Navigating the Trauma of Slavery to Descendants of the Enslaved

Brenda E. Stevenson

I often begin my classes on slavery with a story, one meant to capture the intellectual attention and imagination of my students.  One that leaves them with a powerful imprint and anchors the ongoing class themes.  But I have learned over the years of teaching these courses that my well-meant introduction, and discussion of the other realities of slave life that my classes encompass, may traumatize some of my students, particularly those whose ancestors shared in this history. My first story can be told through a film or television clip—the bloody “renaming” ritual imposed on Kunta Kinte by his overseer[i]; lines from a poem, such as Langston Hughes’ “Negro Mother”[ii]; an evocative image, or series of images, like Kara Walker’s “The Means to an End:  A Shadow Drama in Five Acts”[iii]; or a material culture object such as miniature shackles used on enslaved children.  My preferred narrative reference is an autobiographical or biographical snippet.

William Blake, “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave,” 1795 in John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.

William Blake, “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave,” 1795 in John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Reading to oneself or hearing the personal story of an enslaved woman, man, or child reaches inwardly to my students and places them in the footsteps of those so far removed across time and space.  These narratives connect primordially to the oral cultures of our ancestors and the oral/aural sensations and experiences within the individual student’s life from infancy forward.  These are rich accounts of the day-to-day experiences of the enslaved that I want my students to connect with, to understand and live within, so that they can deeply feel the loss, anger, fear, and heartache, but also the laughter, joy, love, and pride of these millions of people forced to sacrifice their minds, bodies, pasts, and futures to build the Americas under the layered yokes of chattel slavery.  Yet, I also have to consider their possible “vicarious traumatization” by such accounts.

I might begin my slavery lecture, for example, with the biography of an enslaved woman told by Dr. Esther Hill Hawks, a physician who had come, with her husband, to work among the “contraband” during the Civil War.  Hawks summarized the story of Susan Black, a slave who had been confined to the South Carolina lowcountry from preadolescence through her encounter with the 36-year-old Hawks as her teacher.  When Susan was 12 years old, Esther records, her master commanded that she follow him into a shed.  Her young mistress warned her not to go with him, telling Susan to “keep away from Pa and don’t go in there.”  Susan did not obey her master that first time he requested that she follow him.  But when he commanded her to do so again, and her master’s daughter was not available to run interference, Susan relented.  Once inside, her owner grabbed her, stuffed his handkerchief into her mouth, and viciously raped the 12-year-old. Susan was so physically damaged from the assault that it took her three weeks before she could return to her other work duties.  Her psychological haunting lasted certainly through the time that she met Dr. Hawks, some twenty-four years later.

This was not the last time that Susan’s master would rape her; nor was he the only master who would try to do so.  Susan’s owner continued to rape her for much of her adolescence—in Dr. Hawks’ words, “he used her as he liked.”  The devastation of his license to abuse the girl brutalized all of those around her, particularly Susan’s family.  That first year of her forced concubinage, Susan gave birth to her owner’s child.  She refused to care for the male infant; and it was given to her sister to rear.  It was the only child that Susan would ever bear.  Her master later became suspicious that Susan was aborting their children and, therefore, depriving him of additional property—highly valuable property according to him because he liked her African “breed.” He beat her viciously as a punishment.  Susan, of course, could have been barren for a number of reasons.  Perceived by her owner as his personal portal for violent sexual performance and the production of future wealth, she did not receive the benefit of his doubt.

As an adult, Susan came to live with a young mistress and her mistress’ husband, Henry Rivers.  Her mistress had an attachment of sort to Susan. She had the slave woman participate in her wedding and also encouraged Susan to marry herself, providing the enslaved woman with a “real wedding” in church. Susan’s marriage nuptials came with none of the legal, or customary, protections of those of free white men and women.  This sacramental “inequality” was painfully clear in Susan’s husband’s abroad status and certainly once he escaped, without her, at the onset of the Civil War.

Susan’s master, himself a major in the Army of the Confederate States, wasted little time trying to take advantage of her husband’s fugitive status.  Henry Rivers’s sexual pursuit of Susan rapidly escalated to obsession.  Susan tried to avoid his advances for her own sake, and also for that of her mistress.  At first Rivers pled with Susan, then he offered her money.  Later came threats of violence and then her sadistic whipping.  Rivers had Susan stripped naked and tied up, and then he personally beat her mercilessly.  His whipping targeted her pubis, causing blood to flow onto the floor, followed by great pain and swelling.  Susan bore the “great white scars” from his beating also on her arms, legs, and across her body.  Her story ends, that part of it told by Dr. Hawks at any rate, when Susan managed to escape to Charleston, was hidden successfully by her father, and eventually was reunited with her husband who had enlisted in the First South Carolina volunteers.[iv]

Much about slavery is encapsulated in Susan Black’s story—indicators of enslaved family structure, function, and location; acts of male and female resistance; relations with mistresses and masters; the imposition of psychological, physical, and sexual violence; the voyeuristic culture of the Big House; and the impact of the Civil War on black life.  Susan’s story is one that disturbs and haunts.  It is a narrative that could trigger the memory/re-experience of any number of traumas that my students might have suffered—sexual violence; primary abandonment; bullying; shaming; physical and psychological abuse; and the list goes on.

