Psychological Legacy of Slavery

From, Na’im Akbar, Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery, Mind Productions and Associates, 1996, pp.3-25


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 carries the scars of this experience in both our social and mental lives. Psychologists and 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.

Clark (1972) observes that most social scientists would object to a discussion of slavery as a "cause" of contemporary behavior because it happened "too long ago." Clark identifies the origin of this objection in nineteenth century conceptions of science articulated by the British philosophers Locke and Hume, and practiced by the scientific giant, Isaac Newton. Clark (1972) observes:

In the Newtonian scheme of things, "a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by some external force." The behavior (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 behavior as those events of rela­tively "recent" occurrence.'

Clark, in this monumental piece, argues that slavery, more than any other single event, shaped the mentality of the present African-American.

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



Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

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 for 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 labor. Kenneth Stampp (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. Stampp observed:

Except for certain essential chores, Sunday work was uncommon but not unheard of if the crops required it. On Saturdays, slaves were often permitted to quit the fields at noon. They were also given holidays, most commonly at Christmas and after crops were laid by.2

Basically, however, work was a daily chore, beginning 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 neither profit from his labor nor enjoy the benefits of labor. A good crop did not improve his life, his family, or his community. Instead, it improved the life and community of the slave master. Frederick Douglass (1855, 1970) describes the slave's work accordingly:

...from twelve o 'clock (mid-day) till dark, the human cattle are in motion, wielding their clumsy hoes; turned on by no hope of reward, no sense of gratitude, no love of children;

nothing, save the dread and terror of the slave driver's lash. So goes one day, and so comes and goes another.3

Psychological Legacy of Slavery

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 a punishment. The need for workers was the most identifiable cause of the African-American's enslavement. Work came to be despised as any punishment is despised. Work became hated as does any activity which causes suffering and brings no reward for the doer. Work became equated with slavery. Even today, the African-American slang expres­sion which refers to a job as a "slave" communicates this painful connection.

Over the course of generations, work came to be a most hated activity. 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 is identified with punishment. Work is equated with inferiority. Stampp (1956) also observes:

Masters who had at their command as few as a half dozen field hands, were tempted to improve their social status by withdrawing from the fields and devoting most of their time to managerial functions—but most slaves never saw their masters toiling in the fields...4

Consequently, slaves equated work with enslavement and freedom with the avoidance of 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. It is also a badge of disparagement. The ability to look successful without doing any identifiable work 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 that we experience in generating independent businesses 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. Every Friday evening until Sunday becomes "Emancipation Day" all over again.


Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

There are some African-Americans who become over-depen­dent on welfare as a way of life because of this "work phobia." Often, considerable energy is put into schemes to avoid work because "real work" is so distasteful. This, too, can be related to the historical root of associating work with slavery.

Certainly, the historical origin of the 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 toward community-building for others and not for African-Americans. In addition, the society itself has developed such a leisure orientation that work has come to be some­thing to be despised by all members of the society.

It is important, however, for African-Americans to know that many of our attitudes toward work are a result of our slavery experiences. These negative experiences associated with work continue to function as unconscious influences on us that make us respond in ways which may be contrary to our conscious intention. Awareness of these influences and their source begins to free us from their effects. 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. Cer­tainly, property and the finer material objects such as clothes, jewelry, etc., were reserved for the slave master. Douglass (1970) again observes:

The yearly allowance of clothing for the slaves on this plantation consisted of two tow-linen shirts-such linen as the coarsest crash towels are made of; one pair of trousers and a jacket of woolen, most sleazily put together, for winter; one pair of yam stockings, and one pair of shoes of the coarsest description. The slave's entire apparel could not have cost more than eight dollars per year. The allowance of food and clothing for the little children was committed to their mothers, or to the older slave woman having care of them. Children who were unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets nor trousers given them. Their clothing consisted of two coarse tow-



Psychological Legacy of Slavery

, linen shirts-already described-per year; and when these failed them, as they often did, they went naked until the next allowance day.s

The slave master's fine house, beautiful landscaping, exquisite clothes and objects were associated with his power and status. In the e way that the slave looked upon his master with hatred and resentment, he also resented and envied the master's possessions because e possessions were associated with freedom and the power to direct s life, family, and community.

African-Americans have the slavery influence of mixed attitudes toward material objects and property. On one hand, those objects are still associated with the master and his powers. Therefore, e 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 to the "slave."

This finds additional expression when the African-American is thrown into public housing and rented properties which are, in fact, still led by the descendants of slave masters. Vandalism is unconsciously gratifying in that it acts out that long-present resentment of the master's property. Given the persisting dependence on the "master," it is safer e neglectful of his property than overtly hostile towards him.

