Hidden in Plain Sight: “Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome”

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Image Courtesy of Dr. Joy DeGruy

Ivy Li
Contributing Writer

Joy DeGruy, a nationally recognized, passionate, and empathetic scholar of cultural and ethnic groups, believes unpacking the true history of chattel slavery allows African Americans to better understand their identity. Last month, she discussed the history of slave trade and the lack of reconciliation that persists today. 

On Nov. 18, DeGruy was invited to the MultiCultural Center (MCC) to deliver a speech on Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome, a term first coined by DeGruy from her inspiration in studying black history. 

Abire Sabbagh, a graduate student at U.C. Santa Barbara (UCSB) and an organizer of MCC events, told The Bottom Line (TBL) she was excited for the speech because she was in contact with DeGruy for three quarters before the date finally settled. Sabbagh believes that DeGruy’s speech can inspire conversations on social justice and anti-racialism that need to be addressed, yet do not happen often on campus.

In the talk, DeGruy intended to restore the missing emotions to historical facts. She referred to a classic illustration of slave-trade ship in textbooks, which shows the plain fact that Africans were trafficked in a constrained space. However, DeGruy points out that textbooks do not show the real struggle. 

“In that 18 inches of space is where they slept, is where they wet, is where they ate,” DeGruy explained, “where they defecated, is where they urinated, is where they vomited; some even gave birth and died in 18 inches of space.”

During her talk, she also revealed a few instances when the reality contradicts its original purpose when under the influence of political and social power. A famous example is the Statue of Liberty. Most of the audience, just like the tour rangers of the Statue, believe that it was built for the celebration of democracy and freedom for new immigrants, but she informs otherwise.

When DeGruy traveled to France, she saw the original design of the Statue holding a torch in the right hand and a broken chain in the left — it was originally built to celebrate the end of slavery. Even with the insistence of Bartholdi the Statue’s designer, the U.S. government made a mere compromise and placed the broken chain under the Statue’s foot where it was impossible to see without a helicopter and a zoom-in lens, hidden in plain sight. 

The Statue of Liberty Museum had a copy of the original design, but it was exhibited in the basement, where few tourists visited. DeGruy remarked that, “[if] you erased the chain, you erased me,” so she decided to reach out to the rangers’ manager. 

Fortunately, she heard back and was hired to train all the rangers, who now will introduce the Statue’s true purpose without being asked. A new museum was also built to educate and restore the truth. 

Through studying history, DeGruy is able to gain a better understanding of the black community’s past struggles, identity, and stance in modern days; only when she can identify and understand the problem in the contradiction between reality and the original purpose can she address herself to the reconciliation of the distorted intention. 

Along with the MCC, DeGruy has a mission to educate people and spark conversations on social equality to actively seek solutions to the ongoing challenge.