Illustration of Slave Whippings, in Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written By Himself, p. 113,

Illustration of Slave Whippings, in Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written By Himself, p. 113,

Consider, as well, the trauma that we expose our students to who may not have suffered substantial trauma in their own lives, but who may be left to feel that the kind of abuse that enslaved men and women endured was unique to African Americans.  To do so might subject students of African descent in our classes, where there rarely is a black majority, to feelings of isolation and even shame. The college classroom today is a contested terrain in which peculiar and particular notions of academic merit not only have diminished the presence of African-descended students to a numerical few, but also often condone the open questioning of the presence of any of these students.  There habitually is not even a critical mass of black students to provide intellectual, cultural, or social support to one another.  It is on the shoulders of these few students, however, that the weight of the African’s capture, commodification, humiliation, mutilation, rape, incarceration, and other abuses pushes down most painfully.  These students experience not only the “vicarious trauma” of learning the great depths of ancestral subjugation, but also have to negotiate the painful apathy, and sometimes ridicule, of other students who experience black brutalization and dehumanization in a profoundly different manner.[v]

How then does one provide a “safe” intellectual and psychological learning environment for the teaching of slavery when this kind of “vicarious traumatization” is a real possibility? Slavery was, and is, after all, unrelentingly violent and brutal, even sadistic. But should we teach this subject, or can we do so, in a manner that will allow total “escape” from the slave’s trauma?

I believe that teaching the history of slavery in the Americas to a diverse college classroom should shape one’s pedagogical style in particular ways meant to limit the trauma this knowledge can impose on African America students as well as those of other socially or politically marginalized groups whose history too includes similar kinds of abuse.  African-descended students in our classrooms cannot be left to feel that their link to this history of exploitation and attempted genocide is unique; to feel publicly exposed to sharing in a legacy that has labeled them as inferiors in society and at their learning institutions.  To do so would harm not only their academic performance, but also their social, emotional, and cultural comfort in our classrooms, on their campuses, and in the larger society.

How exactly to address these problems, of course, and to maintain the intellectual integrity of such a class is not clear.  If we are effective purveyors and discussants of this history and its legacy, however, we must be at least aware of, and take some responsibility for, the kinds of unintended reactions that students might have.  What we have to bring into the courses that we present on this very difficult material is an understanding of the problems that this subject poses for those most related to it in their own personal histories.  We must discuss these issues openly and without intellectual derision, and provide creditable alternative informational sources for those who deem it necessary to avoid certain events that they consider a threat to their emotional well-being and classroom comfort. Moreover, we might consider including some content that explains the long history of slavery external to African or African American history.  The institution, after all, hardly is unique to the black experience.  Indeed, it has affected most people ancestrally during some point of their history.  Providing this inclusive historical context would free African-descended students from the notion that this is their exceptional history and, perhaps, build deeper empathy and intellectual curiosity among their nonblack classroom peers.  These collective considerations have the potential to begin to foster some improvement, intellectually and pedagogically, in the slavery courses that we teach and how they are received by all of our students.


[i] Alex Haley and James Lee, Roots: The Saga of An American Family TV Miniseries, Episode 3, Stan Marguiles, Producer, ABC-TV, 1977.

[ii] Langston Hughes, “The Negro Mother,” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York, 1994), 155‒56.

[iii] Kara Walker, “The Means to An End:  A Shadow Drama in Five Acts,” 1995, Honolulu Museum of Art, 1995.

[iv] Esther Hill Hawks, A Woman Doctor’s Civil War:  Esther Hill Hawks’ Diary, ed. Gerald Schwartz (Columbia, SC, 1984), 154‒55; rapes described on 154; scarring described on 154‒55; family life described on154‒55.

[v] I credit Dr. James Cones of the Counseling and Psychological Services at UCLA with many of the ideas regarding psychological impact on students of African descent offered in this paragraph.

5 June 2017

About the Author

Brenda E. Stevenson is Nickoll Family Endowed Chair and Professor of History and Professor of African American Studies at UCLA.

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