On the other hand, slavery produced an unnatural attraction to dial objects. The cast-off hat or dress passed down from the "Big use" to the cabin, became a symbol of pride and status. By wearing “Massah’s" old hat or "Missis" old dress, one could play at being Massah or Missis for a few fanciful moments. An illustration of this idea dating & to slavery experiences also comes from Stampp (1956):

The elegantly dressed slaves who promenaded the streets of Southern towns and cities on Sundays, the men in fine  linens and bright waistcoats, the women in full petticoats and silk gowns, were usually the domestic servants of wealthy planters and townspeople. Butlers, coachmen, maids and valets had to uphold the prestige of their white families.6




Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

These material objects or dregs of property became equated in the African-American's thinking with the full power of freedom and self-determination which the master enjoyed. We can observe a similar

pattern in our developing children who play at being mama and by putting on objects of their clothing or other objects associate them.


The legacy of such experience with property and materials, has

made these objects powerfully influential in the lives of many A Americans. Large sums of money are thrown away yearly on expensive flashy clothes and cars. Uncomfortable, impractical and showy items of furniture drain our budgets and fail to satisfy our longings because of this persistent wish to look like the slave master. Many of our judgments about people and their worth are disproportionately determined by what those people own or wear. We spend great (and wealth acquiring these objects associated with power rather than real human, social, political and economic power. There is a frequent tendency to confuse tokens of power with genuine power, based the slavery experience.

It is not unusual for concerned efforts to obtain "real" political and economic power to be prematurely aborted by a strategic dispensation of tokens. Realistically assertive efforts to alter social structures to equitably accommodate America's former slaves have frequently terminated by offering limited material goods to the major strategist the movement dies.

The major thinkers and scholars (potentially our most powerful agents of change) in African-American communities are neutralized by a pittance of material goods. This socially destructive phenomena has its roots deep in the slavery experience. Too often leaders in our communities have equated a small trinket of material gain with "having arrived." That leadership is soon lost to the A£rican American community. It is a recurrence of the old image of we "Massah's" discarded hat and thinking that you are "Massah."

It is important that we caution the reader in considering ideas that we remember these factors are only one aspect that determines our behavior. The destructiveness and violence in American society's present mentality fosters vandalism. The mentality, which has overrun the Western mind certainly has had its effect on the African-American mind. We simply want to be aware of predispositions, which operate from within us and from our past which may influence us in ways we do not realize.


Psychological Legacy of Slavery Leadership


Probably one of the most destructive influences which have grown out of slavery is the disrespect of African-American leadership. The allegory is seen throughout nature that the most certain way to destroy life is to cut off the head. From the turkey to the cow to the human being, the most immediate way to bring death to a body is to remove its head. This is especially true as a social principle. One of the things that was systematically done during slavery was the elimination of control of any emerging "head" or leader. Slave narratives and historical accounts are full of descriptions of atrocities brought against anyone who exemplified real leadership capability. The slaveholders realized that their power and control over the slaves was dependent upon the absence of any indigenous leadership among the slaves.

Any slave who began to emerge as a natural head, that is, one oriented toward survival of the whole body, was identified early and was either eliminated, isolated, killed, or ridiculed. In his or her place was put a leader who had been carefully picked, trained, and tested to stand only for the master's welfare. In other words, unnatural heads were attached to the slave communities. They furthered the cause of the master and frustrated the cause of the slave.

The slaves were taught to view with suspicion natural leaders who emerged from among themselves. Such heads were identified as "uppity" or "arrogant," and were branded as the kind of trouble-makers who were destined to bring trouble to the entire slave community. This idea was reinforced by the public punishment of such indigenous leadership and any of his/her associates or sympathizers. The entire slave community was often required to carry an extra burden or be deprived of some small privilege, primarily because of such "uppity slaves."

Such practices rather firmly entrenched the opposition to natural leaders. They were often isolated by their own community, and were usually the victims of fellow slave" snitches" who reported to the master that someone was brewing trouble. The "snitches," having demon­strated their loyalty to the master, were usually promoted to the position of slave leader, and another grafted leader was born - i.e., with a slave body and master's head. The slave community was encouraged to view the greater power given to the master-trained leader as an indication of his superior worth as a leader. The master-trained leader was rewarded, praised and given privileges as an inducement for the slaves to follow this manufactured leadership.


Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

The long generations of being conditioned to reject natural and strong leadership had not only stifled the development of such leaders, but African-Americans still respond by rejecting such leaders. Even outstanding leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were rejected and denied support by the African-American educated and profes­sional classes of people in our communities. Dr. King was condemned in the early days of his civil rights campaigns as a "trouble-maker." Dr. King and many of the young ministers who spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement had to leave their denominational convention and form another one to escape the criticism of their traditional colleagues who saw their social activism as troublesome because it was trouble­some to white people. Only after receiving recognition from increas­ing numbers of "liberal" Caucasians was he accepted as a leader. Powerful leaders who emerged from the ranks of the uneducated, such as Elijah Muhammad, never received wide acceptance among the educated classes of former slaves-despite the fact that he offered the most powerful economic and self-help program of that time. Contem­porary "Negro" history accounts devote extensive coverage to Muhammad's trainees, such as Malcolm X Shabazz, while mention­ing the natural head who was his teacher only in passing. This same pattern of rejecting indigenous leadership showed its head in the 1995 Million Man March when many traditional religious and political leaders rejected the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan because he wasn't approved by the white establishment. An important sign that this mentality is changing was the presence of over one million people at the "march" despite white disapproval of its indigenous leadership.

Such rejection of strong African-American leadership is as conditioned in us as is our fear and hatred of a burning cross. It is important to realize that such efforts to undermine effective African-American leadership is still an on-going part of the current society. The press, for example, fails to mention many of the outstanding accom­plishments of indigenous African-American leadership. On the other hand, the least important statement from a "master-appointed leader" gains front-page coverage!

The other side of this issue of "grafted leaders" is that a realistically based suspicion of African-American leadership grew in our communities. Forced to reject natural leadership (in opposition to our natural survival instincts), and to accept oppressor-appointed leadership, compelled our communities to essentially suspect all lead­ership.


Psychological Legacy of Slavery

This suspicion is manifested in a rather pervasive disrespect for Black leaders, unless they come equipped with a supply of token or mystical power. The token power usually comes in the form of a limousine, some ostentatious clothing, and some rather impressive jewelry. The mystical power requires identifying one's leadership as having some kind of "divine legitimization." These leaders often gain considerable followings of an intensely emotional form.

The other "leaders" who gain strong support are projected by the "master's" media and press, and are often chosen from uninformed athletes, politically naive preachers or even entertainers. The leader­ship of such persons seldom extends beyond their faddish and transi­tory stardom. Meanwhile, all other forms of small scale and large scale leaders, indigenous and otherwise, are destroyed by suspicion and disrespect.

As a people, African-Americans must begin to recognize the disposition which has been conditioned in us to reject natural, effective leadership. If we understand that we have been programmed through our history to reject our natural heads, we may begin to become more conscious of recognizing true leaders. It can be easily demonstrated that the persistent distrust and limited support given to African-American leaders has its origin in the many inappropriate heads which have been affixed to our bodies historically.

The Clown

Another popular character which has its origin in slavery is the African-American clown.

One of the primary forms of remaining in favor with the slave master by the slave was to provide entertainment for the master and his household. It is easy to observe that man exults in his superiority over lower animals by teaching them to do tricks and to be entertained by those tricks. In much the same way, the slave owner prided himself in his superiority by being entertained by the slave. Writers have long pointed to the jester, the clown, or the fool, as the inferior one who was responsible for making his superior laugh. Using a person for your down has always been one of the major ways to assert your dominance over a person. Mockery is one of the more sophisticated forms of humiliation.

Great favors of leniency and special rewards were given to the downing slave. He enjoyed a special status above the other slaves


Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

because he kept his master entertained. Even the arts, music and ( which had originally been used for cultural expression and community recreation, became devices which were used by the slave to pi himself from the master's anger. "Fiddler," in the TV drama, Root a colorful example of this manipulative function of the clown. Clowning and buffoonery became one of the primary ways that the vi and abusive slave master could be controlled and manipulated. A laughing or satisfied master was less likely to be a violent m Frederick Douglass observes in his autobiography:

In all the songs of the slaves, there was ever some expression in praise of the great house farm; something which would flatter the pride of the owner, and possibly draw a favorable glance from him.

"l am going away to the great house farm, O yea! O yea! O yea! My old master is a good old master, O yea! O yea! O yea!" This they would sing, with other words of their own improvisation-jargon to others, but full of meaning to themselves.7

The problem with this pattern, as with others we have cussed, is that this kind of response has long outlived its real usefulness. What began as a survival tactic under highly unnatural living conditions, has become a crippling part of the psychology of a people seeking to restore life and community to themselves.

