Transcending the Legacies of Slavery: A Psychoanalytic View

By Graff, Gilda | The Journal of Psychohistory, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Transcending the Legacies of Slavery: A Psychoanalytic View


Graff, Gilda, The Journal of Psychohistory


Transcending the Legacies of Slavery: A Psychoanalytic View. Barbara Fletchman Smith. London: Karnac Books, 2011 (paperback)

While this book is mostly about the psychological effects of slavery rather than its history, it does give important historical background. The author points out that both England and France were highly dependent on the slave trade for their development and that the creation of the United States would not have been possible without it. At the beginning of the trade, England was relativity poor, while by its end, it was not only rich, but it was also the first industrial nation. Fletchman-Smith succinctly states that Europeans excelled at making use of "human produce" in Europe and in the Americas; they turned free labor into money during slavery and, during the Industrial Revolution, did the same with cheap labor. The Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the wealth created by slavery. She also states "Slavery showed what could be achieved by the new unregulated plantation system, and out of this early capitalism emerged " (p. 105). In a review of a book about slavery in The Nation, the historian, Eric Foner, similarly states that the slave plantation, "underpinned the extraordinary expansion of Western prosperity and the region's power in relation to the rest of the world. (Foner, p. 27)

The psychological trauma of slavery and its effects on future generations has been explored elsewhere in recent years, but this essential book for both psychohistorians and psychotherapists offers a unique and useful way of understanding this subject that I have not previously encountered. Some authors have examined the shame and trauma of being enslaved, and the consequent destruction of the slave's subjectivity, which "reverberates in the parenting practices of too many African- American families," (Gump, 2000, p. 626), as a source of difficulties among the descendants of slaves. The transmission of shame through the generations is borne out by attachment research, which tells us that parental lack of empathy, or affective attunement, leads to an attachment style that is classified as "insecure." Others have written about transgenerational haunting, or of haunting legacies. One generation may never speak about their trauma to their children or grandchildren but, despite that, the children may still experience in uncanny ways the trauma of the previous generations. Apprey (1999) speaks of destructive aggression, which may be transferred from one generation to the next. He draws attention to an example of transgenerational haunting in the statement of a transsexual pt who was treated by Robert Stoller. The patient stated, "I had died and was already dead, but my mother was so busy sending me to the store on errands that she did not notice that I was dead (Apprey, 1999, p. 136)." All of these explanations are important in illuminating the psychic aftermath of slavery.

What Barbara Fletchman Smith, writing in particular about slavery in the Caribbean, draws attention to is the dominant family structure that slavery has created. She sees present problems with forming couples and families as connected to slavery's introduction of a deficit in maternal care, combined with excessive fear, and the disruption of all attempts at making new families. The trauma of slavery caused an injury to the psyche generated through the mother, who in Caribbean plantation society, was deserted by men: fathers, brothers and partners. She describes a circular situation of persistent trauma:

...the little boy's mother is deserted by the little boy's father. The child is left with no males to defend and protect him - no third party - to get between the little boy and mother to prevent suffocation, disrespect, tyranny and humiliation. He is at the mercy of woman. He has to make a choice between conforming to his mother's reasonable and unreasonable rules and her intrusions or rebelling against them; between opting for loving or for hating. …

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