African-American Boys and Adolescents under the Shadow of Slavery’s Legacy

Kirkland C. Vaughans

Kirkland C. Vaughans, Ph.D., is a senior adjunct faculty at Adelphi University, founding editor of the Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy and co-editor of the two-volume series, The Psychology of Black Boys and Adolescents.


Kirkland C. Vaughans

Twenty years ago I first delivered my talk on the topic of the intergenerational transmission of trauma among African-Americans since slavery for the Interpersonal track at the NYU Postdoctoral Psychoanalytic Program. Over the years, the body of theoretical and clinical literature on this topic has grown tremendously. Black novelists also have highlighted it, most notably Toni Morrison in Beloved.

Although my focus on generational trauma in this article will be limited to black boys, in no way do I suggest that only they, and not girls too, are the victims of the generational trauma of their families or society. It is necessary to understand that while racism of individual, cultural and institutional types impacts blacks in general, it also manifests in gender specific ways.

From my clinical and research work, I have arrived at the theoretical position that the unresolved generational trauma among African-Americans, and black boys in particular, is a function of an unmourned original collective, historical trauma, as well as the episodic, persistent, terroristic, and oppressive social assault targeting the black community at later periods in American history. In addition to their actual threat to life and limb, these later, and contemporary, experiences constitute an unconscious agitation or re-awakening of unmetabolized earlier trauma, generating a sense of dis-ease and a breeding ground for a number of dissociated responses to ward off an impending sense of doom, loss, humiliation, failure and a disconnect from society. Therefore, the redemption blacks seek cannot be offered through individual psychotherapy or psychoanalysis alone but must be obtained through a communal effort of liberating our colonized minds of cultural introjects.

[It is] crucial… for our community to explore ingrained racism and bigotry as a …prerequisite… in the treatment of blacks and other minorities. Should the psychoanalytic community dare such a transformation, it would result in the simultaneous psychic liberation of both black boys and the psychoanalytic establishment.

It is the generative power of collective cultural consciousness, as witnessed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Power Movement of the 1970s, that holds significant therapeutic potential and has been reawakened in the current Black Lives Matter Movement. Let me be very clear on this point: It is not that psychoanalysis as a therapeutic instrument would prove ineffective in pursuing such a goal, it is that the psychoanalytic community lacks the will, the commitment and the interest to do so. Historically, it has failed to recognize its obligations to social justice, particularly where blacks are concerned. Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey’s (1951) early and clumsy effort to explore the “Negro Problem” is a classic testimony to the crucial need for our community to explore ingrained racism and bigotry as a pedagogical and clinical prerequisite to engagement in the treatment of blacks and other minorities. Should the psychoanalytic community dare such a transformation, it would result in the simultaneous psychic liberation of both black boys and the psychoanalytic establishment.

First I will contextualize how black boys are socially portrayed or not portrayed in society. When national magazines highlight the plight of American boys on their covers, black boys are conspicuously absent from the cover picture, as well as the cover story; further, their unique challenges are not addressed in many of the current bestseller books on the struggles of boys in general. The present plight of African-American boys and adolescents in this country is quite troublesome and often the burden for improving their condition is perceived to rest with them, with little understanding of the role of the traumatic effects of racism.

Age Distortion

The title of this article is deliberate: It hits hard on the social and cultural disavowal of their developmental stage of “boyhood.” The media often portrays black boys as being “at risk” as opposed to being “vulnerable.” In my mind, the two terms connote very different affective responses. A vulnerable child needs guidance or help; an at risk child at best has fallen prey to the luck of the draw and has failed to show personal responsibility. At risk black boys of 12 or 13 are called “men” by the news media; their white counterparts are called “youths.” This misperception of black boys is evident in the strong tendency in the juvenile justice system to try black boys in the courts as adults, unlike boys who are white.