An overwhelming number of popular media presentations involve African-American clowns. Comedy is valuable unless it is done to the exclusion of aspects of other facets of a people's life. Clear under-representation of serious aspects of African-American in the popular media, suggests that even the former slaves prefer to laugh about themselves rather than improve themselves. The buffoon Martin Lawrence in the 1990's and the bug-eyed "J.J." on the program Good Times in the 70's are updates of the 1940's and 1950's Stephin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. These clowns were updates on slavery buffoon who mastered being funny to survive. This is not degrade obvious talent of these master showmen, but to identify a force which has exalted the clown while degrading or ignoring the scientist or other artistic genius among African-Americans.


Psychological Legacy of Slavery

Entertainers and athletes are the popular heroes of the African-American community. Physical prowess or comic exploit are the only characteristics Black heroes are permitted to express. Intellectual acuity,' prophetic vision, moral integrity, technological know-how, managerial efficiency are characteristics seldom, if ever, portrayed. Consequently, the slave images of power persist. African-American children, as a consequence, strive to throw balls or croon on microphones, rather than seeking to explore the universe, discover cures for infectious diseases, or discover ways to feed the starving masses in India. Such a preoccupation with impotent images was to keep the slaves' aspirations in check. These ball players and singers are still rewarded with air time and salaries unimaginable while black scientists and scholars are seldom shown and poorly paid. The sequence is that African-American young people see greater possibility on the court, field or stage than they even imagine for the corporate suite, laboratory, surgery theatre or computer lab. The current slave mentality still inhibits aspiration to be anything more a clown. The clear exception is Dr. Bill Cosby, who used the clown’s role only as a tool in the educational agenda from his mind and that of others, who were committed to the advancement of African-American life.

             An even more common example of the modern slave clown is the person who feels the necessity to be a daily clown in his interactions with Caucasians. Many people have observed or experienced the can-American member of an interracial team serving as the entertainer over lunch or at the party. Somehow, the "token" African-American always manages to be the "funniest guy." It becomes an obsession on the part of the minority member to maintain favor with his colleagues by keeping them laughing. He often finds himself being "Come on Sam, tell us a joke."

So another old pattern, with its roots in slavery, continues to bring rewards on the modern stage. Human beings are unable to be serious about the serious business of living and building societies if they feel compelled to always down or entertain others. People do not take you seriously if you don't take yourself seriously. A sense of humor brings necessary balance to an organized life, but a life of humor blinds one to life.

Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

Personal Inferiority

Let us consider another one of the most destructive character­istics from slavery. This characteristic is a sense of our inferiority as African-American people. This characteristic has been discussed by psychologists more than any other. It has been used as an explanation for nearly every aspect of African-American behavior. The self-hatred or low self-esteem of African-American people has certainly been overworked but is worthy of our consideration in this discussion.

The shrewd slave makers were fully aware that people who still respected themselves as human beings would resist to the death the dehumanizing process of slavery. Therefore, a systematic process of creating a sense of inferiority in the proud African was necessary in order to maintain them as slaves. This was done by humiliating and dehumanizing acts such as public beatings, parading them on slave blocks unclothed, and inspecting them as though they were cattle or horses. They were forbidden to communicate with other slaves, which would have been a basis for maintaining self-respect. Many historians and slave narratives report how young children were separated from their mothers because the mother's love might cultivate some self-respect in the child.

Cleanliness and personal effectiveness are fairly essential in the maintenance of self-respect. The slaves were kept filthy and the very nature of physical restraints over long periods of time began to develop in the people a sense of helplessness. The loss of the ability to even clean one's body and to shield oneself from a blow began to teach the slaves that they should have no self-respect.

These things, combined with the insults, the loss of cultural traditions, rituals, family life, religion, and even names, served to cement the loss of self-respect. As the slave master exalted himself and enforced respect of himself, he was increasingly viewed as superior to the slaves. The superiority was based on the utter dehumanization of the Africans. The slave was forced to bow and bend to the slave owner and treat him as God. With the image of a Caucasian man even as God, and with all kinds of images of Africans as dirty and only half human, it was inevitable that a sense of inferiority would grow into the African-American personality.

Carter G. Woodson (1931) observed over a half century ago: handicap a student for life by teaching him that his blackface is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless, is the worst kind. of lynching. It kills one's aspirations and dooms him to vagabondage and


This sense of inferiority still affects us in many ways. Our inability to respect African-American leadership, our persistent and futile efforts to look like and act like Caucasian people, is based upon this sense of inferiority. The persistent tendency to think of dark skin as unattrac­tive, kinky hair as" bad" hair, and African features as less appealing than Caucasian features, come from this sense of inferiority. Our lack of respect for African-American expertise and the irresponsibility of many African-American experts comes from this sense of inferiority. The disastrously high Black-on-Black homicide rate is in many ways indicative of fundamental disrespect for Black life growing out of this same sense of inferiority. It is a simple fact that people who love themselves seek to preserve their lives-not to destroy them.

