Monday, August 26, 2013

Movie ‘The Butler’: A Psycho-Trauma Analysis

By Kenny Anderson

*Key terms: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Invisible Man, Stockholm Syndrome, John Henry Syndrome, Double-Consciousness, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

Black men’s experience in America has been a traumatic history of being separated, enslaved, attacked, arrested, beaten, burned, hanged, castrated, lynched, and murdered. Black male traumatization has been a normal psychological dimension of racial oppression. 

Research shows that the chronic nature of racism can lead to an accumulation of trauma which results in psychopathology. That both individual racist experiences and chronic racism can lead to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Blacks.

The effects of trauma, particularly chronic identification as victim and powerless rage creates a range of obstacles to healthy and progressive Black manhood. Traumatic rage is both valid and inevitable, and identifying ourselves as victims of racist oppression is an absolute essential step in the political awakening of any oppressed person. 

James Baldwin's famous statement that to be a Black man in America is to be in a constant state of rage that often includes misplaced rage is an expression of the psychological reality that oppression is constantly traumatizing. However when Black men become entrenched in victim status and in the expression or acting out of powerlessness, traumatic rage turned inward (suicidal) or outward (homicidal) towards our selves becomes self-destructive. This happens when our ‘identification’ with the racist oppressor and ‘blaming the victim’ prevents us from recognizing our own contribution of self-oppressing trauma. 

From my perspective, a graphic expression of Black male traumatization is the fictional character Cecil Gaines in the current movie The Butler. The movie is inspired by Will Haygood's Washington Post article about real-life presidential Black butler Eugene Allen. In the movie Cecil is a domestic worker at the White House, who served in seven presidential administrations from 1957 to 1986.

Cecil’s story begins when he's a 14 year-old sharecropping boy in 1926 picking cotton on a Macon, Georgia plantation. While picking cotton Cecil witnessed his father murdered by a white male landowner after the father approached the man for raping his wife – Cecil’s mother. 

Indeed traumatized, Cecil was brought into the slave house as ‘compensation’ for his father's murder by the landowning matriarch to be a ‘house-nigger’. Cecil is taught the subservient etiquette of serving the whites of the big-house including the white man who murdered his father. Though Cecil ran away to escape sharecropping his experience of serving white folks would eventually lead to Cecil landing a butler job at the White House. 

From the big-house to the White House Cecil was taught to be a dutiful and non-threatening Black man whose success as a butler was based on being an ‘invisible man’ who sees nothing, hears nothing, feels nothing, knows nothing, and questions nothing - you only serve!!!

Cecil being an invisible Black man was described by writer Ralph Ellison who coined the term: "I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. It's when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful."

The aspect of Cecil’s dutiful attitude towards whites has its roots in Black slave captivity; it’s reflective of the Stockholm syndrome’, or capture-bonding.

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. Cecil’s identifying with the racist oppressor is one way that his ego defends itself. Being a victim – traumatized butler he believes the same values as the oppressor and thinks he ceases to be a threat. 

Cecil’s dutiful attitude towards whites causes a rift with his oldest son Louis, who joins the Civil Rights struggle as a Freedom Rider and then becomes a Black Panther. In one scene Cecil blames Louis for his gray hairs and not the stress of his job as a white house butler hearing the daily, ugly racist banter from white presidents he serves. 

While Cecil felt stressed and angered by his son's views, he listened daily to presidents and their advisers plot to undermine and destroy the very same progressive Black political movement his son was involved in! In one particular scene at the dinner table, Louis critically analyzed his father’s patriotic political views with counter assessments and his father became angry and demanded that he leave. 

When criticized by his son Louis, Cecil would reiterate to him that his views and butler job provided them with a better life. Cecil felt that his son should not be critical of him; that he should be grateful for his father’s provisions. This is the same logic of white male supremacy that our Black enslaved ancestors should be grateful for the masters’ provisions. 

When a son is critical it’s interpreted as not being grateful by Black fathers of Cecil’s generation and they often replied with the threatening response of “boy I brought you in to this world and I’ll take you out of it.” This threatening declaration was the same as what the white male slave owner said to our enslaved forefathers “nigger I bought you and I can kill you.”

In order to financially provide for his family Cecil would often spend long hours at the White House which resulted in strained relationship with his wife. Cecil was a non-nurturing father driven by the John Henry Syndrome, a term conceived by epidemiologist and public health researcher Sherman James while investigating racial health disparities. John Henryism, 'take a licking and keep on ticking', is a Black male economic survival strategy for coping with prolonged exposure to racist stressors by expending high levels of effort which results in accumulating physical health problems. 

One of the people Mr. James interviewed was John Henry Martin who had freed himself and his offspring like Cecil from the Southern sharecropper system by working extremely hard purchasing 75 acres of farmed land by age 40, but by his 50s had hypertension, arthritis, and severe peptic ulcer disease. 

John Henry Martin, and his circumstances are evocative of folk hero John Henry, an African American who worked vigorously enough to compete successfully with a steam powered machine, but died as a result of his effort.

Cecil's trauma also caused him to suffer from dual identity disorder, coined by W.E.B. DuBois as “double consciousness,” this duality was described by DuBois: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.  

The dominant aspect of Cecil’s trauma-based duality, warring ideals was his major identification with the oppressor. The minor conflicting aspect was his factual status as a subservient Black man causing his conscience to bother him. Despite his relatively comfortable position Cecil asks for an increase in pay for the "Black help" at the White House, whom as he points out are being paid significantly less than the "white help." 

Towards the end of his work life as a butler Cecil began to look at his son’s civil rights and Black Power activism as him being an American hero. After retiring, feeling economically safe, Cecil would join his son in a protest against American racist foreign policy; even being arrested and jailed with his son. Cecil uniting with his son was the first step in a healing process of his childhood racism-based trauma that kept him angry and separated from his son. 

For professor Dr. Joy DeGruy Cecil’s trauma is defined as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. PTSS is a race-specific trauma diagnostic theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora.

PTSS is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery; a form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury resulting in M.A.P.:  

*M: Multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression;       

*A: Absence of opportunity to heal or access the benefits available in the society; leads to  

*P: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

Under such circumstances these are some of the predictable self-defeating and self-destructive patterns of behavior that tend to occur:

Vacant Esteem
Insufficient development of what Dr. DeGruy refers to as primary esteem, along with feelings of hopelessness, depression and a general self-destructive outlook.

Marked Propensity for Anger and Violence
Extreme feelings of suspicion perceived negative motivations of others. Violence against self, property, and others, including the members of one’s own group, i.e. friends, relatives, or acquaintances.

Racist Socialization and (internalized racism)
Learned helplessness, literacy deprivation, distorted self-concept, antipathy or aversion.

As Black men we must understand ourselves as historical trauma victims and survivors, and develop understandings of how Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome affects us so we can counter its undermining symptom tendencies.

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