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Auntie Mama Sister Friend

The deadly legacy of EXCELLENCE Perfection

Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome

By Jamillah “Lila” Finley with contributions from Zee Finley, Age 13

What happens when you learn to juggle razor blades? Maybe you get good at high achieving behavior, even after it becomes risky and potentially self-harming. As Black women, and even girls, we often feel the pressure to be the best. We may feel like we have our entire culture on our back. We may feel like we have to overachieve at the expense of our health, never resting or taking days off even when we’re sick, and fearing failure. How do we slow down, rest, or even stop to save our lives?

Jamillah Finley

I like the way you spoke specifically to the black audience, really highlighting how dangerous the overachieving behavior can be. This is good because most people don't know they do it.

Check your bloodline

Our elders, and countless motivational speakers who reminded us that certain stereotypes have been tattooed on the American consciousness. Our families may have made it clear to us that we are responsible, with our blood sweat and tears, to be excellent, thereby proving the stereotypes wrong. Dr. WEB Dubois popularized the notion of the “Talented Tenth,” those exceptional Blacks who were responsible for racial uplift in society. This task can be a heavy burden.

In a recent therapy appointment, Ashe’ magazine founders, Jamillah and Zee Finley, discovered how their family’s “legacy of excellence” might be a blessing and a curse.

Therapist: Today, I want to talk a little bit about generational trauma. What do you think was the legacy or culture of excellence in your family?

JF: What do you mean?

Therapist: Z says that the folks in your family, particularly the women, are high achieving.

So everyone in your family has college degrees?

JF: Yep. We saw no other option. My family grew up in the South. North Carolina.

Therapist: Ok.

ZF: And your mom had a ph.D

JF: Yes

Therapist: Interesting. What was that like?

ZF: It set a standard for excellence. And most of my family members are teachers, so education is really important.

Therapist: So is there a lot of pressure for Z to get good grades?

JF: I mean can a Black girl get C’s? Isn’t that what’s expected? I guess she might feel like if she’s not an A student, her teachers won’t respect her. Maybe she doesn’t think it’s ok to be Black and average in this society..

Therapist: That’s a lot of pressure for her isn’t it?

JF: I guess it is. But it's the reality for Blacks in America. I wish it was different. Other than teaching her to do her best, there is nothing I can do to change the way this country is set up. Have you ever heard of “the equation?” My mother taught it to me, and I guess I passed it on to her.

Therapist: The equation?

ZF: Black people have to work harder than everyone else.

JF: Let’s be more clear, “you have to be excellent to be seen as average. You have to be good just to be seen,” and if you are below the standard, you are already out of the picture.

Dr. Joy Degruy determined that multi-generational trauma changed the way that generations of Blacks raised their children. Her book and study guide helps readers understand how first generation trauma impacted the lessons about life that society taught them and the behaviors they had to adapt in order to survive. After twelve years of quantitative and qualitative research, Dr. DeGruy developed her theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, and published her findings in the book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome – America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.”

Causes of Trauma during Slavery

Worked from sunrise to sunset to an early death

Very little rest



Public Lynching and Castration

Treacherous muscle overexertion (to the point that the muscle detached from the bone)

Criticisms and Verbal Abuse

How did the trauma of slavery have such a lasting impact?

“actual memories are transmitted through the DNA for Jews, Native Americans and other groups, DeGruy indicates. That same concept can be applied to the impact of slavery on African-Americans. “When we look at American chattel slavery, we are not talking about a single trauma; we’re talking about multiple traumas over lifetimes and over generations,” says DeGruy. “Living in Black skin is a whole other level of stress.”

Jamillah Finley

The reference to Jews and Native Americans can possibly help the reader make a comparison to possibly to the holocaust. If they think that wasn't okay then slavery wasn't either, and that we don't have to get over it.

“The Ringling Brothers Circus exhibited "the monkey man," a black man was caged with a female chimpanzee that had been trained to wash clothes and hang them on a line (Plous & Williams, 1995). Scientific studies were conducted to establish the proper place of African-Americans in society.

Working Like A Slave:

5 Traps in Pursuit of “Excellence”

“Never knew rest. . .Felt like my back gone break; this the gospel truth”

Library of Congress

Lupus doesn’t run in my family, but high achieving folks do. I come from a long line of nationally recognized, award-winning professionals who worked hard quietly behind the scenes to provide quality service and care to those they encountered in all of their endeavors. I saw my mother, “work her fingers to the bone,” and “work around the clock,” to make sure things were done well. Often, single-handedly carrying the load of five people. I remember the work ethic of my mother, whose God-given gifts allowed her to operate, with what seemed like endless, effortless energy, never asking for help, never missing a beat in service to her community.

Jamillah Finley

Although you were worried about painting Gram in a bad light, you did a really great job of venerating her.

I never once questioned this approach to career and community service. I only believed that this level of self- denial was noble. It was in my blood. I never considered that perhaps this ethos had deeper roots than my family bloodline.

I carried the innate belief that I was born to make the world a better place. To do the best I could do, and be the best that I could be.. To do the work of righting the ills of a harsh world. I set about this mission with passion and grit. I would not fail my calling.

By society’s standards, I was excellent- award-winning like my mother and grandparents before me. But there was one great and unintended, private failure- I was doing a terrible job of taking care of myself, and it almost cost me my life.

5 Ways I was “working like a slave”

The Workhorse Trap

Showing up to work on my days off, or consistently working after hours. I thought my value was measured in my dedication to my work. I thought excellence equated to hours put in. It simply established a pattern of availability, and signaled that I was willing to sacrifice myself. Self-denial is a red flag that you are working like a slave.

Jamillah Finley

Talking about your own experiences can help people reflect on their own lives and possibly realize that they worked in a similar way.

Don’t be afraid to take stress leave or use your disability leave, FMLA, and sick/mental health days to make sure that you take care of yourself first.

One study found that workers who logged 11 hours per day were more likely to battle depression than those who worked seven to eight hours.

Physical impact:

Chronic stress and working long hours over the years, compromised my immune system and made me more susceptible to autoimmune diseases. Exhaustion and stress are lupus triggers. When your work-life balance is healthy, life can throw you a curveball, and you won’t be down for the count before the game is even started.