Conversations on Psychoanalysis and Race: Part One


Michael Slevin and Beverly J. Stoute

Michael Slevin, M.S.W., is in private practice in Baltimore, where he also does emergency psychiatric evaluations at Sinai Hospital. A former editor of TAP, he is co-chair of the Social Issues Department Task Force on Income Inequality and Class.


Michael Slevin

Beverly J. Stoute, M.D., child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, Atlanta; training and supervising analyst, Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute; associate child supervising analyst, New Orleans Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center; graduate of The New York Psychoanalytic Institute.


Beverly J. Stoute

“Conversations on Psychoanalysis and Race,” a three-part special section of The American Psychoanalyst (TAP), lives in the interaction between the intrapsychic and the social—as does, we believe, psychoanalysis. The American Psychoanalytic Association is evolving in such a way as to engage, from the solid base of our psychoanalytic expertise, more fully with social issues. But as a theory, as a clinical practice and as an institution, psychoanalysis has failed to meet the challenges of race and racism. There are too few black analysts, too few black patients, too little psychoanalytic understanding of black communities and black patients. Little attention has been paid to issues of race in the analyses of white patients. The co-editors share a conviction that a psychoanalytic understanding of and engagement with racism can help our patients, can help our professional organization, and can help our society. As editors, we have been driven by that conviction as, over the course of a year, we developed this special section. We have felt compelled to understand, individually and through our organization, the complex reality of race in America. In this journey, we have been helped and guided by colleagues—our authors—offering us the inestimable gift of their years-long efforts to understand race, psychoanalysis and America. We hope this section will, in a small way, help bend the arc of history toward justice as part of a long-overdue discussion.

Michael Slevin

As a child, the black-white Michael Slevin Beverly J. Stoute divide was pervasive in my native city of Washington, D.C. I lived in all-white suburbs. The Negro maids, in the language of the times, my mother employed came by bus from the city. The city, though it had black and white residents, was profoundly segregated. Yet, in this post-World War II Southern town, it was also a time of forward-driven, progressive optimism. There was the Warren Court. It ruled to end public school, separate-but-equal education in 1954. My local private swimming pool had a heated debate, but voted to desegregate. Glen Echo Amusement Park, at the end of the then trolley line, was closed to Negroes. But there were demonstrations and it opened its gates. John Henry Hiser’s movie theater in downtown Bethesda was segregated; but he was forced to either desegregate or sell: He sold. Those were days of conviction and certainty and clarity.

Washington was also the seat of the Federal Government. President Truman by executive order in 1948 had barred racial discrimination in the Armed Forces. A fierce battle was fought in the United States Senate in 1957 as the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction to pass and become law was debated. Our local newspapers kept us informed of the march forward: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, 1955; college student lunch counter sit-ins, Greensboro, North Carolina, 1960; Martin Luther King, Jr., was in the news. And my father was a newspaper reporter. In my mind’s eye I see a black and white photograph of the New York Herald Tribune office in the National Press Building where all the reporters but Maggie Higgins were male, all were white, sitting in the sweltering Washington heat, before air conditioning, in white shirts with rolled-up sleeves, covering the story. From the open window in that office he caught sight of me walking from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, August 1963, participating in the March on Washington—then, not listening to the speeches, but working, stapling releases in the press tent. All that, too, was part of my city. As was the Floor of the Senate, where I masqueraded as a page and sat on the edge of the Well, part of the vote for final passage of the Landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Those were heady days. Within the civil rights movement there were sharp divisions. A. Philip Randolph, legendary organizer and head of the first African American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, clashed with Young Turks John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, and SNCC. Yet it was possible to attend a congressional hearing on civil rights and be seated, as I was, next to Stokely, a man who claimed to have coined the term “Black Power” and later became honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party.