In general, black male children are viewed as four years older than their actual age. This distortion of age, internalized, supports with ease the prized racism code of white people, especially police officers, who, distorting his potential dangerousness, react with fear for their lives when in a confrontation with a black male. The distortion of age is also a pretext for latent sexual anxieties that become manifest through the obsessional focus white police officers have with the bulge in the black man’s pants pocket. This stereotypical threat is based on the historical descriptions of black males used to rationalize their enslavement: They are described as immoral, highly aggressive, impulsive and overly-sexed.

With the recent spate of “publicized” shootings of black males by white police officers, as well as by private citizens, some black males have come to consider themselves as prized trophies in the quest for white nobility—an internalization of racist projections. During sessions, I observe the boys’ desperation reflected often in their dazed facial expression when I inquire, “Do you know what to do when stopped or challenged by a police officer?” Some jokingly reply, “Prepare to die,” while others look like a stunned deer caught in the headlights.

Most often, it is the stereotypical, defensive, hyper-masculinity of black males that is commented on in the clinical or social literature. In my practice and research on black boys, however, I have observed defensive tendencies away from machismo or cool pose posturing. A number have described feeling conflicted and tormented as athletic coaches pursue them to play sports for which, in fact, they had previously demonstrated a real gift. The social pressure comes not just from their school, but also from family members and significant others within the black community, all urging the boys to excel athletically as a means of authenticating themselves as black young men. Many black male youths then feel caught in a white and black racial, class and cultural crossfire, and as adolescents are conflicted in how to integrate these expectations as they struggle with identity formation and consolidation.


Disowning Racial Stereotypes

The term microaggression has received wide acceptance across professional domains. However, for black boys, who are frequently exposed to these impingements, their situations constitute a condition more akin to cumulative trauma. The symptoms resulting from emotional assaults are an abiding sense of shame, depressive affect, a sense of futility and a disavowal of the racial significance of these experiences.

Interviewing black boys for a research project I was conducting, one question among many I put to them was, “How do other people describe you?” The most frequent responses included the following: “honest, dependable, hard-working, reliable, studious and trustworthy.” It is not that I doubt the character of these boys contained such qualities; it is that the qualities they described were so directly counter to the racial stereotypes of black males that they read like a Boy Scout creed. Implied is a powerful need to evacuate socially-induced toxic introjects. In an attempt to distance themselves from painful racial characterizations, some run the risk of becoming socially isolated from their own racial peer group, who may perceive the boys as rejecting not racial stereotypes but the peers. In efforts to overcome imposed racial limitations, some students are at a complete loss to understand their particular circumstances.

This racialized drama, first populated in the speeches of Malcolm X, constitutes a reenactment of the conflict between what was considered the “House Negro” versus the “Field Negro,” a conflict dramatically depicted in the film, Django Unchained, by Quentin Tarantino. This splitting between the “good” slave and the “bad” slave is indicative of unresolved mourning of the black community’s historical trauma. Our shame and humiliation are embodied or projected onto the House Negro; other compensatory efforts to evacuate this hideous humiliation are given to the Field Negro. In his unapologetic commentary, Malcolm X clearly articulates the shame and humiliation of black people when he states, “You came here in chains, like a horse, a cow or a chicken.” This collective dynamic is continued in our celebration of our African heritage—to the almost complete negation of that which our enslaved ancestors developed for us. A fashion movement in this direction might have featured the wearing of the cotton sack as frequently as we donned the dashiki. Such an action would diminish our shame by acknowledging our pain, lifting from the shoulders of black boys this responsibility and restoring their rightful developmental stage of boyhood, of which they have been socially dispossessed.

The psychoanalytic community must begin to formulate, integrate and make use of the development and trauma of black boyhood in its theory and in its clinical practice. Until we do this, our attempts to bring more African-American men into the field, our attempts to help the thousands of young men who suffer in our communities and jails, and our attempts to fulfill our social responsibility to help heal racism in American society will be doomed.