The fact that we remain as consumers and laborers, rather than manufacturers, planners, and managers, has a lot to do with the sense of inferiority. The continued portrayal in the media of African-Americans as clowns, servants, crooks, and incompetents maintain this sense of inferiority. The limited number of powerful and dignified images of African-Americans in the media and the community as a whole, reduces our sense of self-respect. This is a continuation of the slavery patterns. Only those persons who looked like, acted like, and thought in the frame of reference of the master, were completely acceptable. Those earning such acceptance were projected as far superior to those who looked like, acted like, and thought in the frame of reference of African self-affirmation.

We can reverse the destructive effects of slavery by looking to strengths in our past and beginning to make plans for our future. If we begin to direct our children's attention to strong images like them­selves, they will grow in self-respect. We must honor and exalt our own heroes and those heroes must be people who have done the most to dignify us as a people. We must seek to overcome the" plantation ghost" by identifying the forces which lead to enslavement and self-abasement. We must definitely avoid the psychologically destructive representation of God in a Caucasian form (discussed in a later chapter), We must build and maintain strong, clean, and safe communities. The ability to influence our environments in some small way is the first step towards building or restoring self-respect.




Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

Community Division

The point of this discussion is that slavery had and continues to have a devastating effect on the personalities of African-American people. There is much overlap and connection between these traits since they have all come out of the same situation. There is also wide variation as to the continued influence of these traits on different individuals, but certainly they persist to a lesser or greater extent within ourselves and within our communities.

One of the most serious disturbances of community advance­ment coming from the slavery experience is disunity or "community division." The age-old pattern of divide-and-conquer was utilized along with so many other tricks in order to destroy African-American community life. Wedges of division were thrown among the slaves in order to insure that the possibility for united efforts would be nearly impossible. The slave makers were fully aware that a disunited community would be easy prey for the continued control by the master. Therefore, all kinds of devices were utilized in order to make sure that the slaves would not be able to come together.

A speech delivered by a white slave trainer, William Lynch, on the bank of the James River in 1712 well illustrates this strategy:

...I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves;

and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust and envy for control purposes, ...take this simple little list of differences, and think about them. On the top of my list is "age, "but it is only there because it starts with "A." The second is "color" or shade. Then there is intelligence, size, sex, size of plantations, status on plantation, attitude of owners, whether the slaves live in the valley, on a hill, east, west, north, south, have fine or coarse hair or is tall or short. Now that you have a list of differences, I shall give you an outline of action. must pitch the old Black against the young Black. must use the dark skin slaves against the light skin slaves and the light skin slaves against the dark skin slaves. You must also have your white servants and overseers distrust all Blacks. But, it is necessary that your slaves trust and depend on us. They must love, respect and trust only us.





Psychological Legacy of Slavery

Gentlemen, these kits are your keys to control. Use them. Have your wives and children use them. Never miss an opportunity. My plan is guaranteed, and the good thing is that if used intensely for one year, the slaves themselves will remain perpetually distrustful.9

There were major social divisions constructed by the master. The house workers and the field workers constituted the major separation among the slaves. Those slaves with the lesser physical load of the housework were taught by the master to see themselves as a privileged group. They were permitted to wear better clothes, eat slightly better foods and, most importantly, they were permitted to take care of the personal needs of the master and his household. Just to be physically close to the master gave the slave a sense of superiority over his fellow slaves. Stampp (1956) describes this phenomenon in the following way:

The slaveholder needed the willing cooperation of some of his bondsmen to make his government work efficiently. Knowing that the majority could not be trusted, he tried to recruit a few who would be loyal to him and take his side against others. Usually, he found his allies among the domestics, skilled artisans, and foremen, all whom he encouraged to feel superior to and remain separate from the field hands—In this manner, some planters gained the assistance of chattels who identified themselves wholly with the master class.10

The slaves who were the illegitimate offspring of the master were usually given greater privileges. Along with other house slaves, they were delegated authority over the field hands of the master. A tradition grew up giving those slaves with physical features like the slave masters a feeling of superiority over those slaves without such features. Stampp (1956) again observes:

But the most piteous device for seeking status in the slave community was that of boasting about the white ancestors or taking pride in a light complexion. In the eyes of the whites, the "mulatto" was tainted as much as the 'pure" Negro, and as hopelessly tied to the inferior caste; but this


Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

did not prevent some slaves of mixed ancestry (not all) from trying to make their Caucasian blood serve as a mark of superiority within their own caste.11

Among the house and field slaves, there was a constant designation and alternation of authority by the master in order to keep the community divided. Those given authority were made to believe that their welfare was dependent on the master's welfare, and that they were independent of their fellow slaves. Therefore, they worked against the development of any unity among the slaves.

