, facedown, to the ground with his knee and straddling her, the officer waved his gun at other attendees.
That part of the incident went viral online and became national news. The attack on Rhodes didn’t garner such attention, yet after it happened, she started getting threats on Twitter and Instagram, harassment that continued for weeks. “I feel that I need to be extra- aware of my surroundings; I don’t really feel secure or safe,” the student, model and aspiring physician says now. “I don’t really hang out with my friends anymore. I feel like anyone can just walk up to my home and do anything.”
From the fatal chokehold of Eric Garner in New York City last year and the bloody arrest in March of University of Virginia student Martese Johnson to the horrendous massacre of nine congregants attending Bible study in a Charleston, S.C., church in June, it is clear that African-Americans are under attack. If you’re feeling frightened, isolated or angry—or think you have to tiptoe around the office to avoid a racial encounter—you’re not alone.
While what you’re experiencing may seem to be a reaction to recent events, your emotions and actions could, in fact, be rooted in the past. There’s even a name for this condition: post-traumatic slave syndrome (PTSS). And although it is complex and deeply rooted, know this: It is possible for Black people to live victoriously—albeit cautiously—in America today and at the same time strive to make things better for future generations.
Chains in Our DNA
Educator and author Joy DeGruy, Ph.D., is the woman who, 25 years ago, coined the PTSS term to help explain the consequences of multigenerational oppression from centuries of chattel slavery and institutionalized racism, and to identify the resulting adaptive survival behaviors. She turned her study into the groundbreaking book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, published in 2005. Researchers have long investigated how historical trauma is passed down through the generations, and findings suggest actual memories are transmitted through the DNA for Jews, Native Americans and other groups, DeGruy indicates. That same concept can be applied to the impact of slavery on African-Americans.
PTSS differs from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which results from a single trauma experienced directly or indirectly. “When we look at American chattel slavery, we are not talking about a single trauma; we’re talking about multiple traumas over lifetimes and over generations,” says DeGruy. “Living in Black skin is a whole other level of stress.”
In formulating her theory, she wondered: What happens when stressed people lack treatment for generations? How have Black people coped? What adaptive behaviors have we invented—now misinterpreted as “cultural”—to survive in a toxic environment? “How do we tease out, as a people, that which is harmful and adaptive, that which builds resilience and that which is absolutely pathological?” asks DeGruy, because figuring that out is essential if we are to break the cycle. “We have to learn to not pass along the broken material. We have to learn how to keep ourselves safe.”
Read more in the September 2015 issue of EBONY Magazine.