I moved downtown, to a neighborhood integrated by race and class, though largely so because it was on the border between black and white communities. Then Martin Luther King was assassinated. I sat on the townhouse steps of a classroom building of the old George Washington University, in the dusk, devastated. The black community in Washington, D.C. erupted; there were fires, a curfew, a National Guardsman sitting behind his machine gun, the tripod in a bed of jonquils outside the old downtown Central Branch of the D.C. Public Library. In Gary, Indiana, Bobby Kennedy stood on a car trunk, campaigning hard for president, surrounded by a crush of enthusiastic working class whites not many years after he had sent John Doar to Jackson, Mississippi, to confront Governor Ross Barnett as he stood in the door, barring James Meredith admission to the all-white state university, Then Bobby, too, was murdered.

Despite the heady times, the march forward had been met from the beginning by fierce resistance and violence. Nine proud, courageous Negro boys and girls in Little Rock were taunted, jeered, threatened, and spat upon by a crowd of whites that day the students marched into their previously all-white Central High School. I remember grappling with the sacrifice Viola Liuzzo made, a white woman from Detroit shot to death transporting Negroes in her car during the Selma to Montgomery march; Bull Connor; John Lewis; Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney. The ethereal soprano of Joan Baez, floating, “and the choir kept singing of freedom,” after four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, were blown apart at Sunday school. Non-violence was a courageous stand against a brutal reality. But by 1968, the heady days of white liberalism, too, had been blown apart.

Today we are in a different place, racially, generationally. While great progress has been made, many still try to turn back the clock. A dangerous slip backward has occurred; or our forward progress was never as solid as once thought. Decency and tolerance, respect, justice and safety have been undermined by a politician orchestrating bigotry from those he leads, even while the winning candidate of the other major party builds her victory on the foundation of black and Latino voters. The highest court has gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Busing is long gone. Those universities trying to become and remain diverse twist themselves into pretzels to find ways to make it happen. Black communities are devastated by a criminal justice system that jails their young men for minor, nonviolent crimes. Though not by law, housing is segregated. Education is unequal. And Washington, D.C., de facto, is still, to a significant degree, segregated.

The debate, too, has changed: We speak of microaggressions, institutional racism, white privilege, reparations, environmental justice, intersectionality, policing, criminal justice reform: Issues long acknowledged, perhaps, but on the margins. Increasingly, they are front and center. The era in which I grew up, exists, but with a different presence, not in brick and mortar, but embedded in our psychologically and culturally acquired and transmitted history

Beverly J. Stoute

What we do as analysts cannot be completely separated from who we are as analysts. Even psychoanalysts come to their theoretical positions informed by their life experiences and the people who influenced them. Whom we consider to be like us and different from us, and how we relate to others, on an individual human level, and to others on the group level begins in our earliest years. Part of who we become, then, is carved out early experientially before we have the capacity to think or formulate it. As a child analyst, this is reaffirmed for me every day. And so, coming to learn about and work with race and racism for me was more destiny than choice. When you are a black psychoanalyst, race is always in the psychoanalytic space.

Having been raised by an African-American analyst who was also a civil rights activist, I grew up with the expectation that I would fight racism and never back down. But at the same time, my curiosity was piqued to understand this complex, multidimensional phenomenon that influences American society and assaulted my consciousness as a child. Having a father committed to social change and psychoanalysis also exposed me to this amazing field at an early age and led to an idealization and identification. I believed that psychoanalysis could change people for the better even in a society infected with racism. Sad that a child should have to learn to fight racism so early, but many of us did; there was no choice. My struggle was easier than many. In my home, psychoanalysis was touted as a way to understand that hate. Psychoanalysis, however, was not a field that felt friendly to black psychiatrists; yet in my mind it seemed like a natural tool of revolution: a tool to understand the projected distortions of racism, and an even more radical tool for metabolizing and purging hate.

Last year, my email response in the discussion on the APsaA listserv about the South Carolina church bombing immediately connected me in solidarity with many analysts across the nation who responded to share their pain and their hope of fighting racism. Among these colleagues was Michael Slevin who approached me to develop and co-edit this series on psychoanalysis and race.