The slaves with certain skills, such as iron workers, black­smiths or carpenters, were separated from the common field hands and made to believe that they were something quite special. All of these special categories of slaves were easily pitted against one another on the basis of their special classes or skills, which prevented them from dealing with their common status as a slave. Their total dependence on the slave holder essentially sealed their fate against their effective self-development. The inevitable conflict among them almost invariably worked for the benefit of the slave masters. The slaves' energies became consumed in affirming and defending their special class membership, rather than addressing their real problem: the condition of slavery. The master fostered such rivalries since such "false" issues effectively distracted from the "real" issue. It seems that William Lynch's kit worked like a charm and it is still effective almost 300 years later.

Divided communities among African-Americans persist. The sophistication of the classes dividing the community has improved and the classifications have multiplied tremendously. Rather than house versus field, it is fraternities, sororities, schools, churches, white-collar, blue-collar, republican, democrat, neighborhoods and hundreds of other bases for divisions. The root is simple, but the basis for the separation is the same: that is, to keep the community divided. The origin of all the classes, clubs, and groups sill come from the same source-an outsider who still profits from our division.

Though perhaps not intentional, the divisive outcome is the same. The deeply entrenched predisposition to accept division rather than unity within our communities is one of the most deadly outcomes of slavery. Every leader or scholar who has attempted to address African-American community problems poses this destructive dis­unity as the most deadly disease in our communities. On those fleeting occasions, when African-American communities have unified behind


Psychological Legacy of Slavery

An issue, our potency as a people has been awesome. Perhaps it is the potential power of such unity which forces those who profit from the status quo, to feed the disunity among African-American people. One would hope that exposure of this "plantation ghost" to the light of knowledge would facilitate its rapid disappearance.

              African-Americans now, as we did 300 years ago, still spend more time justifying our separate goals than we do working on our shared goals. We are usually incapable of addressing our common problems because we feel that our separate problems are more important This is another one of those constantly repealing dramas from slavery which we continue to act out because we have not understood its origin in our not-so-distant slavery experience.

t family

Probably the most serious effect of all was the impact that cry had on the African-American family. The family is the very foundation of healthy, constructive, personal and community life. Without a strong family, individual life and community life are likely to become very unstable. The destruction or damage to the Atrican-American was accomplished by destroying marriage, fatherhood and motherhood:

Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families. Slavery has no use for either fathers or families, and its laws do not recognize their existence in the social arrangement of the plantation. When they do exist, they are not the outgrowths of slavery, but are antagonistic to that system.12

William Goodell (1853) describes the institution of marriage as

as viewed by the slave holders:

The slave has not rights, of course; he or she cannot have the rights of a husband, a wife. The slave is a chattel and chattels do not marry. The slave is not ranked among sentient beings, but among things, and things are not married.13



Goodell continues in his graphic description of slave marriages:

The obligations of marriage are evidently inconsistent with the conditions of slavery, and cannot be performed by a slave. The husband promises to protect his wife and provide for her. The wife promises to be the helpmeet of her husband. They mutually promise to live with and cherish each other, until parted by death. But what can such promises by slaves mean? The legal relation of master and slave renders them void! It forbids the slave to protect even himself. It clothes his master with authority to bid him to inflict deadly blows on the woman he has sworn to protect. It prohibits his possession of any property wherewith to sustain her...It gives master unlimited control and full possession of her own person, and forbids her, on pains of death, to resist him, if he drags her to his bed! It severs the plighted pair at the will of their masters, occasionally or forever.14

This description rather graphically illustrates the ultimate meaninglessness of marriage for the slaves. Even under circumstances where the marriage ties were not arbitrarily violated, the very condi­tion of slavery contradicted much about the vital and fundamental conditions of marriage.

The African-American man was evaluated by his ability to endure strenuous work and to produce children. He was viewed by the slave master as a stud and a work horse. The stronger and more children he could sire, the greater the expansion of the master's slave holdings and the greater his financial worth. The more work the slave could perform, the greater the production, the greater were the profits that came to the master. African-American manhood was defined by his ability to impregnate a woman and the magnitude of his physical strength.

