Understanding African American Trauma

To be African American is to be African without any memory and American without privilege.”—James Baldwin.


In a hybrid seminar on November 18, 2022, Gerald Fonville, a UMass scholar in African American and environmental child trauma, discussed racial socialization as a technique to rebuild “lost” connections and as a mechanism to increase resilience to environmental trauma. His research explores the unique mechanisms of African American traumatization as well as individuals’ methods of healing. 


During the seminar, Mr. Fonville began by reflecting on the history of his family and their ancestors. His history inspired him to devote much time and effort to understanding and exploring African American trauma and how trauma interrupts relationships.


He began the presentation an explanation of personal identity by looking at the equation of personal identity which includes: self-concept, reference group orientation, the critical lens to view one’s self-efficacy and the ability to succeed.


His next point was to clarify that what makes him an African American is a social construction, not biology. In his presentation, he illustrated the critical inflection points in African American history from 1518, when 12 million Africans were kidnapped from Africa to 2018, with the murder of George Floyd.


He went on to describe the key milestones of African American's search for identity and how they have been socially constructed throughout history, from colored or negro to African American without a hyphen. He noted that “We can’t say we are purely American with the same privilege as European Americans.  We can’t say we are purely African because we are not purely African, so we have to find a way to define ourselves.” The trauma of not belonging exclusively to a group influenced how African Americans view themselves, the culture where they live, and the rest of the world.


Mr. Fonville explained that “Trauma is related to self-concept, and it is also related to reference group orientation which is part of the equation of personal identity.” He then introduced two types of traumas: racial and cultural trauma. Racial trauma is directed at members of a particular race leading to racial stress impacting the individual’s physical and mental health. He argued that it is similar to Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). In contrast, cultural trauma is the trauma experienced by a group based on group membership. It impacts the collective identity resulting in psychological stress.


In addition, he argued that African Americans have a long history of complex trauma. Children exposed to multiple traumatic events and victimized in multiple ways - poverty, negligence, and physical abuse. They suffered complex trauma, leading them to have Complex-Posttraumatic Stress Disorder similar to PTSD.


Mr. Fonville ended the session by posing the question: “How can African Americans move forward?”  He said that racial socialization is a deliberate technique to educate, elevate and reintegrate self-concept in order to begin a healing process by looking at the integration process and building more positive concepts and ideas about what it means to be part of a reference group. He further elaborated on the ongoing efforts of the rites of passage of racial socialization to connect to the time when African Americans were not bound by trauma and to look at their true history before being kidnapped. 


During the Q&A session, several questions were raised by the audience. Mr. Fonville was asked: What evidence supports the idea that racial socialization transforms those who come from traumatized historical generations? In response he described empirical studies that confirmed racial socialization's positive impact on interventions and mentorship programs. 


Another question from the audience was about identity formation and how those with power can shape it, and how can this be overcome in the course of healing? Mr. Fonville explained that what is needed is relationship building and people seeing African Americans as individuals, not group members, which comes from interactions. 


Finally the CIE Director, Ian Barron, thanked Mr. Fonville for taking the audience through personal and group narratives as well as approaching the topic through professional and academic critical lenses. [12-22]