AFRICAN-AMERICANS AND PSYCHOLOGY From the dawn of humankind, humans have speculated about the nature of their minds and the causes of their behavior. Thus, the mind has become a principal subject of human exploration. These first investigations were mostly deductive, attempting to find universal results in the human context; a context we now know is incredibly subjective. Moreover, as the centuries progressed, scientists and philosophers continued their speculations on the human mind, putting their theories to an empirical test, separating more and more from the metaphysical persecutions of what was going to become a different branch of knowledge: the philosophy of mind. Thus, eighteen and nineteen centuries were capital in the creation of psychology as a discipline (Greenwood, 2009). However, it was not until 1877 that psychology became a full-fledged discipline capable of standing on its own. Before, the discipline was tied and intertwined with philosophy, seen from a metaphysical perspective and understood as a rationalist discipline instead of empirical science.
Consequently, there has been an improvement over the years; an improvement that does not only call for the integration of African-American psychologists in the main trends of academic research but also in the number of Black students interested in the field. Hence, it is feasible considering that for many, psychology has become a vehicle for self-improvement and the improvement of historically impoverished communities. Sadly, African-American inclusion in the field is a rather recent event, as it was not until 1969 that the American Psychologists Association, a historically White Association began accepting African-American scholars within its ranks. Therefore, even if the discipline has advanced, the attitudes towards Black scholars did not change as rapidly as they could have, partially due to the national attitudes towards race and ethnicity. This means that the views of the mainstream powers mirrored the national attitudes towards African-Americans, placing hurdles on an integration that intended to be complete.
Ultimately, it is possible considering that the African-Americans are already intertwined with the White society that once segregated them. Nevertheless, that segregation also strengthens the Black identity, converting the African-Americans in a separate population living in the same community; a population with distinct core values, dreams, and hopes. From that perspective, Black psychology, as researchers have been calling the study of the African-American mind, have to deal with different paradigms and challenges that are of the Black people only, focusing on themes and subjects such as spirituality and identity. Thus, although a century seems to be plenty of time, it is not as much, and the attitudes of certain individuals towards the African-Americans as a subject of psychologic exploration has not changed as fast as the discipline itself. As DuBois put it a hundred years ago “One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Dubois, 1996). Hence, it is in their identity that African-Americans find solace and strength, becoming central parts of the psychological exploration of their lives. Thus, since there will not be a definitive answer to that question, the discipline is bound to grow in an attempt of finding solutions to fulfill that need for an identity.
Hence, the nineteenth century saw the birth of psychology; yet, not as an abstract science but as an experimental science because these experiments that were useful in the physical sciences were also functional for the newfangled science of man. Nevertheless, unlike the physical experiments, the science of man, the conditions cannot be thoroughly manipulated, and the results are way less conclusive, which is one of the reasons psychology has not been welcomed among the “exact” sciences. Consequently, despite its apparent lack of exactness, the discipline has evolved to encompass cognitive and behavioral sciences, psychotherapy, neurosciences, and human statistics, providing valuable insights on human mind; insights that have helped science dispel myths and biased preconceptions.
However, psychology has been since its foundation an eminently European discipline, leaving behind the contributions of researchers from other ethnicities, particularly those of African-American descent, who were subject to oppression until recently.
Under that perspective, African-American involvement in the discipline is rather new and starts with W.E.D. DuBois and his book The Souls of Black Folk (Black, Spence, and Omari, 2004). DuBois is one of the pioneers in African-American involvement in social sciences and advocated for the exploration of the souls and minds of the Black population from their particular perspective rather than seeing themselves from the European-American point of view. Thus, the African-American participation in psychology can only be understood against the background of the American history. The lives of the black folk are profoundly intertwined with America, and their history is a history of oppression and segregation where their opportunities to become something other than a pariah were slim, at least during the first tears of the twentieth century.
As a result of these policies that enacted separation, it is only during the first half of the twentieth century that African-American colleges and universities begin teaching and educating Black psychologists as a form of debunking the myths and misconceptions racists had enacted. Likewise, events such as the opening of a psychology department in Howard University, a historically Black college, opened the opportunity for many men and women to improve their capacities and get a better education, actually opening the door for an improvement in the living conditions of a portion of the African-American population (Holliday, 2009). Under that light, it becomes clear how the progressive racial integration of the African-American population in the country served a dual purpose of transforming not only the social discourse about race and ethnicity but also the roles of the Black citizens, who were now able to expand their occupational opportunities and become visible as researchers and scientists.
- Black, S. R., Spence, S., & Omari, S. (2004). Contributions of African Americans to the Field of Psychology. Journal of Black Studies, 35(1), 40-64. doi:10.1177/0021934704263124
- DuBois, W. E.D. (2016). The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Thrift Editions).
- Greenwood, J. D. (2015). A conceptual history of psychology: Exploring the tangled web. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
- Holliday, B. G. (2009). The history and visions of African American psychology: Multiple pathways to place, space, and authority. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(4), 317-337. doi:10.1037/a0016971