Publication Date

April 2015


Charles Barber


General Scholarship


English (United States)


This study combines psychology and American history in a retrospective analysis of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). C-PTSD is a diagnosis that is differentiated from standard PTSD by the duration of the traumatic stressor, which in PTSD can be a single event, but which in C-PTSD must be prolonged over months or years. In this thesis I aim to determine whether there are textual markers suggesting the presence of symptoms of C-PTSD in autobiographical material left by African-Americans who had been enslaved in the American South. The original research component of this thesis is four case studies, which examine the autobiographical written narratives of Charles Ball, Olaudah Equiano, Mattie Jackson, and Harriet Jacobs. Markers for symptoms of C-PTSD are determined according to original diagnostic test, based on accepted diagnostic criteria from Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk. This original research is and supported by a chapter on the theoretical basis of the posttraumatic reaction, and supplemented by a chapter on the history of slavery and the context of African-American slave narratives. I found markers suggesting the presence of symptoms of C-PTSD in two of the four case studies. This is a provisional assessment based on non-medical, limited information and should be interpreted as such. In addition, these results are limited and should not be extrapolated out to implicate traumatic symptoms in the full population of former slaves. Further research is needed on this topic. As this study represents the first time such an assessment has been made of enslaved African-Americans’ mental health, my findings should be taken as an opening for further research.



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