- Freud Upside Down: African American Literature and Psychoanalytic Culture
The title of Badia Sahar Ahad’s book, Freud Upside Down, is taken from an article written by Richard Wright to promote the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic opened in 1946 to serve the Harlem community. Working alongside Ralph Ellison and analyst Dr. Frederic Wertham, Wright imagined the establishment of Harlem’s first psychiatric facility to be a radical reenvisioning of Freud’s work, an application of psychoanalysis to the masses that could alleviate the socially produced psychic impediments confronting the community. Wright’s attempt to resituate psychoanalytic work within a community largely ignored or pathologized in its theorizations concisely captures Ahad’s emphasis upon the ways that African Americans have continually engaged the concepts emerging from Freudian and other psychoanalytic theories to produce a counter-discourse that makes space for African American’s own sense of subjective identity. But buried within Ahad’s reading of this history is a fresh yet under-theorized perspective on the psychological complexities of racial subjectivity. While this reading of raced subjectivity informs Ahad’s work throughout, its conceptualization and theorization is relegated to the final chapter of the text. Often working through unpublished documents to produce valuable and original scholarship, what Ahad displays, instead, is an African American intellectual confrontation with psychoanalysis that spans from the early 1900s to our own contemporary time period.
Ahad’s interest in the complexity of racial subjectivity is clear from the start, but it is not fully integrated into the text’s larger historical focus. Ahad argues that as early as the Harlem Renaissance, psychoanalytic thinking has been particularly appealing to African Americans, not only because of its popular appeal to everyday Americans but also because it privileges “inward consciousness” (16); these facts make it a valuable tool to African American scholars and writers in their own efforts to “show the psychological depth of the black subject” (16). Ahad analyzes how this focus on depth both conditions the sociopolitical activities of figures like Wright and Ellison and also shapes the literary productions of writers like Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, Adrienne Kennedy, and Danzy Senna. Throughout, however, her focus is less on what new depths are revealed by African American scholars and artists than on their efforts to assert that such depth truly exists in a racialized group often read through its external difference.
Ahad highlights the frustrated efforts of African Americans to reshape psychoanalysis so as to make it speak for them. Her reading of Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), for example, is a particularly compelling application of research to textual analysis, convincingly linking multiracial protagonist Helga Crane’s search for racial identity to Larsen’s efforts to both apply and reconceptualize within a racial context Otto Rank’s theories on the subject’s relation to the mother and to what Rank calls “the anxiety of birth.” However, [End Page 402] as is true also in her analysis of Toomer’s relation to the psycho-religious thinking of his mentor Georges Gurdjieff, and of Wright and Ellison’s relation to practitioners like Dr. Benjamin Karpman and Dr. Frederic Wertham, what Ahad identifies repeatedly is an ability only partially to reconcile psychoanalysis to the interior lives of African Americans. Ultimately, Helga Crane is a significant point of focus for Ahad because a central theme of Ahad’s text is the subjective complexity of multiracial characters for whom psychoanalysis seems even less capable of accounting than typical African Americans.
Indeed, in spite of Ahad’s failure to adumbrate artistic renderings of a complex racial subjectivity, the unemphasized trajectory of her theorizing is toward an investigation of interraciality and the notion that race is “an interior rather than social construction” (134). In many ways, this is the most intellectually stimulating component of Ahad’s work, but it is truly only addressed in her final chapter on Senna’s Caucasia (1998), in which Ahad works through her conceptualizing with aid from scholars like Kalpana Sheshadri-Crooks, John L. Jackson, Jr., and Hortense Spillers. Ahad relies upon Jackson to argue for...