This post was inspired by Professor Ibram X. Kendi’s insightful AAIHS critique of Professor Joy DeGruy’s equally insightful book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. In the spirit of full disclosure, Professor Kendi and I are both contributors to a forthcoming AAIHS anthology titled New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition, edited by Keisha N. Blain, Chris Cameron and Ashley D. Farmer. At the same time, Professor DeGruy is a family friend. I’ve hung out with her nephew and attended her daughter’s wedding. My wife and her sisters grew up with her as a role model, and her brother almost beat me in a game of basketball (like, you know, in his dreams). Having said that, I am sympathetic to many of the critiques that Professor Kendi has put forward. Yet I also believe that post traumatic slave syndrome (PTSS) can still be reconciled to those critiques and, in the hands of skilled practitioners, advance an anti-racist agenda (even if it is, as Professor Kendi says, a “racist idea”).
Professor Kendi’s perspective is deeply rooted in his reading of the history of racist thought that he has so powerfully chronicled in his book Stamped From the Beginning. In PTSS, (an idea he previously supported) he now smells the deep history of ‘racial uplift’ ideology and its modern re-invention via cultural deprivation theory. Interestingly, my first reaction to PTSS was exactly the same as his second reaction. I initially cut my teeth in the late 1990s on the revisionist scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s. It taught me that black people emerged heroically, even triumphantly, from slavery. They were not damaged. They were not traumatized. Slaves and former slaves displayed something called ‘agency.’ They refused ‘accommodation’ but instead practiced ‘resistance.’ The white racist power ‘structure’ did not defeat them but rather inspired them—fueling the fight for freedom and equality. This revisionist literature was a direct repudiation of what Professor Kendi calls “the oppression-inferiority thesis” which was first advanced by white abolitionists and black practitioners of ‘racial uplift’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century before being further advanced by E. Franklin Frazier, Stanley Elkins, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. More recently this idea has been revived again under the broad banner of cultural deficit theory and has been picked up by everyone from white conservative demagogues to misguided black intellectuals (some of whom Kendi identifies). But is PTSS rightfully part of this already somewhat heterogeneous tradition or, as Professor Kwame Zulu Shabazz smartly points out in the uniquely civil and thoughtful comments section, does it belong to a different intellectual tradition altogether?
Here, I think Walter Johnson’s critique of the very idea of agency (and really what I would call hyper-agency) is indispensable. For Johnson black people cannot be manufactured into perfect resistance-machines to predictably combat white supremacy as scholars deem expedient. The old binaries of accommodation OR resistance—agency OR structure—need to be collapsed in favor of imperfect human beings struggling over power (i.e. politics) and making mistakes along the way. As a wise professor once told me, “The proper response to a history that said white people were ten feet tall is not to write a new history that makes black people ten feet tall but instead show everyone as fully human.” I see both Professor Kendi and Professor DeGruy as part of this new wave of scholarship where black people, black thought, and black trauma can be messy, ‘wrong,’ and unpredictable…but always human. Black people can be victimized without being victims. T. Thomas Fortune can be a raging alcoholic suffering from PTSS and still be the greatest black journalist to ever live.
In this way, the idea of black trauma is not reducible to black inferiority. Similarly, neither trauma nor inferiority should be conflated with culture. These are three separate things. Black people can acknowledge trauma without this acknowledgment branding them as inferior. Furthermore, individual or collective trauma does not equate to ‘the culture’ in toto. Indeed, one of Professor DeGruy’s central projects is to disaggregate trauma from culture in the hopes that white America will stop equating the two. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s mediation on how structural white racism creates an environment of perpetual fear that is expressed through acts of violence is one of the most powerful explanatory ideas in Between the World and Me. It doesn’t imply inferiority—only causality. It, like PTSS, shows that the terror of white supremacy damaged and plundered black people not just structurally or abstractly, but personally and, indeed, psychically.
Professor Kendi readily acknowledges that black people have been and continue to be damaged physically, economically, politically, and socially by white racism and the legacy of slavery. Reparations are due. But why then should we draw a rather arbitrary line at the door of something called psychology (or even culture) and say that racist trauma should not or did not pass beyond it? Because of the stigma of mental health as opposed to bodily or economic health? Because doing so would mark black people (rather than their opportunities, political power, or bank accounts) as inferior, damaged, and pathological? Once the trauma passes from the pocketbook, through the body, and into the id and the super-ego, it seems that the Cartesian subject and Professor Kendi’s very humanizing project may be at stake in a new way (even though Foucault’s genealogy of the self should cause us to think twice about fetishizing ‘the self’ in the first place). But is there a way out here?
