Transgenerational trauma and worlded brains: an interdisciplinary perspective on ‘post-traumatic slave syndrome’

In Stephan Besser & Flora Lysen (eds.), Worlding the Brain. Interdisciplinary Explorations in Cognition and Neuroculture. pp. 63-81 (2023)
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Trauma and traumatization have arguably always been part of the human experience yet have in the last few decades come to occupy a prominent place in various popular and academic contexts. This chapter offers an interdisciplinary and comparative investigation of trauma and traumatization in different historical contexts. More specifically, my aim is to discuss whether the rich bodies of research in trauma and traumatization in Holocaust survivors and their descendants yield relevant insights for post-slavery contexts. It has been shown that children of Holocaust survivors suffer from stress and other symptoms related to their parents’ traumatization which influence the interactions with their environments. Such results made me wonder whether the traumatic impact of chattel slavery—which has been abolished some 160 years ago—might have a similar impact, yet now across several generations. Issues of the transmission and current persistence of trauma are inherently linked to questions of social justice, recognition and reparations. This chapter is meant, however, as an exploration of interdisciplinary connections that should be studied in concert to account for the traumatic impact of historical and present day experiences. It starts by discussing the concepts of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Continuing by exploring the phenomenon of the inter- and transgenerational transmission of trauma, it relies in part on the important body of research conducted on families of Holocaust survivors. I then turn to the much less researched ‘post-traumatic slave syndrome’ (DeGruy) and discuss two factors that might contribute to the transgenerational transmission of trauma in the families of former enslaved: epigenetics and the continuation of traumatization even after the abolition of slavery as articulated in Historical Trauma theory. Drawing upon these insights, I conclude that it is plausible that a continuing transgenerational transmission of trauma might occur in some families of slavery survivors, the knowledge of which might help to break the chains of such traumatization across generations.

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Machiel Keestra
University of Amsterdam


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