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Sankofa: Looking Back to Move Forward, Part IV


POST TRAUMATIC SLAVE SYNDROME: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing

Written by Joy DeGruy, Ph. D.

Presented by Rev. Sarah Fleming

A continuation from “Vacant Esteem”

At the community level, groups of people establish agreed-upon beliefs about their members’ worth, beliefs that are reflected in the community’s standards and values regarding acceptable behavior, educational attainment and professional possibilities. These standards and values translate into what achievements are believed to be practical and feasible for its members. Problems can arise when these standards and values promote counter-productive behaviors or inaccurately limit what is truly attainable.

For example, Booker T. Washington’s vision for the appropriate role of African Americans in American society was of tradesmen. Given the limitations imposed upon African Americans in the South, it is easy to understand how he came to this belief. Unfortunately, many in our communities bought into the notion that this was all we should aspire to. In the mid-20th century, the family, taking their cues from their community, also supported this notion, traditionally sending their girls off to become teachers and nurses while keeping their boys at home to learn crafts and trades involving manual labor.

Society contributes to the formation of vacant esteem in a number of ways, through its laws, institutions and policies, as well as through the media. African Americans have been and continue to be disproportionately represented in our penal institutions. African Americans often live in neighborhoods where schools are functionally segregated and lack adequate revenue to sustain them. In African American communities, banks charge higher interest rates on homes and auto loans, as well as make it more difficult for African Americans to get small business loans.

The media contributes to vacant esteem’s formation by frequently displaying African Americans as criminals, disadvantaged, academically deficient and sexually irresponsible. All these and more serve to influence how African Americans perceive themselves and so impact their assessment of their own worth.

So what are the signs of vacant esteem? What are some of the behaviors and attitudes associated with it? Consider this real life example: In the summer of 1992, two teenage boys-call them Carl and Dominic- got into an argument outside of a local high school in Portland. As onlookers watched the argument, typically about nothing important, escalated until Carl pulled out a gun and pointed it at Dominic’s face. The muzzle was no more than a foot from Dominic’s eyes. He remained perfectly still as he watched his adversary slowly pull the trigger. Click. The gun jammed. Dominic did not run. Dominic did not attack. Instead he said angrily: “Do you think I’m afraid to die? I ain’t afraid to die.”

One of the witnesses ran to call the police as Carl worked at unjamming his gun. Someone screamed for Dominic to run as once again Carl pointed it at Dominic’s head and pulled the trigger.

Click. Jammed again. The fourth time the gun went off. Dominic was rushed to the hospital. The bullet went through his jaw. Miraculously he survived.

Most people looked upon this event as an attempted murder when, in fact, they had witnessed another suicide attempt by a young black man. Too many young black men are looking to die, and while there is little glory in putting a bullet in your own head, there is much glory in being killed in a shootout with rival gang members. These are desperate young men, believing that there is no hope of a future. They neither think nor care about their lives a year from now, let alone five, ten or fifteen. Few of them expect to live past their twenties. Life for them is to be lived until they go to prison or get killed. The despair among many youth in inner-city communities runs deep. Many of them have more poverty, violence, and degradation than any child should ever see. They are not afraid to die. They are afraid to live. It is a testament to their strength that any one of them ever makes it out. Invited suicide is one indication of vacant esteem.

Another indication of vacant esteem is the effect to undermine the achievements of other African Americans. We all know this by its euphemistic name ‘crabs’ in a barrel. Whether we are talking about youth in school or adults in the professional world, there are those who seek to bring down those who look like them.

Associated with this effort is the difficulty that many African Americans have in celebrating the successes of other black people, particularly those we consider to be close to our own socio-economic level. So many of us are typically very proud of people such as Colin Powell, Nelson Mandella and the Williams sisters, whose achievements are seen as exceptional and perhaps out of reach. Yet at the same time there are those of us that have difficulty feeling positive about the promotion of a peer or friend. This condition is exemplified by a saying found in the book, Dyadic communication:

“If a man a molehill, then by God there shall be no mountain.”

In general, the belief that one has little or no value produces behaviors that almost demands the devaluing of others.

Still on the other note, I’ve often wondered why it is that African Americans feel as though one bad act committed by a black person reflects upon all black people. On numerous occasions I’ve been in the presence of black people when we hear a news anchor report a robbery or murder taking place. Invariably someone in the room asks, “Was it a black person?” And someone else says, “I sure hope it wasn’t somebody black,” as if to suggest that if the perpetrator was black, we all somehow share in a collective blame and a collective humiliation.

Or perhaps there is an assumption that the repercussions for this stranger’s act would somehow negatively impact how we, who share the same skin color and/or ethnicity, will be perceived or treated by whites. Whatever the case, this tendency to take on responsibility for the behavior of the whole race is irrational and stigmatizing.

The little boy who couldn’t stand to be looked at; the adolescent staring down the barrel of a gun; the lack of appreciation for the achievements of our peers; and feeling responsible for the entire community: all are just some of the indications of vacant esteem.


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