Extract from “Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery” by Na’im Akbar
Slavery was ‘legally’ ended in excess of 100 years ago, but over 300 years experienced in its brutality and unnaturalness constituted a severe psychological and social shock in the minds of African-Americans. This shock was so destructive to natural life processes that the current generation of African-Americans, although we are five to six generations removed from the actual experience of slavery, still carry the scars of this experience in both our social and mental lives. Psychologists are sociologists have failed to attend to the persistence of problems in our mental and social lives which clearly have roots in slavery. Only the historian has given proper attention to the shattering realities of slavery, and he has dealt with it only as descriptive of past events.
In the Newtonian scheme of things, ‘a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by some external force.’ The behaviour (movement) of things was thought to be the consequence of some antecedent and external event. …Newtonian conceptions of absolute time and space have so conditioned many of us that it is impossible for us to conceive of events that have occurred “ long in the past” (e.g. slavery) as having as much effect in determining present behaviour as those events of relatively ‘recent’ occurrence.
In order to fully grasp the magnitude of our current problems, we must reopen the books on the events of slavery. Our objective should not be to cry stale tears for the past nor to rekindle old hatreds for past injustices. Instead, we should seek to enlighten our path of today by better understanding where and how the lights were turned out yesterday. We should also understand that slavery should be viewed as a starting point for understanding the African-American psyche, and not as an end point. Therefore, the study of the African-American psyche should include psycho-history, but it should not be exclusively concerned with events in the past.
The list of attitudes and reactions which we have inherited from slavery is probably quite extensive. We want to identify here only some of the more blatant and currently destructive attitudes which rather clearly show their origins in the slavery situation. Hopefully, a look at this tarnished legacy will serve as a stimulus to us to rid ourselves of these slavery ideas, both individually and collectively.
One of the attitudes which has been passed to us from slavery is the rather distorted African-American attitude towards work. Slavery was forced labour. Kenneth Stamp (1956) described the work of the slave occurring ‘from day clear to first dark.’ The day’s toil would begin just before sunrise and would end at dusk. Work would begin in early childhood and continuing until death or total disability.
The slave was forced to work under the threat of abuse or even death, but the work was not for the purpose of providing for his life’s needs. Instead, he worked to produce for the slave master. He would not profit from his labour, instead it improved the life and community of the slave master.
Work, in a natural society, is looked upon with pride, both because it permits persons to express themselves and because it supplies their survival needs. As a natural form of expression, work is not too distinguishable from play. During slavery, work was used as punishment. Work became hated as does any activity which causes suffering and brings no rewards for the doer. Work became equated with slavery. Even today, the African-American slang expression which refers to a job as a ‘slave’ communicates the painful connection.
Despite the fact that we are over one hundred years removed from the direct slavery experience, African-Americans still to a great extent hate work. Work was identified as the activity of the underdog and was difficult to be viewed with pride. Work is something approached unwillingly and out of necessity only. The ability to look successful without doing any identifiable wok became the image of affluence of many street hustlers and pimps.
Many African-Americans have developed a variety of habits to avoid work, such as reliance upon gambling and other get rich quick schemes. Some of the difficulty we experience in generating independent business and institutions is because of our hatred of work. It is still difficult to view the long-term reward of sustained work as being adequate to erase the stigma of such toil. It is much easier to work (often considerably harder) for someone else and get a predictable periodic salary and a work schedule which lets one create an illusion of leisure.
Certainly the historical origin of hatred of work does not completely explain the African-American’s orientation to work. Equally as relevant is the vast shortage of jobs and the many obstacles to receiving the same benefits from work as do other members of the society. Work is still geared towards community building for others and not for African-Americans.
Our slang, our songs, our jokes, our attitudes, transmitted from one generation to the next, preserve these reactions as if they were acquired yesterday.
The slave was permitted to own nothing or very little. Property and the finer material objectives such as clothes, jewelry etc. were reserved for the slave master.
The slave master’s fine house, beautiful landscaping, exquisite clothes and objects were associated with his power and status. In the same way that the slave looked upon his master with hatred and resentment, he also resented and envied the master’s possessions because those possessions were associated with freedom and the power to direct one’s life, family and community.
African- Americans have mixed attitudes towards material objects and property. On one hand, those objects are still associated with the master and his powers. Therefore, there is a tendency to resent property and to take a secret (unconscious) delight in attacking it. Certainly, some of our tendencies toward vandalism and abuse of property have their origin in these experiences with property. Property is still viewed as belonging to the ‘master’ and not to the ‘slave.’
On the other hand, slavery produced an unnatural attraction to material objects. The cast-off hat or dress passed down from the ‘Big House’ to the cabin, became a symbol of pride and status.
The legacy of such experience with property and materials, has made these objects powerfully influential in the lives of many African-Americans. Large sums of money are thrown away yearly on expensive flashy clothes, furniture, cars to satisfy our longings. Many of our judgments about people and their worth are disproportionately determined by what those people own and wear. There is a frequent tendency to confuse tokens of power with genuine power, based upon the slavery experience.
It is important to caution the reader in considering these ideas that we remember these factors are only one aspect of what determines our behaviors. The destructiveness and violence in the American society’s present mentality fosters vandalism. The materialism which has overrun the Western mind certainly has had its effects on the African-American mind. We simply want to be aware of the predispositions which operate from within us and from our past which may influence us in ways we do not realize.