- Racial Socialization and Thwarted Mentalization: Psychoanalytic Reflections from the Lived Experience of James Baldwin’s America
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.”—Nelson Mandela
James Baldwin, with eloquence and depth, articulated the lived experience of being Black in America. He understood the defensive psychological forces operative in binding aggression and hate in racial attitudes at a time when psychoanalysts were dissecting race and culture out of our theory of the mind, and struggling to understand racist thinking. We had not yet conceptualized othering as a psychodynamic process, or the relative importance of dignity as a construct. The social sciences came to the conversation on race and racism before the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and even now, we have a long way to go in understanding racism on a psychological level and elucidating how our unconscious racial attitudes affect health care delivery and practice in the field of mental health.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ publication of the acclaimed Between the World and Me (2015), a letter to his son in homage to James Baldwin, reminds us of the necessity for dialogue made stark by the ongoing public outcry after the shooting of Trayvon Martin (2012) and numerous unarmed Black men, including a mental health worker, by police officers (Grimm, 2016). These deaths haunt us as a society and return us to the conversation on race and racial socialization spearheaded by James Baldwin early in his career. Published initially in The Progressive in 1962 for the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew entitled “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” was reprinted as the first chapter in his acclaimed work, The Fire Next Time. The May 17th, 1963 issue of Time magazine [End Page 335] with Baldwin’s picture on the cover, published three months before the March on Washington, contained a review of The Fire Next Time. This jumped it to the top of the nonfiction bestseller list, winning Baldwin international acclaim. The reviewer wrote, “In the US today there is not another writer—black or white—who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment of the North and South” (Chaliapin, 1963, p. 26). Today in 2019 that can still be said. Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time, though a literary source, still has contemporary relevance to the timely discussion of how our perception of racial difference and our unconscious race fantasies impact us daily, even as clinicians.
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I will speak to my understanding of James Baldwin, and position his letter to his nephew in a developmental context of what African American parents have communicated for generations in what I will call a story of the trans-generational transmission of trauma, and the trans-generational transmission of dignity and defense in the lived experience of racial socialization in America. Drawing on a developmental perspective, I will review certain orienting data on race awareness and racial socialization not taught in most training programs in psychiatry or psychoanalysis before addressing what we, as clinicians, can learn from a re-examination of Baldwin’s work. I will demonstrate using clinical examples the invaluable importance of psychodynamic understanding in deconstructing how we process racial difference in treatment situations.
The awareness of and curiosity about racial difference begins early and occurs spontaneously in the course of development. Studies demonstrate that infants as young as three months of age have a preference for faces of their own race, while infants at six months can recognize racial difference (Katz, 1976, 1982). By the age of three, children develop a sense of “outsiders”—people who are different from them (Fishbein, 1992, 2002). Mary Ellen Goodman’s classic research on Race Awareness in Children (1952) demonstrated that preschool age children of three and four years were clearly aware of race—making the connection to appearance and color but not yet to the concept of race as a social construct. [End Page 336]
Kenneth and Maime Clark’s (1953) landmark...