Sekou Mims's son was 16 when he
experienced a sudden psychotic breakdown. Over three months, the black
teenager had a series of delusions - that white police were following him,
that white strangers on a train were staring at him menacingly. He'd
hyperventilate walking down the street. All his delusions revolved around
After a month long psychiatric hospitalization, Mims's son recovered.
Now, six years later, he attends college part-time and works as a driver
and a computer consultant. But Mims, a social worker in the Boston public
schools, thought it was strange that the young man had become so obsessed
with race. After all, ''the kid didn't go through one-10th of what I went
through,'' he said, never mind the racism Mims's father and grandfather
experienced as black men in America.
Omar G. Reid is a psychologist who was training at Boston Medical
Center at the time of Mims's son's illness. While he wasn't involved in
his son's treatment, Reid told Mims that black and Latino males were
showing up ''in droves'' with similar symptoms. Today, Reid conducts
support groups for troubled black men, many of whom say they can't
understand why they feel so much general anger and nervousness when ''my
life hasn't been too bad.''
Mims, Reid, and Larry Higginbottom, another black social worker,
recently taught a symposium at the Simmons Graduate School of Social Work
and are writing a book about what they call ''post-traumatic slavery
disorder'' - a derivative of post-traumatic stress disorder. They are
holding workshops to propose to fellow professionals that drug abuse,
broken families, crime, and low educational attainment in segments of the
black community can be directly linked to the trauma of slavery, and that
''black people as a whole are suffering from PTSD,'' Mims said.
These Boston clinicians were not the first to note the lingering
psychological effects of slavery. Harvard University psychiatrist Alvin F.
Poussaint wrote in 2000 about ''posttraumatic slavery syndrome,'' calling
it ''a physiological risk for black people that is virtually unknown to
In a book Poussaint co-authored on black suicide, ''Lay My Burden
Down,'' he wrote: ''A culture of oppression, the by-product of this
nation's development, has taken a tremendous toll on the minds and bodies
of black people.''
Now, Mims, Reid, and Higginbottom - none with backgrounds in academia -
have taken it upon themselves to try to educate other mental health
workers about their theory, and promote a curriculum and therapy based on
the idea. They would like to see what they call ''PTSlaveryD'' entered
into diagnostic manuals.
''We can't wait for the mainstream to validate us because it'll be the
day before we're on our deathbeds,'' Mims said.
Mims, 46, grew up in poverty in Boston and spent a number of his
adolescent years in reform school for petty crimes and assaults. Later, he
joined the Nation of Islam and worked in human services for the court
system and a halfway house, before earning a master's degree in social
Reid, 44, grew up in the Nation of Islam and spent 14 years working as
a psychologist in Boston Public Schools. He recently earned a doctorate in
psychology, and has a practice counseling private clients and contracting
with schools for educational assessments.
Higginbottom, 49, a Baptist and one-time stockbroker, worked in
community centers in Boston before getting his social work degree. He
counsels families through a Department of Social Services contract, and
all three men together lead support groups sponsored by various agencies.
Hundreds of years of slavery, followed by decades of legal
discrimination and racism, are widely accepted as factors contributing to
the poverty of many African-Americans. Poussaint points out in his book
that more young black men are in the criminal justice system than in
college. But the idea of a specific mental health problem linked to
slavery goes a step further.
However, critics argue that these ideas perpetuate a culture obsessed
''Some people are just looking for reasons to fail, and this notion of
a post-slavery syndrome falls into that category,'' said Ward Connerly, an
African-American who campaigned against affirmative action in California.
''There is great harm done with something like this. We don't want young
black kids to grow up thinking they are weak and can't look after
In their working paper, Reid, Mims, and Higginbottom lay out a case for
links between slavery and behavior in the black community today. They
point out that slaves were punished if they knew how to read, and draw a
comparison to the stigma attached to education today. ''If you go to any
elementary or middle school today and talk to black kids, they say, `I
failed all my classes, it's cool,''' Reid said.
They write about how male slaves were not allowed to stay with their
families, and then cite the number of poor black men today who father
numerous children with different women.
One notable difference between the writings of these social workers and
that of Poussaint is that Poussaint calls the trauma associated with
slavery a syndrome, not a disorder. A disorder is something much more
specific, while ''the trauma of slavery goes across all diagnoses and no
diagnoses,'' Poussaint said in an interview.
''There is a background anxiety there for black people, like a
background noise affecting their day-to-day operations in the world,'' he
said. ''Slavery was profoundly traumatic for black people and we're not
over it yet.''
Poussaint would like to see the American Psychiatric Association and
the American Psychological Association set up committees to study the
mental health implications of racism, but he said these ideas produce ''a
lot of rolling of the eyes,'' among other mental health professionals.
However, there is plenty of research to back up the idea that trauma
can resound through multiple generations, whether the trauma originates
with the treatment of Native Americans, Holocaust victims, or Cambodian
genocide, said Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist, trauma specialist,
and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and their
Danieli said politicians are resistant to the idea of multigenerational
trauma, because it brings up the specter of reparations, and because
addressing long-term trauma rarely fits in with short-term political
The treatment for post-traumatic slavery disorder that Higginbottom,
Reid, and Mims propose varies depending on whether someone is suffering
from depression, schizophrenia, or something else, but it involves
examining the individual's family history as a way to understand his or
her present problems.
''We have to take a more culturally relevant look,'' said Higginbottom.
''Somebody's got to be the disciples.''
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on
2002 Globe Newspaper Company.