The Memory Lingers On: How Unacknowledged Trauma for African Americans Helps Fuel America’s Prison System

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As America explores what 400 years of African presence on this soil has meant, I’ve had the opportunity to base my reflections on a reverse journey of sorts earlier this year. But it was no historic group tour or vacation excursion. Back in March, I participated in a prison tour in the capital of the West African country Liberia, through a trip arranged by the Correctional
Ministries and Chaplains Association.

I had already researched Liberia before my visit and learned that the first group of freed African slaves returned to the country in 1820. Other than that, I didn’t know what to expect from my first visit to the African continent, nor could I fully prepare myself for what I would witness in the Liberian prison system.

But even after decades of experience interacting with American correctional facilities, I was taken back by the conditions in Monrovia Central Prison. It was designed to hold 374 people, but when we were there, there were over 1,000 men and women in the same facility. The women were in a separate housing unit on the same yard. There was no running water in the prison and the smell of sewage was awful. The men did not have proper clothing and some of them did not have shoes. Due to the lack of floor space, some men made crude hammocks to sleep on. One person told me they sometimes sleep in shifts for lack of space in cells.

Liberia is considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world, so it’s understandable that prison infrastructure is not high on the list of priorities. But one historical fact about the freed slaves who settled in Liberia truly disturbed me. My online research suggested that those returnees created segregated systems that wound up functioning a lot like slavery in America.

After talking to some of the locals, they confirmed that those freed slaves oppressed the natives as much as they had been mistreated in America. From my perspective, this is passing of trauma has also scarred African Americans over the decades. I also believe it has at least indirectly fueled the path of too many men and women into the American prison system. That’s one of the reasons why, as an African American male, the slogan “Make America Great Again’ is very offensive. America was never great for African Americans.

When we think about slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration, any greatness we have achieved has been hard won and against staggering odds. On the other hand, the slave trade was very lucrative for the Europeans who came to America. Tobacco, cotton and sugar cane fueled the early American economy on the backs of slave labor. In the early 1860’s the South was producing 75 percent of the worlds cotton and creating more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River valley than anywhere in the nation*.

So, let’s do the math. The first Africans landed in America in 1619. In 1865 slavery was eradicated by the Thirteenth Amendment. This was the first time that African Americans were able to work legally and acquire wealth. So that’s 246 years that African Americans were legally slaves and 246 years behind the rest of the country. White Americans had a 246-year head start on wealth building. In short, the wealth of America exists primarily because of slavery–history and data proves that.

Slavery yielded not only an enormous economic disadvantage for Africans, but a psychological one as well. Can you imagine being separated from your young children while standing on an auction block as your child was being sold to the highest bidder? How about watching the skin being ripped off your husband’s back while tied to a tree? Or the sobbing of a wife who was just raped by the overseer?

These are just a few samples of the trauma that Africans endured as slaves in America. I believe this trauma has been passed down from generation to generation. Even now in some southern states, African Americans are afraid to look white people in the eyes because they’ve been warned not to by their elders. Tell me that’s not an example of a trauma-induced survival strategy transmitted from parent to child.

This trauma is evident in our children today. A 2015 Pew research survey found that black parents are more than twice likely to as white or Latino parents to use corporal punishment on a regular basis.** This was taught to our ancestors during slavery. So, we believed that whipping our kids was good for them. Some people have literally beaten their children, who grow up to either laugh as they trade stories about those whippings with people who’ve had similar experiences or struggle to cope with the lingering harsh memories of the abuse.

So, we send those children to school, and the school misdiagnoses our traumatized children with behavior problems when in fact they have PTSD and high Adverse Childhood Experience scores. Instead of bringing in counselors to help with the situation, we hire police and call them resource officers. Now 12-year-old Johnny has a juvenile record. And so turns the damning carousel of the slavery to school to prison pipeline.

Some might say, “Jerry, it’s not that bad. We had an African American President for two terms. We have African American doctors, attorneys and college professors.” But those facts don’t address the systemic nature of the problem. Having one black person in power does not change 400 years of oppression. We need to empower communities and have access to wealth on every level. The problem is poverty. We incarcerate our poor and disadvantaged. It just so happens that African Americans are still among the poorest in the nation. In my opinion, history makes me conclude that was the intention all along.

Slaves were freed and given no resources to survive. There were some who managed to do well and gain some wealth, but as a whole Africans in this country were given a bad deal. We were kidnapped from a land and brought to a country to build an economy and then freed with no resources to survive. The same is true today for people who are incarcerated. When they’re released back into society with no resources and several of their civil rights stripped away, the parallel to their ancestors comes into stark focus.

So, how do we reconcile 400 years of oppression? Are reparations the answer? We all know that equal rights and having the access to equity are on opposite ends of the spectrum. First of all, must acknowledge that mass incarceration is a direct path from slavery due to poverty.

From a personal standpoint, I believe you can’t have this discussion without including the role of faith and spirituality, which are cornerstones of the African American experience. I suffered trauma and undiagnosed PTSD as a child. The only relief I ever found was in my faith as a Christian. I believe this was my personal victory. I can only speak for Jerry Blassingame and my reputation speaks for itself. Healing is healing regardless if it’s from a pill, a counseling session or prayer, it’s healing! Trauma is real and as a country we must acknowledge the pain and all heal together by any means necessary.

* “How Slavery Became The Economic Engine of the South” by Greg Timmons
** Corporal punishment in black communities: not an intrinsic cultural tradition but racial trauma.

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