An American psychoanalyst comments on the matters in his world - books he reads, movies he watches, conferences he attends - from a psychoanalytic perspective. Intended for those curious about modern applied psychoanalysis.
This grows out of a project - the 10,000 minds project of the American Psychoanalytic Association - intended to help the public become aware of contemporary psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis and Race - Dorothy E. Holmes presents to the American Psychoanalytic Association
Every year at the
national meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association there are various
events across the course of the week.
There are workshops and discussion groups, committee meetings and panel
presentations, but the big moment, the time when essentially all the analysts
at the meeting gather together in one room – the Ballroom at the Waldorf
Astoria Hotel (which also annually hosts the inductions to the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame – though not, of course, concurrently), is the Plenary Address on
Friday night. It is a highlight of the
meeting and can be the pinnacle of an analyst’s career to present a
plenary. I have reported on Plenarys in
the past (Jonathan Lear for instance) and some that occurred before I began
reporting (Peter Fonagy on Sexuality) were almost transcendental moments (you
may think that I must be a geek to get so excited about a speaker – and even
though I may be reluctant – I am much more of an analyst, and therefore a geek,
than I would generally like to admit).
This year’s plenary speaker was Dorothy E. Holmes from South
Carolina. She was selected in part
because she is the first African American Training Analyst – the type of
analyst that is entitled to train other analysts including by providing
personal analysis to analysts in training.
I have heard Dr. Holmes present before – she presented at a
panel at a recent annual meeting - and I found her to be a compassionate and
eloquent speaker. She was presenting on
the ways in which psychoanalysis can be informed by the African American
experience and I was intrigued by that. This has been a tough post to get around to
writing in part because it was a more difficult talk for me to engage with than
I expected and I am not pleased with my response to it.
Dr. Holmes began her talk by describing a conversation at the beginning of her
own analysis and, since she was the first African American training analyst, she
was necessarily talking with a white analyst. She talked about
letting him know ahead of time that she did not trust that he would be able to
understand her subjectivity. Her analyst
acknowledged that this made sense and acknowledged that he would be curious about it as it arose in their work together. I think now
that conversation with its attention to her response to him was more charged than I knew in the moment.
Dr. Holmes not only told her analyst about her subjective experience, she told the gathered crowd at the Waldorf about it. She described what it was
like to be her. And a very weird thing
happened – I disagreed with her experience – or, perhaps worse, I just didn’t
believe it to be the case. Dr. Holmes
stated that her basic experience of being black in America is one that is based
on fear – true physical fear of aggressive actions on the part of whites. My reaction was: really? How can that be? Racism is much more subtle and pervasive than
that – I thought. In fact I wrote it on
a slip of paper and showed it to an analyst friend next to me, and she nodded
I’m not saying that my reaction isn’t defensible. I also do strongly believe that racism is
subtle and pervasive. What I think is
remarkable is that, as an analyst, which is certainly part of my identity that
should be available to me when I am in a plenary session at a psychoanalytic
conference, when I am listening to the thoughts of another analyst about her
subjectivity, I should have been open to that subjectivity – I should have swirled
it around in my mouth and tasted it before I spit it out. I should not have screwed up my mouth and not
let it in. Not that I have to agree with Dr. Holmes, even about her own experience - we constantly think of ways that someone's experience reflects multiple forces, for instance - but I rejected her description of her own thoughts out of hand.
Why did I do this? I’m
not sure. What I was conscious of were
Dr. Holmes’ references to recent police shootings and to the black lives matter
movement. I felt somehow that her
revelation of her internal experience was trendy rather than deeply felt and
articulated. Would I have felt this
about any other analyst presenting at a plenary? I have certainly felt about other analysts
that they are presenting stuff that is not new – that they are simply covering
ground that they have covered before.
Part of what was so tremendous about the presentation by Fonagy was that
it was, indeed, novel – it was very different than the other stuff he had
written. And I acted as if this wasn't new – by quickly turning it into a reflection of something that I experienced as trendy rather than, for instance, seeing the trend as a
valid expression of a deeply held belief. Is this how I react,
as a white male, to the subjectivity of African Americans?
