Generational Trauma and How it Affects Black Men

Unsplash / Lucas Gouvêa

Generational trauma is a plague and can be seen in our practices, habits, behaviors, and our perspective of the world. Black people have carried our ancestors’ untreated and destructive trauma for generations, but it’s time we heal ourselves and our children. Black men in the community face current trauma such as police brutality and extreme and overlooked trauma of their male ancestors that is ignored and forgotten in our communities. This lack of understanding and knowledge is due to a lack of education about the true horrors of slavery and stigmatization. Now in most recent decades are we able to see real scientific evidence of trauma being passed down genetically. This can be seen through the study of epigenetic. Epigenetics is a study of how certain genes show the marks of trauma, not through the physical change of the DNA strains but through mechanisms like methylation. DNA methylation are associated with childhood trauma and stress found in human sperm, leading to the continuation through generations. However, we don’t need to look at DNA strands to see the effect of generational trauma in the black community. We can see it in the actions and goals of black individuals, manifested through PTSD, insomnia, hyper vigilance, and fear. 

Insomnia in the black community has been studied and many reports support that racial minorities are more often to suffer from insomnia more intensely than white participants. A 2020 study done in Detroit reached results that discrimination by racial background accounted for 60% of severe insomnia cases. Black people facing high levels of insomnia can also be caused by environmental factors such as light pollution and ambient light at night, from living in impoverished areas of cities. Light pollution and ambient light at night can lead to sleep apnea and daytime sleepiness. Nighttime noise is another huge factor in sleeping with higher levels of noise in black areas according to a 2017 study. Hyper vigilance is another huge mentality in the black community. I even see it around my own family with my father, he refuses to sit in any public place with his back to the entrances and must know all the exits. Hyper vigilance is on the minds of many African Americans due to their minority status in society as well as the constant violence against black people in the present and past. It is also seen with hyper arousal which is the increased reactiveness to the environment’s stimuli. Black men face this on higher levels than other races and black women, leaving them in a constant state of perceiving the world around them as a possible threat. A research study in Philadelphia shows that 97% of the black teens (ages 10-16) have seen, heard about, or been a victim some community violence; this is the case for many black males in communities around the country. Fear is paired with constant vigilance and black people’s fear can be seen in institutions that have failed them time and time again. We largely see fear around the United States policing system where black boys and men are mercilessly murdered at the hands of cops and police brutality. Fear in governmental system like the police are compounded with the lack of action in removing over policing and lack of proper community services. 

Black Generational Trauma is coupled with current trauma and unfair stereotypes thrust on black communities by white counterparts. Living in a predominately white area I didn’t really feel firsthand causal racism until I was on the bus to a friend’s house, and she said, “Isn’t that your dad?”. I looked over and it was a black man I’ve never seen walking on the side of the road. I said “No, my dad is at work.” I didn’t know how to process it and so I continued to her house, it wasn’t until years later until I became more aware of the “lazy black” stereotype. Much of these stereotypes although crafted in slavery, were strengthened during the Jim Crow Era(1877 – 1964). Minstrel shows were popular during the Jim Crow Era and painted black people as lazy, ignorant, and dumb individuals. Black people being lazy is directly the opposite of slavery where white slave owners were continually pushing their slaves past the limit to harvest, plant, or tend to the highest amount of crop. Enslaved workedthrough dangerously hot and humid conditions with little to no protection, proper nutrition, or rest. They had to be the opposite of lazy. They villainized black people byportraying them as lazy and then feminized them. Black “Bucks” is a racial slur made by white people and specifically slave owners for describing black men. Black “bucks” were deemed by slave owners and authorities for being belligerent, aggressive, and dangerous to the white population. These men were described as tall, muscular, and powerful with an interest in white women and going against white law and will. The 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation was integral in the resurgence of this term and the KKK used this stereotype in their propaganda to demonize black men and boys. Former Grand Wizard David Duke is quoted for his harsh words against black men in The Sun, “White people don’t need a law against rape, but if you fill this room up with your normal black bucks, you would, because niggers are basically primitive animals.” These stereotypes against black men are rampant and stem from the traumatic generational trauma. 

Prominent men known to us were also either subjugated themselves or witnessed it done to others. Frederick Douglass who is known for his work in abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and social reform was personally affected by the actions imposed on “bucks” in the south. Frederick Douglass as a slave was known to be “ornery” causing him to be a target by slave owners who wanted to subdue his spirit. He noted himself “Men are whipped oftenest who are whipped easiest,” as control was easily connected to violence against slaves. Although not talked about widely and often overlooked, sexual assault was a prominent tactic by slave owners to dominate the slaves. By sexually assaulting male slaves, the owners were able to dehumanize them; placing them in a vulnerable place where they would be able to control them easily. We’re able to see how these actions done by the slave owners hundreds of years ago still have a prominent effect on the black male population. We can still see a negative and fearful response from the black male community around the LGBTQIA+ community and a stem of this fear comes from the sexual trauma generations ago. In a somewhat polarizing world, men are usually placed under the stereotype of being breadwinners, dominant, and strong, this is especially the case for black men. Black men tend to move away from femininity as it can damper their ability to show they’re strong and provide especially with the “lazy black” stereotype they’re facing. Dehumanized and “feminized” by slave owners generations ago affect how many black men are now able to see feminism and queerness. 

By no means am I a licensed therapist or psychiatrist but healing from this past trauma is important to not only mend your trauma but black future generations as well. Addressing the root of the trauma is the first step in facing it and finding tangible steps to overcome it. Asking for help when you need it is important and it isn’t an admission of vulnerability, but a show of strength.


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