By Wanda Ravernell
Author Joy DeGruy brought a message of healing and hope to the Black community Monday at the 16th annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration held by Taylor United Methodist Church in West Oakland.
Her address, on the lingering trauma of slavery and its effects on African Americans, was preceded by remarks by local elected officials and an awards ceremony for three Oakland Visionaries: Gay Plair Cobb, CEO of the Oakland Private Industry Council; Derreck Johnson, owner of the owner o Bay Area’s Home of Chicken and Waffles restaurant chain; and Juan Rodriguez, Family Support services of the Bay Area.
Cobb was honored for the work of PIC, which provide leadership in bringing living wage jobs to Oakland job-seekers; Johnson, whose restaurants are renowned for giving ex-offenders job opportunities; and Rodriquez, whose organizes provides services for youth.
DeGruy, 56, told the story that put her on the journey to writing her groundbreaking book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.”
During an encounter while traveling with a group of women in South Africa 20 years ago, she learned that the ritual of greeting was one of the Africanisms that had survived among African Americans despite 246 years of slavery.
It is customary in Africa to acknowledge someone’s presence whether that person is known or unknown, saying, what can be translated to mean, “I see you.” To ignore another human being is the utmost rudeness, the worst slight.
Upon her return to the United States, she stopped a fight between some pre-teen boys, one of whom was insulted simply because someone was looking at him. “How did it come to this,” DeGruy asked herself, “that this boy couldn’t withstand a gaze?”
That set off a journey involving historical research, clinical psychology and observances of “56 years of being in this skin.”
To those who say it’s time to stop talking about slavery, she says it is time to start. “Slavery is not just our past but our present,” because “that past impacts us now.”
African Americans are the survivors of chattel slavery, a form that had never existed in the world before. The difference lies in the decision to justify the treatment of people by denying their humanity, “to re-label people to suit your behavior toward them.”
Over the course of 246 years this relabeling became systemic, supported by political, scientific, educational, economic institutions.
What began with ‘Black Codes’ governing slaves on plantations would morph into policies to control Black populations free and slave and would allow practically wholesale re-enslavement of former slaves after the Civil War under penal labor policies that follow us into the present.
The accompanying multi-generational trauma of the horrors of slavery and the Jim Crow era have hardly given African Americans room to examine what values in the culture of survival were worth passing on and what can now be left out.
“African Americans can ill afford to swallow whole our culture because there’s poison in it,” DeGruy says. Once “appropriate adaptations to the hostile environment of slavery” have become part of our culture, she says.
For example, she says, the hyper vigilance by Black parents of their small children in public places actually inhibits the child’s age appropriate development, implies that they are not safe, but above all intimates that they neither belong nor deserve to be participants in the world outside of their homes.
So, what was culturally normal and necessary then is not now. “But we never unlearned that,” she said.