It is particularly interesting to me that I did not take in
what she said because I have begged to have access to the subjectivity of US
blacks in various posts here (for instance in reviewing Pym I was frustrated
that the author, a black man, did not articulate the inner world of his
characters, and in The Help noting that it did not make sense for the author, a
white woman, to articulate the internal experiences of her black characters even
though she did for her white characters– instead she simply related the
dialogue of the black characters and let the reader wonder about the thoughts and
feelings that produced the words).
Well, the next day I went to the new Whitney Museum of Art and, at the urging of some friends, went to a retrospective exhibit of
Archibald Motley, an African American Artist the Whitney was touting as a Jazz
Age artist. In his early works, many of
them painted when he was in Paris, he was working from a European sensibility,
and was, according to the guiding materials, working to establish himself as a
traditional master – though his subjects – his grandmother, a series of self-portraits, and other subjects – were of African American themes or with African American content, the style
was high art. He also painted, and I
think this was truer later in his career, in a more immediate, almost folk art
style that conveyed more movement – the colors were frequently more garish and
the content allegorical – while on the surface being depictions of street
scenes or interiors of African American gathering places – pool halls and jazz
clubs in the south side of Chicago – the quality was flatter – the paintings
seemed two dimensional.
The final painting that was displayed was one that seemed to
incorporate elements of both styles.
More crafted than the others, but at the same time a collection of
symbols juxtaposed in a haunting manner, the painting depicted various martyrs
for the cause of civil rights – MLK, Jr., JFK, RFK – but also Abraham Lincoln. There was also a lynched man hanging from a
tree near a depiction of the Statue of Liberty.
It was as if Archibald Motley were telling me that I should have been listening to Dr. Holmes, that the basic state of living as an African American
in the United States is one of fear.
And then Friday, in a kind of trifecta, an African
American Psychologist from the University of Michigan, Robert Sellers, visited
us. He talked with us about mentoring
students of color. And as he was doing
this, he noted that our psychology is based on the subjectivities of a
relatively small group of white men, most of them Jewish, who had real identity
concerns. He listed Erik Erikson as an
exemplar of this group. He and I then
wondered a bit about what lead this group of people – Jews are certainly a
persecuted group – to be so comfortable with articulating their internal
experience in a very public way. He
noted correctly that when they were doing this they were the voices of the
dominant psychological movement in the United States – psychoanalysis was king in the
middle of the twentieth century. This
was a different period than when Freud, for instance, was articulating his
subjectivity, but frequently pretending that his dreams were those of his
patients. Since then, I have come across the writings of James Cone who maintains that Christianity, the religion of the dominant culture in the US, is actually a religion of the downtrodden, and he equates the Cross with our own Lynching Tree.
So, it is interesting that fear is so central to the
experience Dr. Holmes. And, as been
hammered home to me by other experiences in addition to the ones I have related
here in the three weeks since I heard Dr. Holmes speak, this is shared by many
others besides Dr. Holmes (and, as I write this, I wonder, how could this not
be the case?). It is interesting from
the perspective of how fearful white Americans can be of African Americans and
the characterization of African Americans as aggressive and dangerous. It is also an interesting factor that would be operating in concert with the external factors of
discrimination that I privileged over the subjective ones of Dr. Holmes. But, I
would add, there is the fact that Dr. Holmes first fear, that her analyst would
not be able to hear and understand her experience - was, in fact, embodied in her interaction
with me – a white male who should be at least as open as most. In so far as my experience can generalize, we
may have significant difficulty hearing and appreciating the subjective
experience of African Americans – even when we ask to hear it. She is justifiably fearful of physical aggression from the dominant culture - we have acted in physically aggressive means to subdue African Americans from our first interactions with them as slaves. She may also want to add to her list of fears the fear of not being heard - at least not at first - even by a sympathetic audience.
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