The Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma: ... And How are the Children?

Girl reciting the pledge of allegiance
Girl reciting the pledge of allegiance

This is the second in a series of articles addressing ways in which the "transgenerational transmission of trauma" (see the work of Dr. Vamik Volkan) manifests itself within the African American community.

In her highly-acclaimed book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, Dr. Joy DeGruy opens with a passage from a speech highlighting a tradition of the powerful Maasai Tribe of East Africa. Noted for its deeply rich culture, the Tribe is also significant for its historically acclaimed warrior-stance against 18th century colonialism and slavery. This honor notwithstanding, it is on the Maasai peoples' ritualistic greeting "Kasserian Ingera" - translated as: "And how are the children?" that DeGruy begins her volume. And this greeting, it fascinates me! I can only imagine the impact of such a custom on the psyche of members of a society. How potent it must be to the social structure when the status of the children is held in such high esteem that their well-being is the first order of business. Indeed, this type of ritual signifies the deep wisdom of the Maassi; they are fully aware that the security and welfare of the children is the foremost symbol of the community's health. For them, it is clear: if the children are not well the social structure is fragile, unstable and deeply at-risk.

So, America, how are the children? And more specifically, how are the African American children? I will tell you how they are: they are troubled. They are confused. They are angry. They have seen too much to live healthy, idyllic or carefree childhoods, and they don't have the maturity to process or make sense of what the world is showing them. They are caught somewhere in between the madness and the lunacy of the world they have inherited. As a result, I am very much afraid for the children. And I will tell you, I hear the voices of my ancestors in that refrain because they too, carried the same fear in their hearts. They knew that for the children, being black in America would always mean being at risk, and being haunted.

The haunting of the African American psyche began centuries ago, as the children then also saw too much. And the haunting continues today. The children today saw what happened to Trayvon Martin when he walked innocently along a street with a can of iced tea and a box of candy. They know Tamir Rice was just playing with a toy gun when a police officer shot and killed him, and they heard reports that Mike Brown had his hands in the air when he was murdered. The children know Sandra Bland got an "attitude" with an officer after being pulled over for a bogus traffic stop, and Sandra ended up dead in her jail cell. They know that Jonathan Ferrell had just walked away from a traffic accident where he had to kick out a window to escape, only to be shot dead by police officers as he approached them for help. They saw pictures of Eric Garner's last moments as he struggled under a police chokehold to breathe. And they heard about Corey Jones whose car left him stranded on a Florida highway where he was shot dead by a rookie, undercover officer in an unmarked car. And yes, our children have listened to the strange story of Kendrick Johnson who supposedly killed himself in a wrestling mat, and the even stranger story of Anthony Hill - a young Air Force veteran newly returned from Afghanistan who was assassinated by police as he wandered naked and unarmed in his neighborhood. But even if the children did not know about any of the stories above, I'm sure they have seen the recent, repeated images of the 16 year-old girl who was slung in her chair across a room and to the floor, and then arrested by a police/school resource officer for refusing to obey his order to put her cell phone away and leave the classroom. So yes, it makes good sense, that the children could not possibly be well.

The African American children of today know what the children of yesterday knew: that the hatred, the disrespect, the sheer disregard for their lives is all too palpable for them to expect a true childhood. At very young ages, they must accept that they cannot afford to be a "child" for too long; their ability to survive in this world, in this violent place we call America - it mandates that they grow up, fast. And so if they are wise, they must be hypervigilant. After all, they must learn early the lessons of who to trust and who to fear, when to walk and when to run, when to fight and when to cower. Maybe they know the story of John Felton who was stopped and ticketed by police in Ohio because he dared give an officer direct eye contact. Or maybe, they heard Charnesia Corley's story of being strip- and "cavity-"searched in a gas station parking lot because police thought she had marijuana. And then, they may have seen the video of the shots fired by an officer into Levar Jones' body, as Levar -- who was obeying the officer's request to show his I.D. -- was shot when he for reached for his I.D. The children, no, they are not well.

Black children in the U.S. are not only victims of violent crimes at disproportionate rates they are also more likely to be victims and witnesses of homicide, which is the leading cause of death in youth 15 to 24 years old. One Chicago study reported that 25 percent of black children have witnessed a person being shot and 29 percent reported seeing someone stabbed. Add to that, our children are more likely to live in poverty, to be in ill health, to have fewer educational resources, to be negatively stereotyped, and to endure transgenerated psychological trauma, and this latter (invisible to the eye and frequently denied) is the scariest travesty of them all.

The transgenerational transmission of trauma (TTT) has long haunted African Americans; and it began centuries ago when children witnessed their elders being ripped away from their homes and chained in the bowels of a ship to endure a treacherous transatlantic journey. Later, the children would witness mothers and fathers stripped of their humanity and auctioned into slavery where they were publicly whipped and subdued while being forced to work like animals. They witnessed their father's powerlessness to save the women he loved from being raped and his humiliated frustration at being unable to protect the little ones. As children bore witness to their parents' pained helplessness they were of course, deeply disturbed. And in time, these children began to endure traumas of their own in a world of convict leasing, peonage and Jim Crow/Apartheid. Here, they also endured a substandard quality of life living under constant threats and realities of domestic terrorism like lynching, medical experimentations and deadly riots. Ultimately, the traumatic memories these children inherited from their fathers were compounded by their own personal experiences of victimization, powerlessness and humiliation.

African American children live with unaddressed wounds of victimization and losses of identity and dignity from the long ago past of their ancestors and the recent past of their parents, and they re-experience the victimization every day in their present. For many in the African American community, the perpetual re-victimization leads to a collective sense of psychosocial powerlessness. And the collective experience of deep psychological trauma provokes intense emotional pain. Our children cry out for relief as their anger spills over into violence. Unchecked, the internalized aggression -- located in raw and infectious mental agony, can derail the structure of a society; the Maasai know this. And while it is true that not all members of the African American community - or any communal group for that matter, may experience the collective sense of victimization, absorb the bitter levels of wounding, or express their traumatized selves in violent ways, it is undeniable that generational transmissions of psychic, emotional and dispiriting trauma has a sure influence on multitudes. And so, the cycle of traumatic memories, experiences and transmissions among the group and their children continues - unaddressed, cumulative and boiling over into intra-communal violence. No, it is not the so-called Ferguson Effect that is a problem; it is: The Centuries of Violent, Racist Oppression in America Effect that is the problem. So America, Kasserian Ingera?