Upon reflection over the months, I realized that this series, allowed me to relive my happiest childhood memories of my parents’ dinner parties where everyone who sat around the table was successful, brilliant and a civil rights activist, regardless of his/her chosen field. You came to the table with your mind and your knowledge and over amazing food and wine everyone talked, debated and left feeling renewed, connected and enriched by each other to continue the “fight in the Movement.” This was the era of Civil Rights and Black Power. Success was measured in what you were doing to change the world, not in terms of technological toys or monetary status. It made me feel that racism was surmountable, and that we must help each other not let it rob us of our joy, our capacity for human compassion and our human connection. These gatherings were organizing experiences that helped me digest, endure and minimize the traumatic effects of racism. Years later, as an adult, I realized how privileged I was to have this in my armor in the day to day struggle with racism. The analysts in this series help me recreate the childhood experience of having amazing people to learn from, be enriched by and find inspiration in.

The prior connection through Black Psychoanalysts Speak encouraged a comfort level among our authors in talking about race issues—talk forged by common struggle. That connection gives this first experiential series of essays a power and intimacy that is moving and profound. The second series, in December, will take this groundwork to a conceptual level to review the history in the field of thinking on these issues, and then suggest a progressive challenge to how we now conceptualize issues of race and racism in dyadic work. We hope to challenge everyone individually in clinical work to grow personally as analysts, and collectively as a field, to become more diverse and extend our reach. This work has given me hope that we will develop a wider-angle lens in the field of psychoanalysis.

As I noted in my South Carolina response last year, it was James Baldwin who said, “I do believe that we can become better than we are.” He cautioned also that, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing is changed until it is faced.” My father, an African-American analyst who trained when there were no role models before him, told me that the fight with racism is never ending and can be done in the courts, in the streets and with your mind, but never let it strip you of your human dignity or human compassion. Whether this was an intergenerational transmission of trauma or of defense or both, this philosophical foundation catalyzed me to become and to be an analyst. And so participating in this series for me is, again, more destiny than choice.

May I say thank you to Michael Slevin for his forward looking view in asking TAP to devote so much space to our conversations about race, and for affording me the opportunity to be part of this endeavor. It is a privilege to be part of this amazing line up of analysts who I thank for enriching me with their writing and their work.

And, I, Michael Slevin, thank Beverly J. Stoute, who has such a rich and extensive knowledge of the literature on race and psychoanalysis, who has absorbed it, combined it with a profound heart and committed herself to using it clinically, socially, and as my co-editor. Without her, “Conversations on Psychoanalysis and Race” would never have come to, what I hope you will agree is, such a successful fruition.

The two essays in this issue are:

“African-American Boys and Adolescents under the Shadow of Slavery’s Legacy,” by Kirkland Vaughans.

“Relational Dynamics of Fear, Grief and Loss in Everyday Lives of Black Women in America,” by Annie Lee Jones.

In December, we continue with two essays on white privilege and one on being a white analyst working with African American patients:

“How I Came to Understand White Privilege,” by Michael Moskowitz.

“On Racism and Being White: The Journey to Henry’s Restaurant,” by Richard Reichbart.

“On Being a White Psychoanalyst Treating Black Patients,” by Warren Spielbew.

In the March 2017, issue of TAP, we conclude with a review and a discussion of where we have been and a challenge called “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” looking to the future:

“Race and Racism in Psychoanalysis: Are There Ghosts in Our Nursery?” by Beverly J. Stoute (a review essay).

“From Multicultural Competence to Radical Openness: A Psychoanalytic Engagement of Otherness,” by Anton Hart.

“The Fierce Urgency of Now: Will Institutional Psychoanalysis Answer the Call to Promote Psychoanalytic Understanding and Treatment of Racial Disturbances Among Us?” by Dorothy Holmes.