I wonder if Professor Kendi would accept that black people may have been differently damaged by the history of slavery but are still equally as damaged when compared to white people in terms of some overall level of psychological dysfunction. Would this still be a racist idea? Because, in some ways, this is exactly what Professor DeGruy is arguing. If gang violence, ‘mental slavery,’ and colorism were black adaptations to the American history of violent conquest, slavery, and racism can’t narcissistic white privilege, Columbine shootings, and disproportionately high rates of suicide be seen as the equal but still different psychological damage that white people did to themselves? Is it really a matter of quantification and tallying an exactly equal degree of everything in order to arrive at a non-racist or anti-racist idea? If so, then perhaps it is not so much PTSS per se that Professor Kendi objects to but rather the presence of PTSS in the absence of what might be called a post traumatic white deposed slave master syndrome. I’m no psychologist, but I think we can pretty easily make a case for that one (as Professor DeGruy, I believe, does). Racism hurts everyone.
Another way to reconcile PTSS with Professor Kendi’s critique is to realize that two fundamentally different definitions of racism and anti-racism are being invoked. For Professor Kendi a racist idea is one that assumes black inferiority and an anti-racist idea is one that asserts black equality. For Professor DeGruy, a racist idea is one that harms black (and white) people and an anti-racist idea is one that heals black (and white) people. Still another definition might hold that a racist idea reinforces racial/social hierarchies and an anti-racist idea undermines existing hierarchies. In this last definition where would PTSS stand? Furthermore, if PTSS were used in the future as an argument to secure reparations then where would it stand? This utilitarian, pragmatic standard, rather than Professor Kendi’s more universal and objective standard, is another way to evaluate the ‘truth’ of PTSS both as a theory as well as in its degree of accommodation with racist thought. In this model it’s not what PTSS is, it’s what it does. And everyday black people love PTSS for what it does (especially if they have a particularly traumatic life history). White people generally hate PTSS no matter what (even if they believe in black cultural deprivation). This alone should tell us something. I, for one, believe black people know best regarding their own subjective experiences and desire for self-care. If PTSS works as a healing tool for individual black people (a distinction Professor Kendi is wise to point out) who can object? Where things get dicey is when PTSS falls into the hands of white people who in their misreading of Professor DeGruy will find an excuse to look upon black people as a group simply as the denigrated, dysfunctional, traumatized sambos that they always suspected they were. This, for me, is the major challenge to PTSS.
I also agree with Kelisha B. Graves (again from that stellar comments section) that there is a methodological divide at play here. History often collides with psychology and sociology as historians are particularly sensitive to the racism, sexism, and homophobia that have historically been dispensed through those disciplines (as well as our own). We are trained to see something like PTSS not as it is today but how it might be remembered fifty or a hundred years from now. We are immediately skeptical when we hear someone use the language of medicine and science as it relates to race because we know the past of these ideas. Some of the work being done by philosophers, developmental anthropologists, and biologists today in light of new advances in neuroscience and DNA sequencing is downright terrifying to the historical eardrum. Thankfully, Foucault’s biopolitics, Ruja Benjamin and Dorothy Roberts’s critiques of race in scientific discourse, and a host of other red flags and loud alarms cry out to us from all over the place telling us to beware. But, again, is PTSS in this camp? Here I would say that the burden of proof is on Professor DeGruy to prove that it is not rather than on Professor Kendi to prove that it is (but then again, I’m a historian).
In the end, Professor Kendi is right to worry that PTSS will, at the very least, fall into the wrong hands and be used by racist forces as further confirmation of black cultural/psychological/ontological inferiority. This is already happening. I made a parallel critique recently of Professor Traci Parker’s brilliant work on black consumerism during the Civil Right Era. Like Professor Adam Green’s book Selling the Race, I argued that Parker’s exploration of how black people utilized the mechanisms of consumer capitalism to advance the cause of black liberation can too easily be misread as a justification for consumer capitalism itself. My question to Parker was “Aren’t you worried about Herman Cain or some other unsavory figure using your book as a justification for the virtues of black capitalism?” Her response was something like: “Who gives a damn what Herman Cain thinks?” Touchè. A similar dynamic and lesson is happening here. Prof. Kendi anticipates racist forces will misread and weaponize PTSS in the same way that they have done with almost every other previous black self-help idea including most recently the stop the violence movements of the 1990s aimed at reducing ‘black-on-black crime.’ But Professor DeGruy is, at the end of the day, simply a black psychologist trying to help black people survive psychically in a world that is trying daily to strip them of their humanity. Professor Kendi is right—the world has not succeeded in doing so. But Professor DeGruy is also right—we could all use a little healing.