This past week I was fortunate enough to watch the reimaging of the Roots miniseries on the History Channel. I never watched the original, but the book has been a favorite of mine ever since I was a teenager. The book, by Alex Haley, was eye opening, and I rank it among the books that changed my life. I learned more about slavery from that historical fiction than I ever did in school.
The new miniseries held nothing back, and many parts were almost too much for me. Every scene felt painful, and I knew any joy or love found or felt would end in tragedy. I knew that it was important to see, though, and I enjoyed live tweeting along with the tag #KuntasKin. I learned a lot, and I felt a lot, and I can’t stop thinking about any of it. Particularly about all that pain and about how the descendants of those enslaved people are expected to have moved on by now. We are expected to have forgotten all of it.
I am thinking about how all that pain and the denial of it affects us down to our very DNA.
How can we be expected to forget it all when our ancestors endured and survived has become an essential part of who we are. The pain of being owned, worked, used, abused, raped, and treated like animals for 245 years is in our very DNA. We feel it and live it every day and we pass it to our children too, along with every new injustice and pain we suffer now.
Transgenerational trauma is trauma that is transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms.
Soon after the Jewish Holocaust researchers in Canada found that a high number of children of survivors were seeking treatment. According to Wikipedia “The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented by 300% among the referrals to a child psychiatry clinic in comparison with their representation in the general population.” They found that the direct and indirect impact of the parents trauma could affect children for over three generations.
The first assumption may be that the original trauma affects the parenting quality of the individual who experienced the original trauma. I also assume that the tendency for survivors to recreate the environment that encompassed the pain and to force a reenactment through the people in their lives currently could lead to a sort of repeat trauma that affects the child the same way it did the parent. All of that may be true, but researchers have found that the trauma can be epigenetically transferred as well.
That means that stress, pain, and trauma can change your genetics, and you pass those changes on to your child.
The first-generation experiences of combat veterans, hostages, prisoners of war, and the civil population who was victimized at the hands of war criminals from genocidal organizations such as the German Nazi Party, Italian Fascist party, and similar organizations and their (para-)military arms, have been dealt with within the confines of political arena and international law, however the descendants of both immediate witnesses and victims of genocide, colonial suppression, slavery, political totalitarian control, clerical abuse in religious organizations, and many survivors of terrorism had to deal with the victimization symptoms themselves, without the transfer of original trauma being recognized and help offered.
Enslavement and slavery, civil and domestic violence, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty are also sources of trauma that can be transferred to subsequent generations.
Starting in the 1620s until about 1807 people of African descent and ancestry were stolen from Africa, shipped to America in nightmarish conditions, and forced (read: beaten, broken, and raped) into serving white Americans as field hands and house servants. The best estimates say 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World, but only 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage. Of those, 450,000 arrived in the United States over the course of the slave trade. The rest ended up in the Caribbean and South America.
Now, I am not here to compare the horrors of the Holocaust to the horrors of slavery. Both were terrible times in human history. I only want to point out that the Holocaust lasted from approximately 1933 to 1945, 12 years, and affected at least three generations. Slavery in America lasted for 245 years, and most of us are only 4 to 6 generations removed from it. I would say it is probably still affecting most of the 45.7 million black people living in this country.
You see, most of us are taught that we are born with our genetic code being what it is, static and unchangeable. That isn’t true. The environment we live in, the choices we make and the things that happen to us affect those genes. Existing in an extended state of stress and “flight or fight” can turn genes on and off, or diminish the quality of your genes. You can pass on changes in the way stress is dealt with, depression and anxiety disorders, behavioral disorders. You can even pass on your fears.
When you think about it, our culture began with trauma. Being torn from your family, torn from your land, chained, brought across the ocean in a death ship to a place where people who look nothing like you and don’t speak your language are working, beating, and raping you. They tell you there is no hope of escape. They strip you of your identity. There is no opportunity to work through what has happened to you. Your trauma is repeated daily and what love and family you can find you are forced to watch live and be treated in the same deplorable way, or they are torn from you, never to be seen again.
This happened to families for 245 years, at least nine generations. 245 years of stress, pain, emotional trauma, physical trauma, and PTSD. 245 years of depression, anxiety, and mental disorders. 245 years of abuse passed down from mother and father to child, over and over and over and over….
And here we are today, somewhere between 4 or 6 generations removed from the greatest shame of this country and we act as if we should be over it all by now. As if, we wouldn’t be impacted by 245 years of enslavement.
None of what I have said here is new. Researchers have known for a very long time that what happens to the parent is passed to the child. What is new, what I hope will be new, is the people of this country accepting the fact we are still impacted spiritually, physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially by this country’s horrific past. What I hope will be new is that the descendants of the enslaved peoples of this country will finally be allowed to accept the genetic influence of our ancestors and be allowed to work through it.
What I hope will be new is that black people in this country will stop being told, and stop telling ourselves, that we should get over slavery, that we should be doing better by now, and that we should not treat the past as a part of our present.
It will continue to be a part of our present until it is acknowledged, really acknowledged, by this country, accepted by all people, and we seek therapy without shame, and healthy emotional release can begin, together, as a people.