By Galilee Ambellu
The psychological effects that slavery and racism have had on the Black population, also referred to as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), has forever impacted their perception of the word ‘safety’ in America. Humans are creatures of habit, meaning that an individual will inherit their caregiver’s parenting styles along with their epigenetic trauma. This phenomenon results from a chemical change (increased DNA methylation) in the trauma survivor’s stress response genes. This intergenerational trauma has manifested itself into increased anxiety, depression, cortisol levels, and hyper-awareness among Blacks (Halloran, 2019). The culmination of lived experiences and transgenerational trauma contributes to Black people’s iatrophobia: aversion towards physicians. Factors such as their lack of medical knowledge, Antebellum living conditions, and being subject to medical experimentation contribute to their negative biases. Two interviewees who took part in the Stories to Save Lives Project, William Sessions and Lyman Henderson, recount lived experiences that are reflective of the chasm between Blacks and the American healthcare system.
Lack of Medical Knowledge
The high prevalence of depression among Black slaves normalized, desensitized, and trivialized the condition (AJ+, 2019). The denial of mental illness across the Black community stems from transgenerational sentiments built upon a lack of medical knowledge and psychic numbing. The life of a slave consisted of either fieldwork, errands, housework, or being subjected to medical research as a superbody (a term used to describe Black women’s role in advancing the medical field) (Zellars, 2018). Slave literacy was not a priority for many plantation owners, leaving Blacks in a state of ignorance. The psychological toll that being treated like property had on Black people was immense. Parents grappled with simultaneously nurturing their children and teaching them how to suppress their emotions in a dangerous environment (PBS). The repression they used to protect themselves in one season, ended up harming them in the next as their inability to recognize emotions enabled slaves to refute mental illness. This deleterious mentality has been passed down to subsequent generations, creating the present-day inability to recognize depression and in turn the inevitability to succumb to it (Coleman, 2016). William Sessions, a DC native but current North Carolina resident, recounts stories of his maternal grandmother’s alcoholism and depression. He believed that “she did not want to drink, but that [alcoholism] was her way of coping.” Since “mental health for the blacks… was …taboo,” (Sessions 0:07:57.1) Sessions was unable to piece together feelings of loneliness and dejection as his own battle with depression. He later fell into the same pattern of drug abuse that his grandmother struggled with when raising his own son. The prolonged separation Blacks have had with medical knowledge and proper health care facilities have enabled their aversion to physicians.
Medical Superbody and Home Remedies
Blacks’ hesitancy towards the doctor’s office stems from the medical superbody and patient care experiences, which originated in slavery. Some members of the race are more likely to rely on transgenerational home remedies than the advice of a medical professional. This reluctance is an adaptation to America’s racial stereotypes and lack of empathy towards Blacks. Misconstrued Biblical arguments and White saviorism partnered together in order to justify the iniquitous nature of slavery. Blacks are seen as pain tolerant, incompetent, athletic, strong, impoverished, independent, drug consuming thugs, who are ill-mannered and aggressive. These bold claims and backhanded compliments contribute to Black people’s aversion to the medical field. Physicians who visited plantations would deem visibly ill slaves as ‘ready for work’ and even went as far as to purchase some for case studies (PBS). The inadequate care slave masters provided for Blacks classically conditioned them to associate apprehension with the medical profession: the unconditioned stimulus being racism, unconditioned response being fear, conditioned stimulus being a doctor, and conditioned response being fear of doctors. One of these physicians was James Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology. Sims purchased and operated on slave women without the use of anesthetics (OWN, 2021). Anarcha Westcott was on the receiving end of thirty procedures that led to the nonconsensual treatment of her vaginal fistula (Zellars, 2018).
As if the childbearing and medical superbody burdens were not enough, America decided to continue to scrutinize Black women post-1865. Since Black babies were no longer profitable, the United States (US) adopted the practice of eugenics, meaning that they sterilized the genetically undesirable Black population (Stern, 2020). Similar to the Antebellum Era, nonconsensual procedures were conducted where women would go under anesthesia for one condition but also wake up to a surprise hysterectomy. Another inhumane practice that accompanied the eugenics period was the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis. The US injected poverty-ridden Black men with a disease in order to better understand the body’s reaction to syphilis (McGill University).
America’s track record of abusing Blacks in order to make medical advances has caused the race to shy away from professional treatment options. Instead, many Black families prefer to use intergenerational home remedies that proved to be beneficial to their ancestors. Lyman Henderson, a practicing dentist in Warren County, NC, vividly remembers the day when he “stepped on a rusty nail” and his “[g]randmother made [him]… stand in a bucket with kerosene,” (0:15:03.8). A normal reaction to a child stepping on a rusty nail would be to rush them to the hospital, but the Black grandmother opted for self-treatment instead. Black people’s complex history with the health care system has prevented them from deeming the doctor’s office as a safe place. The dehumanization of Black patients has created this ‘us versus them’ mentality where many Black people, especially older generations, find more comfort in family cures than medical miracles.
As a Black person in America, it is hard to fully connect with one’s nationality. To be ‘fully’ American means to identify with its history of racism, sexism, and other hurtful actions or ideologies. The term ‘Black American’ is an oxymoron within itself for no matter the degree to which one might suppress their ‘Blackness’ they will always be disrespected by their country. The bitterness the nation holds towards the Black population has incited fear within the community. This fear can no longer be categorized as ‘a generator of trust issues’ but instead is a trigger to generational trauma. For a Black person to put their trust in the American healthcare system is a daunting task. The repeated usage of the sympathetic nervous system’s flight or fight response has caused this race to develop hypervigilance and increased cortisol levels (Halloran, 2019). For a Black person to be wary of the hospital is not ignorance. It is a trauma response.
AJ+. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. How Is It Different From PTSD? | AJ+ Opinion. YouTube, YouTube, 8 Nov. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rorgjdvphek.
Coleman, Monica A. “My Depression Is Part of My Slave Ancestry.” Time, Time, 25 July 2016, www.time.com/4408883/african-american-depression-mental-illness/.
Halloran, Michael J. “African American Health and Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome: A Terror Management Theory Account.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 45–65, doi:10.1177/0021934718803737.
McGill University. “40 Years of Human Experimentation in America: The Tuskegee Study.” Office for Science and Society, McGill University, 30 Dec. 2020, www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/history/40-years-human-experimentation-america-tuskegee-study.
OWN. OWN Spotlight: “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome” | (In)Visible Portraits | Oprah Winfrey Network. Performance by Joy DeGruy, YouTube, YouTube, 3 Mar. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRbJtMM_FZk.
PBS. “Antebellum Slavery.” Conditions of Antebellum Slavery, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2956.html#:~:text=Unsanitary%20conditions%2C%20inadequate%20nutrition%20and,plantations%20were%20the%20most%20deadly.
Stern, Alexandra. “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities – and Lasted into the 21st Century.” Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation, The Regents of the University of Michigan, 23 Sept. 2018, www.ihpi.umich.edu/news/forced-sterilization-policies-us-targeted-minorities-and-those-disabilities-and-lasted-21st.
Zellars, Rachel. “Black Subjectivity and the Origins of American Gynecology.” AAIHS, African American Intellectual History Society, 25 Oct. 2018, www.aaihs.org/black-subjectivity-and-the-origins-of-american-gynecology/.