Sunday, February 7, 2016

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 in agreement.

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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