The virtues of being able to protect, support and provide for one's offspring, which is the cornerstone of true fatherhood, were not considered the mark of a man on the plantation. In fact, the slave who sought to assert such rights for his offspring was likely to be branded as a trouble-maker and either punished or killed. After several genera­tions of such unnatural treatment, the African-American man adapted and began to resist the role of a true father.




Psychological Legacy of Slavery

Today in African-American communities around America, we carry the mark of the strong-armed stud from slavery. He occurs as die modern-day pimp or the man who delights in leaving neglected babies dispersed around town. He is the man who feels that he is a man only by his physical, violent or sexual exploits. He leaves welfare or chance to father his children-and he fathers his "ride," his "vines," or his "pad." This peculiar behavior is often characterized as a racial trait attributable to some type of moral weakness in African-American men. Such conclusions fail to identify the real origin of such characteristics, Such family irresponsibility does not occur among African people who have never endured the ravages of slavery or who were able to preserve their cultural integrity in spite of slavery.

The African-American woman was valued primarily as a breeder or sexual receptacle capable of having many healthy children. Again, Goodell (1853) offers an example of a newspaper advertisement for an African woman which demonstrates the desirable qualities of the slave woman:

A girl, about 20 years of age (raised in Virginia), and her two female children, one four and the other two years old, is remarkably strong and healthy, never having had a day's sickness, with the exception of the smallpox, in her life. The children are fine and healthy. She is very prolific in her generating qualities and affords a rare opportunity to any person who wishes to raise a family of healthy servants for their own use.15

Her work as a human being was reduced to the particular financial value or personal pleasure she could hold for the master. As a breeder, she was to be mated with the plantation's strongest "studs" regardless of human attachment. She was also usually expected to be receptive to the sexual exploitation of the slave master, his relatives or friends. Goodell (1853) documents this point:

Forced concubinage of slave women with their masters and overseers, often coerced by the lash, contributed an­other class of facts, equally undesirable. Rape committed on a female slave is an ojfense not recognized by law!16

Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

Such abuse of African-American women began to damage the natural nurturing and dignity of motherhood. Children were con­ceived out of convenience for an oppressor-not even at the level of animal lust. The child was doomed to continue in the very conditions which had bred him/her. Many women either became abusive to their children or over-protective of them in response to such inhuman conditions.

Even today, we find too many frustrated young African-American women choosing to become breeders in their search for an identity. Too many of those young mothers become abusers of those children, or turn them into spoiled and irresponsible pimps by indulgently protecting them against a cruel world.

The massive confusion around sexual identity so often ad­dressed in the African-American media and periodicals, has its founda­tion in the conditions of slavery. Men seeking to be men through physical exploits, sexual exploits or even violence, is predictable in a setting where natural avenues to manhood have been systematically blocked. Women will experience inevitable frustration of their natural feminine aspirations when the paths to natural womanhood have been blocked.

The historical images which we have inherited continue to sabotage many of our efforts for true manhood (fatherhood) and womanhood (motherhood). In nature and throughout the historical development of cultured people, the roles of man and father, woman and mother, have been inextricably bound. Only in instances of decaying culture, such as Ancient Greece, Rome, and modem Euro-America, has this bond been broken. With its break has come family dissolution, followed closely by total societal dissolution.

Although current attitudes and conditions (such as unemploy­ment) feed these patterns and keep them growing, the origins of the African-American family problems rest in the plague of slavery. If we understand the historical origin of these roles and patterns, then perhaps we will refuse to play them any longer.

Color Discrimination

Certainly, there are few irrational influences from slavery that have persisted as well as this one. Although the prevalence of this color discrimination has had periods of decline, it keeps returning in a more insidious form each generation. Skin color became the code for social


Psychological Legacy of Slavery

position. Of course those slaves who more closely resembled their slave masters in color, the more positive the traits assigned to them.

Of course the very condition of the African's slavery was determined on the basis of skin color. The failure of Caucasians and Native Americans to endure the physical abuse of involuntary servi­tude led to the more massive enslavement of the African. The contradiction that slavery presented for the supposedly "free and Christian nation" led to the justification of slavery as a divinely authorized activity. The African's black skin was considered as evidence for his cursed state to serve as a slave. Some misinterpreted Bible allegory regarding the "curse of Ham" was used to justify the inhuman treatment of the African who was wrongly assumed to be a descendant of Ham.

