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The Legacy of Trauma: Understanding the African American Experience

The Legacy of Trauma: Understanding the African American Experience

What is Historical Trauma? 

Often Historical trauma is defined as the following, “The collective emotional and psychological injury both over the life span and across generations, resulting from a cataclysmic history of genocide.”

Historical trauma is an example of intergenerational trauma. It’s caused by events that target a group of people; thus, even family members who have not directly experienced the trauma can feel the effects of the event generations later. But the results can be felt generations later. 

Historical Trauma is closely connected to Intergenerational Trauma. The experience of African Americans was a complete re-creation of their ethnic identity. They experienced a horrific event, had their lives shaken up, changing their names and religions, forcing them to be illiterate, not to develop families, to engage with people they didn’t know sexually, and to reproduce.

This concept of Historical Trauma was developed by Dr. Yellow Horse, Braveheart, who is an indigenous woman. She created this while working on her dissertation. Where was she attempting to figure out why Native Americans have never achieved the “American dream?” 

African Americans could consider this same question, even during our current times. Remember that history is not about the past. It is about the present. We may think of history as this thing that happened that’s not connected to current times, but all these things are connected.  The main factor that connects past and present is the culture developed to survive historical trauma.

How is the African American Experience Unique?

Our historical trauma does not necessarily start with slavery. It begins with the being sold by Africans for goods and entering the Atlantic slave trade. However, the most unique yet damaging factor was the effect of Chattel Slavery. This was different from slavery worldwide, where enslaved people could maintain pieces of their culture and portions of their language and keep one’s religion.

Therefore, imagine developing a family during these times. One must teach their children how to survive and be in survival mode around the trauma. Consequently, it’s a social learning experience. Social learning theory is taking place where people are just trying to survive in their environments. Unfortunately, when it comes to African Americans, their environments have been hostile and oppressive to them, and they have continued to figure out a way to make it work as best as they can to survive. 

How does Historical Trauma Play a Role Today?

Healing is something that must be done. As African Americans, we need to heal. Our community is in pain. Our pain comes in the form of trauma. The trauma is spiritual, mental, and physical stemming from Historical Trauma. We often do not know how to address our emotional pain. Other groups, including ourselves, have victimized African Americans. When we hurt ourselves, the pain takes a new form. We have all heard the phrase, “hurt people, hurt people.” This is true. Hurt people also often hurt themselves as well. This hurt can be equated to trauma. 

African Americans have experienced many forms of trauma. Often, those experiences are covered up by things that give them gratification. In many incidences, this gratification is short-term. When short-term gratification is used, it only soothes the pain temporarily. One form of short-term gratification that is used to survive in a society that is everything but pleasant to them is “minding our own business.” Similar to the adage, “what goes on here stays here.”  It is a cultural code of ethics for many groups. However, for African Americans, this statement takes on new meaning. Often it means life or death, depending on the circumstances.  

What Can be Done Next? 

In short, there can be many different avenues and directions to take. However, I have found a few commonalities for people to engage with to process the historical trauma that African Americans have endured. Here are my four strategies for assisting those who want to begin their healing journey around historical trauma.

The first thing that people must engage in is awareness. Being informed and aware of the history of your people is critical for healing in the present and the future. Unfortunately, due to the past being so traumatic, many African Americans want to forget or not tell the whole truth about what has happened. The fortunate thing is that there are tons of books, documentaries, research, and other forms of documented history on the historical trauma that African Americans have faced. So, our awareness takes a lot of courage, as well. But it's something that must be engaged to help them move forward with what has happened.

The next thing I think is essential is for truth-seeking to take place. It is hard to accept some of the most heinous things in human history. Things that have happened to your ancestors. But this is one of the things we must do as a people to understand our experience. Often, people like to romanticize history. It makes sense. You want to feel good about what your people have done and what they've experienced. But for them to move forward around historical trauma, the truth is sought. This comes with a level of acceptance as well.

The third thing we could do is talk to those with the closest experience to the trauma and history in our country. This means the baby boomers Generation. This generation is the second or third generation removed from slavery.  They have experienced segregation, the civil rights movement, the Great Migration to north and west, and the current day. They are a wealth of experience and knowledge. Therefore, Collecting their narratives and getting their experience will be essential to truly understanding what has happened and what can happen for them, moving forward. We should not underestimate the experiences of our elders. 

Lastly, I would encourage all to join the fight for racial justice. It's more of a social and psychological battle than a physical one, period. But that doesn't mean that we should shy away from it. We all have work to do to be less biased and more inclusive. Figuring out where you're at and what role you would like to take in this fight is very important. So now that you know, and you're informed to apply the information that you've learned. Historical trauma should not be something that captivates you and keeps you stuck, but it should be something that we understand, accept and that encourages us to do better moving forward.

Brandon Jones, MA

Brandon is the Executive Director of Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health. He specializations in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Historical and Intergenerational trauma, Social/Emotional Intelligence (EQ), Leadership, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Brandon holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Minnesota, a Masters in Community Psychology from Metropolitan State University, and a Masters in Adlerian Counseling and Psychotherapy (MFT) from Adler Graduate School. Brandon is Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) Qualified Administrator. Brandon is Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow (2013) and Professor graduate and undergraduate studies. He lives by the motto of “Live life with Purpose on Purpose.”

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Opinions and viewpoints expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of CE Learning Systems.

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