Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome : America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing

by July 6, 2020

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome helps to lay the necessary foundation to ensure the well-being and sustained health of future generations and provides a rare glimpse into the evolution of society’s beliefs, feelings, attitudes and behavior concerning race in America.

In the 16th century, the beginning of African enslavement in the Americas until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and emancipation in 1865, Africans were hunted like animals, captured, sold, tortured, and raped. They experienced the worst kind of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse. Given such history, isn’t it likely that many of the enslaved were severely traumatized? And did the trauma and the effects of such horrific abuse end with the abolition of slavery?

Emancipation was followed by one hundred more years of institutionalized subjugation through the enactment of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, peonage, convict leasing, domestic terrorism and lynching. Today the violations continue, and when combined with the crimes of the past, they result in yet unmeasured injury. What do repeated traumas, endured generation after generation by a people produce? What impact have these ordeals had on African Americans today?

Dr. Joy DeGruy, answers these questions and more. With over thirty years of practical experience as a professional in the mental health field, Dr. DeGruy encourages African Americans to view their attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors through the lens of history and so gain a greater understanding of how centuries of slavery and oppression have impacted people of African descent in America.

As a result of twelve years of quantitative and qualitative research Dr. DeGruy has developed her theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, and published her findings in the book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome – America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing”. The book addresses the residual impacts of generations of slavery and opens up the discussion of how the black community can use the strengths we have gained in the past to heal in the present.

P.T.S.S. is a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States 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 which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.

Thus, resulting in M.A.P.:

  • M: Multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression;
  • A: Absence of opportunity to heal or access the benefits available in the society; leads to
  • P: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

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


Vacant Esteem
Insufficient development of what Dr. DeGruy refers to as primary esteem, along with 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, i.e. friends, relatives, or acquaintances.
Racist Socialization and (internalized racism)
Learned Helplessness, literacy deprivation, distorted self-concept, antipathy or aversion for the following:

  • The members of ones own identified cultural/ethnic group,
  • The mores and customs associated ones own identified cultural/ethnic heritage,
  • The physical characteristics of ones own identified cultural/ethnic group.

The book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome incorporates her research in both America and Africa, as well as her   twenty years of experience as a social work practitioner and consultant to   public and private organizations. Dr. DeGruy first exposes the reader to the   conditions that led to the Atlantic slave trade and allowed the pursuant   racism and efforts at repression to continue through present day. She then   looks at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that African Americans faced   as the result of the slave trade. Next she discusses the adaptive behaviors   they developed—both positive and negative—that allowed them to survive and   often even thrive.Dr. DeGruy concludes by   reevaluating those adaptive behaviors that have been passed down through   generations and where appropriate. She explores replacing behaviors which are   today maladaptive with ones that will promote, and sustain the healing and   ensure the advancement of African American culture.

The   Study Guide is designed 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.         The   Guide encourages and broadens the discussion and implications about the   specific issues that were raised in the book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome:   America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.”The Study Guide provides   useful and practical tools to help the reader develop skills aimed at   transforming negative attitudes and behaviors into positive ones.


Dr. DeGruy has also developed the African American Male Youth Respect Scale. This scale measures the relationship between present and historical issues of respect in relationship to the use of violence among this population.

The respect that African American youth feel promotes psychological wellness and social identity; conversely, a lack of respect compromises their identities and is viewed as a threat to safety. This article describes the development, psychometric analysis, and validation of the African American Respect Scale, a 20–item instrument measuring prosocial attitudes held by male adolescents.

The scale was administered to 200 African American male youth, 14 to 19 years of age; 100 were incarcerated in juvenile corrections facilities; and 100 resided in the community

After acceptable reliability was established, factor analysis revealed three principal components labeled societal, family, and peer subscales. The subscales correlated with racial socialization and predicted the use of violence. Non–incarcerated youth scored significantly higher on all three subscales than incarcerated youth.

Suggestions for social work practice with African American youth include assessing their attitudes toward respect, and assisting them to handle disrespect without resorting to violence.

For More information on the Respect Scale, click below:

The African American Adolescent Respect Scale
The African American Adolescent Respect Scale: A Measure of a Prosocial Attitude 


In 1990, as a gift to the Portland Oregon black community, Dr. Joy developed a set of standards of conduct that were adopted by the non-profit organization, Self Enhancement Inc.

These standards are founded upon the principles of integrity and respect. Integrity, because integrity exemplifies truthfulness, modesty and trustworthiness. Respect, because respect exemplifies courtesy, honor and reverence.

1. In SEI we greet each other every day with a smile and a handshake to strengthen the relationship between us.

2. In SEI we honor and respect each other and so we address one another with proper language and speech.

3. In SEI we value the space of others and ourselves and are careful not to intrude on or injure each other.

4. In SEI we are mindful of what is true and strive to be honest in word and deed.

5. In SEI we treasure our rich culture and we hold the cultures of all people in high regard.

6. In SEI we strive to reflect our beauty both inwardly, in our understanding and outwardly in our appearance.

© 1990 (Revised 2004 Joy DeGruy)

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