Therefore, dark skin color became equated with the reason for slavery. The skin color of the slave became associated with other kinds of subhuman traits. On the other hand, the slave master's pale skin became equated with supernatural human traits. In fact, God, all the Saints, and the entire heavenly hosts became identified with the pale skin. The logical conclusion of the abused, oppressed slave was that the basis for his condition was his skin color, and the way out of his condition was to change that color.

This deeply ingrained idea has persisted. Even today, there is an unnatural equation of Caucasian physical features with beauty, intelligence, authority, and so forth. Many African-Americans con­tinue to assume that beauty, competence and worth are greater among their people with the most prominent Caucasian features. There are still vast sums of money spent yearly on skin lighteners, hair straighteners and wigs, in the frantic effort to change African-American physical features. "Good hair" and "nice features" are still thought to be those characteristics most like Caucasians. Contrary to popular belief, these attitudes have not changed substantially among African-American youth who have grown up since the "Black Power" move­ment of the 1960's.

Following the social movements of the sixties, another limb grew on the color-discrimination tree. There was an effort, on the part of some people, to equate African physical features with mental and moral superiority. The same confused mentality that had established black as inferior and white as superior, was evident in the effort to make black superior and white inferior. The perspective which limits the human makeup to its physical surface hue, is equally limited, regardless


Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery

of perspective. One scholar has stated that "he who remains ignorant of history is doomed to repeat history." Certainly, the persistence of our psychological, social and economic dependence on the former slave holders is evidence of the validity of this adage. The intensity and brutality of the slave-making experience traumatized our social and human development. Though many writers have spoken of slavery few scholars have addressed the continuity of the behaviors established in slavery as a continuing aspect of African-American psychology.

The one exception is probably Stanley Elkins (1968) developed a sociological thesis that argued that the closed nature North American slavery, in contrast to Latin American slave produced a "Sambo" type personality in the slave. The Sambo described by Elkins as:

...docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his behavior was full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration. His relationship with his master was one of utter dependence and childlike attachment.17

The problem with Elkins' analysis of the black person while identifying a possible outcome of slavery, is that he consumed his analysis into this single image. Our suggestion is of much greater complexity, but a similar recognition that the slavery situation produced some persisting personality traits.

The reader might inquire, with considerable basis, that if this discussion is correct, then the African-American personality has been devastated. One would expect the obvious taint of this humanly demoralizing experience to have affected all aspects and all members of this community. In fact, the vast majority of African-Americans of with considerable efficiency and are generally no more severely disordered than are the people who were historically the perpetrators rather than the victims of these conditions. The fact that, despite slavery, effective functioning is the rule, speaks to two factors which space does not permit adequate development in this discussion.

The first factor is the apparent strength of character, culture and heritage that African people apparently brought to America's plantations. Other people have degenerated in their fundamental hum;

under conditions of stress far less intense and enduring than l experienced by African people. Research needs to identify the elements


Psychological Legacy of Slavery

of that African character which might serve as a model for human strength in general.

The second factor is that survival of the fundamental human initiative among African-Americans, despite over 300 years of the most inhuman conditions ever experienced by any people in the current historical epoch, is indicative of human resilience at its best. Despite the lingering vestiges which we have described in this discussion, recovery has been substantial. The triumphs of America's former slaves far exceed the deficits attributed to us. African-American people exist more as a monument of human accomplishment than the remains of human destruction.

However, the fact remains, the "plantation ghost" still haunts us. Our progress is still impeded by many of the slavery-based characteristics which we have described previously. The objective of the discussion is not to cry "victim" and seek to excuse those self-destructive characteristics created by slavery. In fact, the objective is to identify the magnitude of the slavery trauma and to suggest the persistence of a post-slavery traumatic stress syndrome, which still affects the African-American personality. It is not a call to vindicate the cause of the condition, but to challenge Black people to recognize the symptoms of the condition and master it as we have mastered the original trauma.

Neither is this discussion an effort to underestimate the sever­ity and barbarity of the continued economic and social exploitation of America's former slaves. It is to call our attention to an array of attitudes, habits and behaviors which clearly follow a direct lineage to slavery. It is hoped that by shining the lights of awareness on these dark recesses of our past, we can begin to conquer the ghosts which continue to haunt our personal and social lives. We can begin to move beyond the shackles of restricted human growth that have bound us since the kidnapping of "not so long ago."

In the next section, we shall look at the process of breaking the chains of slavery. We must understand that despite the impact of the slavery experience and the persistence of many of these characteristic slavery behaviors, African-Americans and other victims of this kind of oppression are not passive objects of their historical trauma.