10 Things About Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary’s Brilliant Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome Thesis

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Written by Ann Brown
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Illustration by Autumn Keiko

When Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary unveiled her Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) thesis, for many it was like a light bulb went off. While some think the theory is controversial, for others it explains “everything.”

The educator and author coined the term some 25 years ago. The goal was to help explain long-term results of multigenerational oppression from centuries of chattel slavery and institutionalized racism, and identify the resulting adaptive survival behaviors. 

Leary wrote about her groundbreaking study in the book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing,” published in 2005. 

A professor at Portland State University, Leary lectures on PTSS nationally and internationally. She earned a bachelor of science degree in communication, master’s degrees in social work and clinical psychology, and a Ph.D. in social work research.

Here are 10 things you should know about Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary’s Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome thesis.

The Theory

The thought behind Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome isn’t as complicated as one might think. It relates to survival behaviors in African-American communities throughout the U.S. and the diaspora. It 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 based on the belief that African Americans were inherently or genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.

Breakdown of PTSS

Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome develops through a process Leary calls M.A.P.: “Multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression, absence of opportunity to heal or access the benefits available in the society leads to Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” she wrote on her website.

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Do You Have PTSS?

There are a variety of signs to know if you have PTSS. They are: 

  • A vacant esteem: You have feelings of hopelessness, depression, and a general self-destructive outlook. 
  • Marked propensity for anger and violence. Extreme feelings of suspicion perceived negative motivations of others. Violence against self, property and others, including the members of one’s own group — friends, relatives, or acquaintances. 
  • Racist socialization and (internalized racism). Learned helplessness, literacy deprivation, distorted self-concept, antipathy, or aversion for members of one’s own identified cultural or ethnic group, the mores and customs associated with one’s own identified cultural or ethnic heritage, and the physical characteristics of one’s own identified cultural or ethnic group.

Under Attack

Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome has come from years of Black people being under attack, from slavery to Jim Crow days to today with like events such as the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, some experts say.

And if you find yourself “feeling frightened, isolated, or angry—or think you have to tiptoe around the office to avoid a racial encounter—you’re not alone,” Ebony reported. “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.”

PTSS Versus PTSD

There is a difference between the two afflictions.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is usually the result of a single event. Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) is a generational trauma passed down through the DNA of people.

“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 Leary. “Living in Black skin is a whole other level of stress.”

Living in Black skin

According to Leary, being Black in America brings about a variety of stressors. When she was formulating her theory of PTSS, she asked a number of questions, Ebony reported.

  • 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?                                                                          

The Book

Leary discussed her theory in the 2005 book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS).”

“PTSS describes a set of behaviors, beliefs and actions associated with or, related to multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans that include but are not limited to undiagnosed and untreated PTSD in enslaved Africans and their descendants,” reported Wikipedia.

Causal Factors

There are a number of factors that have caused PTSS. “PTSS posits that centuries of slavery in the United States, followed by systemic and structural racism and oppression, including lynching, Jim Crow laws, and unwarranted mass incarceration, have resulted in multigenerational maladaptive behaviors, which originated as survival strategies. The syndrome continues because children whose parents suffer from PTSS are often indoctrinated into the same behaviors, long after the behaviors have lost their contextual effectiveness,” Wikipedia reported.

Remedy is through societal changes

According to Leary, PTSS cannot simply be treated and remedied clinically. Changes in society must take place first by ridding the U.S. of inequality and injustice toward the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Under such circumstances, these are some of the predictable patterns of behavior that tend to occur.

Study Guide

Leary has developed a Study Guide to PTSS to help individuals, groups, and organizations better understand the functional and dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors that have been transmitted to us through multiple generations; behaviors that we are now transmitting to others in our environments of home, school, and work and within the larger society, according to her website. 

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