What is the Importance of Black History?
by Wim Laven
On November 22, 2014, Tamir E. Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy, was killed at the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio; the officer, according to the DOJ, “fired two shots within less than two seconds of opening the passenger door, striking Tamir once in the abdomen.”
Dr. Joy DeGruy coined the theory Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) and defines it as, “a condition that exists when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today.”
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, helps to manage a variety of behavioral responses including fight or flight. People suffering from trauma or PTSD frequently have curious measurements of cortisol, and so do their children. One study, Youth Offspring of Mothers with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Have Altered Stress Reactivity, found “results were consistent with the hypothesis that offspring of mothers with PTSD would exhibit a dysregulated, blunted cortisol reactivity.”
Other studies reveal How Parents’ Trauma Leaves Biological Traces in Children by examining women (and their children) in New York who were pregnant on 9/11/01 and Holocaust survivors and their children. “Survivors’ adult children were more likely than others to have mood and anxiety disorders, as well as PTSD. Further, many Holocaust offspring also had low cortisol levels—something that we had observed in their parents with PTSD.”
Epigenetics, alterations in the way genes function, can explain why the effects of trauma can last, even after the threat is gone. The genes do not change, but how they are expressed does. “Epigenetic changes often serve to biologically prepare offspring for an environment similar to that of the parents.”
The studies describe descendants from atrocities who wake up the whole house from night terrors. Their shrieks are not from their own memories or trauma, however, but the experiences of those who came before them.
There is an unknown quote that has been popularly shared in recent years: “At some point in your childhood, you and your friends went outside to play for the very last time and nobody knew it.”
It fills me with a sense of awe and nostalgia. It gives everyone something different to think about. Perhaps it is an odd way to frame a concept like Black History Month, but we cannot understand the present and current events without understanding what got us here.
I have met Samaria Rice, an advocate for juvenile rights, and followed along with her struggle for justice. On what would have been her son Tamir’s 19th birthday I joined to celebrate his memory. We were all asked to think about what justice looks like when the police, whom we expect to serve us, kill your child?
About a year later, at the dedication for the butterfly garden in his memory she shared: “this is the last memory I have of my son—playing in the park as children should be able to play in parks in America.” I thought the butterflies were perfect because our history needs a metamorphosis.
Her words were piercing because I know I never had to worry about playing with a toy gun when I was 12. The painful past, however, has become a painful present.
Sometimes we need to face very ugly and very serious problems. Sometimes children go out to play for the last time, and it does have a happy ending. I can understand the pain even if I don’t experience personally or at a genetic or epigenetic level. But I also do not understand the pain when I fall to appreciate it in its breadth. The death of a child can impact a community and also generations.
Samaria was living on the streets of Cleveland at the age of 12, as she had been kicked out by her father. I think it would be tone deaf (to say the least) to ask her, what memories she has of the last time she went out to play were.
I believe all parents want their children to have it better than they did. But it is immoral to ignore the differences that history brings into our lives. As a culture or a society shouldn’t we all care about all children?
It is not merely a coincidence that Mapping Police Violence (MPV), a nonprofit organization that tracks fatal encounters with police, found “Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police, yet 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed compared to white people.”
The origins of modern-day policing in certain areas are in slave patrols. The earliest slave patrols were focused on controlling slaves by any means necessary. Slaves were terrorized, their uprisings were suppressed, and runaways were captured and returned to their owners.
Now in its 10th Edition, The Police in America, captures this rarely disclosed feature of our history, reads:
“Policing in the southeastern states where slavery existed had a distinctive institution: the slave patrol. Because the white majority was so concerned about slave revolts (of which there were many), and runaway slaves, they created this new form of law enforcement. The slave patrols, in fact, were the first modern police forces in the United States. The Charleston, South Carolina slave patrol, for example, had about 100 officers in 1837 and was far larger than any northern city police force at that time.”
The U.S. government and economy were built on the backs of slave labor. Twelve former Presidents owned slaves, eight while in office. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington each owned hundreds of slaves. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, clarifies the relationships between 19th century economic development and a brutal system of human bondage, to highlight and challenge narratives that limit the role of slavery to Southern States.
There have always different stories, and the oppressed see things very differently. Black history tells the truth about racial prejudice in America; without it the inconvenient facts just get whitewashed.
There are many other problems with propagating lies in our current historical narrative. Believing historical lies seems to make modern injustices easier to pull off. False accusations lead to wrongful convictions and prejudice blocks people from enjoying the rights they are entitled to. It’s time we collectively agreed to stop accepting the lies and insist on the truth, it might cause some discomfort, but it is the only pathway to healing.
Ancestral trauma predisposes offspring to be vulnerable to mental health conditions and can persist for generations. There is evidence that the epigenetic responses can serve as an adaptation sometimes helping children cope with adversities, but this is not “what does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Those traumatized by American racism and their descendants can suffer from anxiety, grief, guilt, dysfunctional relationships and the continued fear of racial prejudice and injustice. Not talking about it does not make the problem go away; from my observations it seems to make the problem worse.
There might be a million details that explain why it is safe for some 12-year-olds to play with toy guns and a death sentence for others. But without a study of Black History it is impossible to explain how or why an officer can make a decision to kill a child in less than two seconds. We have an illness, a syndrome, and we do not heal because we do not talk about the problem.
Wim Laven, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution.