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Other titles in the No series:
Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteemby bell hooks
Healing Wounded Hearts
Self-esteem is not a sexy term. For many folks it conjures up images of self-help issues that were popular "back in the day." Indeed, in our nation public talk about self-esteem was at its highest in the sixties. Then the United States, one of the most powerful and wealthy nations in the world, was producing citizens who were simply discontent with their lot in life, who saw themselves as failures. Many of these individuals had come from upper-class backgrounds, were educated at the best schools, prospered in jobs and careers, moved in elite social circles, and yet found themselves unable to feel truly successful or enjoy life. They went to psychologists seeking a way to gain health for the mind. These individuals were white Americans. Psychology of the fifties had little to say about the psyches and souls of black folks.
In 1954 Nathaniel Branden had a small psychotherapy practice. His clients were all white but from diverse class backgrounds. Working with their issues, he began to focus on the issue of self-esteem. Branden recalls: "Reflecting on the stories I heard from clients, I looked for a common denominator, and I was struck by the fact that whatever the person's particular complaint, there was always a deeper issue: a sense of inadequacy, of not being 'enough,' a feeling of guilt or shame or inferiority, a clear lack of self-acceptance, self-trust, and self-love. In other words, a problem of self-esteem." He published his first articles on the psychology of self-esteem in the sixties.
Racial integration was hotly debated in the early sixties. The issue of whether black people were inferior to whites and therefore would be unable to do well in an integrated work or school context was commonly discussed. Racist white folks insisted everyone did better when they stayed with their own kind. And there were black folks who agreed with them. When the issue of self-esteem was raised in relation to black people, it was just assumed that racism was the primary factor creating low self-esteem. Consequently, when black public figures, most of whom were male at the time, began to address the issue of self-esteem, they focused solely on the impact of racism as a force that crippled our self-esteem.
Militant antiracist political struggles placed the issue of self-esteem for black folks on the agenda. And it took the form of primarily discussing the need for positive images. The slogan "black is beautiful" was popularized in an effort to undo the negative racist iconography and representations of blackness that had been an accepted norm in visual culture. Natural hairstyles were offered to counter the negative stereotype that one could be beautiful only if one's hair was straight and not kinky. "Happy to be nappy" was also a popular slogan among militant black liberation groups. Even black folks whose hair was not naturally kinky found ways to make their hair look nappy to be part of the black-is-beautiful movement. Capitalist entrepeneurs, white and black, welcomed the creation of a new market — that is, material goods related to black pride (African clothing, picks for hair, black dolls). Market forces were pleased to support the aspect of black pride that was all about new commodities.
Now pride in blackness already existed in every black community in the United States. While its cultural power may never have eliminated internalized racial self-hatred, the movement for racial uplift that began the moment individual free black folks came to the "New World," combined with the force of slave resistance, had already established the cultural foundations for black pride way before the fifties, even though the term self-esteem was not a part of the popular discourse of racial uplift. Writing on the subject of black pride in "Credo" in 1904, W. E. B. Du Bois declared,
Du Bois advocated working for racial uplift because he was not afraid to examine the ways racism had kept black folks from fully realizing their potential for human development.
This same demand for holistic self-development rooted in black pride was the foundation of the black women's club movement. Speaking in 1916 on the subject of "The Modern Woman," black woman leader Mary Church Terrell shared her vision of the special mission of educated black women: "We have to do more than other women. Those of us fortunate enough to have education must share it with the less fortunate of our race. We must go into our communities and improve them; we must go out into the nation and change it. Above all, we must organize ourselves as Negro women and work together." A militant spirit of racial uplift was the unifying principle of the black women's club movement throughout the nation. The issue was not just to confront and resist racism but to create a culture of freedom and possiblity that would enable all black folks irrespective of class to engage in constructive self-help.
The call for racial uplift in the early twentieth century was not a superficial evocation of black pride; instead it was truly a call for this newly freed mass population of Americans, African and those of African descent, to strive to be fully self-actualized. To some extent the black pride movement of the sixties, with its intense focus on representation, shifted attention away from the moral and ethical demands of racial uplift, its spiritual dimension, and focused solely on the issue of gaining equality with whites. The psyches and souls of black folks needed to be nourished as much as did the individual's need for material goods and basic civil rights in the public sphere. Yet more often than not the inner psychological development of black folks was ignored by those black public figures who were most concerned with gaining equal access within the existing social system.
No wonder then that after major civil rights were gained and militant black power movement had increased social and economic opportunities, the focus on black pride diminished. The need for an organized ongoing program of racial uplift, though acknowledged, never gained meaningful momentum. This may have been a direct consequence of the waning power of black female leadership, especially the political leadership fostered by the black women's club movement. Though often guilty of class elitism, black women in the club movement held values focused on holistic self-development for black people of all classes. Black folks were encouraged to have proper etiquette and manners, to be people of integrity, to educate themselves, to work hard, to be religious, and to value service to others. Indeed, the phrase "racial uplift through self-help" was a common slogan used in black women's organizations.
In the early twentieth century prominent black male leaders began to demand of black women that they cease working in an egalitarian manner alongside black men for racial uplift. This demand changed the tenor and tone of black civil rights struggle. In the twenties patriarchal black male leaders pointedly told black women to step back from the social and political realms. Black nationalism became the vehicle to push black patriarchal values. As a new leader Marcus Garvey used his newspaper, The Negro World, to advocate sexist thinking about the nature of women's role. Articles ran in the paper urging black folks to "go back to the days of true manhood when women truly reverenced us." This resistance to partnership in struggle reached a peak in the early sixties.
When Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his role as assistant secretary of labor, wrote the report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," his intent, as explained in Too Heavy a Load by historian Deborah Gray White, was "to alert government policy makers to the problems in black America that went beyond desegreation and voting." She contends: "He aimed to demonstrate that neither the Civil Rights movement nor Civil Rights legislation had made an impact on black everyday life. Indeed, the report's survey of unemployment, housing, school dropout rates, crime and delinquency, and intelligence tests revealed that over ten years of Civil Rights protests and national upheaval had not changed the fundamental living conditions of most African-Americans."
Following in the wake of conservative black male patriarchs (in particular the sociologist John Hope Franklin), Moynihan felt the key to black underdevelopment was the lack of patriarchal gender arrangements in black homes. In his report he stated: "Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage." When black liberation struggle moved from a focus on mutual racial uplift of black males and females to an insistence that black men dominate and black women maintain a subordinate position, the focus on holistic development shifted to gaining equality with white men. Civil rights movement coupled with militant, patriarchal black liberation struggle successfully challenged the nation so that black people gained greater rights. Racial integration effectively created a cultural context where it was at least clearer to everyone that given equal opportunity, black citizens would excel or fail depending on circumstance just like white citizens.
Ulitmately, like their white counterparts, black folks in this nation gained greater economic privileges, civil rights, all manner of equality, and yet found that even with all these progressive changes all was not well with their souls, that many of them were lacking in self-esteem. In many cases black females subordinated themselves to black males, but black men were still discontent. Two-parent black families had many of the same woes as single-parent homes. Yet while white folks were looking to progressive psychology to soothe their psyches, their discontent, black leaders more than ever before in African-American history named racism as the central culprit disturbing the peace in our lives.
These same leaders responded to struggles for gender equality by acting as though greater freedom for black females was a covert attack on black males. Prior to such thinking it was merely assumed that any gains black females made were gains for the race as a whole. In all their activism black women in the early part of the twentieth century continually insisted that gender equality enhanced the struggle for black liberation. Such thinking lost momentum as patriarchal thinking became more an accepted norm for black males and females. Militant black power Panther spokesperson Eldridge Cleaver told the world in his 1968 international bestseller Soul on Ice that the black woman was the "silent ally...of the white man," who used her to destroy black manhood. Labeling black females "race traitors" should have galvanized masses of black females and males to protest. Instead, there was widespread agreement on the part of black males and females who were socialized to accept patriarchal thinking without question that black male development would be furthered by the subordination of black women.
Plenty of political black women responded to the black male insistence that patriarchal domination by black men was the only way to heal the wounds of racism by standing behind their men. Activist Margaret Wright clearly saw the contradictions: "Black men used to admire the black woman for all they'd endured to keep the race going. Now the black man is saying he wants a family structure like the white man's. He's got to be head of the family and women have to be submissive and all that nonsense...the white woman is already oppressed in that setup." The lone individuals, female and male, who had the foresight to see that gender warfare would undermine the historical solidarity in struggle between black women and men and lead to more havoc in black family life could not sway political opinion in a progressive direction.
Black women who joined feminist movement, whether in separatist or integrated contexts, risked being labeled race traitors, but that did not lead to silence. By the late seventies and early eighties individual black women active in feminist movement were making our voices heard loud and clear, but we were no longer recognized as leaders or would-be leaders in our diverse black communities. Just supporting feminism, and using the word, allowed many black folks to ignore the valid social and political critiques that we were making.
Being labeled a race traitor was devastating to the self-esteem of black women who had found in antiracist struggle a basis on which to build positive self-concepts. To be told that the black woman's efforts to end racism were detrimental to the race was incredibly confusing to many black females. Black nationalism alone did not give credence to patriarchal thinking. Fundamentalist Christian thinking about gender roles had been deeply embedded in the social thought of black folks from slavery on into freedom. That rhetoric joined with the patriarchal rhetoric of conservative black nationalism, reinforcing in the minds and hearts of black males and females alike that male domination of women should be the norm.
Ironically, the insistence that patriarchy would heal the wounds inflicted by white supremacy and racial terrorism gained momentum at precisely that historical moment when affluent white women were telling the world that all was not well in the homes of Dick and Jane. Domestic violence, incest, depression, and all manner of addiction and mental illness were identified as the plight white females suffered in affluent marriages. Concurrently, feminist movement made it possible for more men than ever before in our nation to protest the way patriarchal masculinity crippled the psyches and souls of men. Progressive white men questioning patriarchy were not listened to by black males who wanted patriarchal power. The equation of power with self-esteem was the faulty thinking that would ultimately trap black males.
Even though Martin Luther King, Jr., had warned black folks and all citizens of this nation in his collection of sermons Strength to Love, first published in 1963, that we would endanger our souls if we ignored the interrelatedness of all life, if we chose violence over peace, hatred over love, materialism over communalism, his words were not fully embraced. Yet his insights were clearly prophetic. Now, more than thirty years later, his declaration that "we have foolishly minimized the internal of our lives and maximized the external" accurately defines the collective condition of African-American life today. King admonished:
The brutal assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X silenced public political discourse about the souls of black folks. Psychologists wrote no books about the collective depression and despair generated by the hopelessness of these deaths or the collective grief earned by the loss of the belief that love would conquer hate, that democracy and freedom would rule the day. While the world witnessed the collective public grief of this nation when liberal and progressive leaders were slaughtered one after the other, no one attended to the private despair of African Americans who felt the dream of beloved community, of ending racism, was never to be realized.
Many young white people shared this grief, this sense of profound disillusionment with our nation. The war in Vietnam shattered the assumption that our government supported freedom. The tyranny of imperialist white supremacist patriarchal violence around the world and here at home crushed spirits. In the aftermath of this disillusionment black and white folk alike became obsessed with material security. When the seventies ended, it was popularly accepted that material goods and the acquisition of power within the existing structure of our society was more attainable than freedom. And if one could not attain power and privilege, one eased the pain with addictions: drugs, alcohol, food, sex, shopping.
Capitalism and market forces welcomed black folk into the world of hedonistic consumerism. Rather than worry our minds and hearts about social justice, antiracist struggle, women's liberation, the plight of the poor, or the failure of democratic principles, black people were urged to see consumption as the way to define success and well-being. The very "externals" King had warned about had come to be seen as the measure of the content of our character and the quality of our lives. Patriarchal black public figures, male and female, placed all their emphasis on material goals. In the contemporary black church folks bowed down to the god of prosperity and lost interest in the god of service. Black communities began to let go the distinct ethical, moral, and spiritual beliefs that for so long had formed the foundation of black life. Yet still our leaders talked mainly about the impact of racism. The patriarchal men and women who had not supported black liberation struggle rooted in feminist thinking rarely spoke about the reality that the emergence of patriarchal black families had not led to greater well-being in African-American life.
A child of the fifties in that part of the American south that was always seen as culturally backward, I was raised in a world where racial uplift was the norm. Like their nineteenth-century ancestors, our working-class parents believed that if we wanted freedom we had to be worthy of it, that we had to educate ourselves, work hard, be people of integrity. Racial uplift through self-help meant not just that we should confront racism, we should become fully cultured holistic individuals. Even though my family did not have much money, we were encouraged to work odd jobs so that we could pay for lessons and learn to play musical instruments. Reading was encouraged. Education was the way to freedom. Educated, we would not necessarily change how the white world saw us, but we would change how we saw ourselves. Even so, my parents and the other black folks in our community never behaved as though education alone was the key to a successful life. We had to nourish our souls through spiritual life, through service to others. We would create glory in our lives and let our light shine brightly for the world to see.
These were the values taught to me and my siblings by our parents and reinforced by the segregated schools and churches we attended. They were the values that had led to the creation, from slavery on, of a distinct African-American culture, a culture rooted in soulfulness, a culture of resistance where regardless of status, of whether one was bound or free, rich or poor, it was possible to triumph over dehumanization. This soulful black culture of resistance was rooted in hope. It had at its heart a love ethic. In this subculture of soul, individual black folks found ways to decolonize their minds and build healthy self-esteem. This showed us that we did not have to change externals to be self-loving. This soulful culture was most dynamically expressed during racial segregation because away from white supremacist control black folks could invent themselves.
Bringing an end to segregation had been a central part of civil rights struggle. And it was only when that struggle was won that our people began to collectively wonder if racial integration would really be the means to end racism, or would it be the beginning of a collective soul murder that would result in black people losing their hold on life. Our parents' debate over whether the closing of all-black schools would be progress or would give greater control of our lives over to white folks was one of the few intense political discussions I heard in my family. And it was from these discussions that Rosa Bell, our mama, would say, "You can want what white folk have to offer, but you don't have to love them." Having lived in the midst of white supremacy all her life, Mama recognized that it would be dangerous for us to live our lives trying to please racist white people, letting them set the standards for our identity and well-being.
Her words of caution proved to be necessary wisdom. While she wanted her children to have equal access to libraries and typewriters, small classrooms, and the newest textbooks, she did not want us to be taught by unenlightened white people to hate ourselves. She did not want her academically gifted children to let white people teach them they were the grand exceptions, better than other black folks, maybe even not really black. The self-esteem that had been fostered in a social and political atmosphere of racial uplift was assaulted in the world of racial integration. Black folks living in segregated worlds who had spent only a measure of their lives thinking about white folks were more and more becoming obssessed with race. Naturally, the more contact we had with white folks the more intensely we experienced racist assaults. Even the well-meaning and kind white teachers often believed racist stereotypes. We were never away from the surveillance of white supremacy in the world of racial integration. And it was this constant reality that began to undermine the foundation of self-esteem in the lives of black folks.
Throughout my undergraduate and graduate years, I spent my time in predominantly white colleges resisting racism in all its forms while carving subculture space for me to read my Emily Dickinson without some white person questioning my love of her work. In the all-black world of my growing up, I was never made to feel that my love of Shakespeare, of the Romantic poets, of Emily Dickinson, was weird. Learning was natural and loving great writing was natural. It was not a black or white thing to do, it was the thing to do because it was the way to improve one's lot in life economically and culturally.
It was in the context of whiteness that I was encouraged to see myself as separate from other black people, better somehow because I was intelligent. Now this thinking ran counter to everything my parents had taught me. And I resisted it, as did the few black peers I would have as classmates. We were always turning to our roots for affirmation and sustenance, to traditional black folks culture. That subculture was not powerful simply because our skin was dark; it was powerful because it was a culture of resistance, a world where our self-esteem and our soulfulness was nurtured.
The false, segregated culture created by contemporary black nationalism was rarely a culture of ongoing progressive resistance. Informed by the tenets of patriarchal violence, it was not a safe place for black females or homosexual black males. The segregated black culture of American apartheid was never chosen by black folks or held up as the best way to live. In his writings W. E. B. Du Bois urged black folks to see ourselves as citizens of the world, valuing our race but remaining open to a world beyond our race. Within traditional segregated southern black folk culture we found refuge from the intensity of white racism. Racial integration brought us face-to-face with the possibility of racist assault or an actual confrontation.
No psychologists rushed to study the impact on the black psyche of moving from racial segregation to an integrated world. Since the logic of white supremacist thinking had made it seem that black people were longing to be close to white folks, it was not possible for our fears to gain a hearing. In the most recent global history of race and racism, the end of racial apartheid in South Africa did generate discussion about the way black people experienced newfound freedoms. Yet there is no abundant testimony in American history that documents the way black people felt internally about suddenly being in close contact with white people on a basis other than domination. In my own work I have documented the fear of whiteness that was instilled in me as a child, a fear generated by the knowledge that white people could terrorize black folks with impunity. We did not just imagine that this could happen; this was black experience in the heart of southern racial apartheid. My sisters and brother and I were in our teens when schools were desegregated. We were afraid for our lives in ways that were no doubt exaggerated, but our fear was real. And it created stress. I felt that the major difference in attending a segregated school, rather than a predominantly white school where the administrative power was all white and male, was the level of stress I felt. The fear lurking in the corridors. The fear of racial unrest and upheaval. If black children could not see the predominantly white classroom as a safe place, then how we could relax enough to learn there — to excel?
I survived and did well in those classrooms not because racism was not present but because I knew that ultimately a bell would ring and I would be free to enter a world of warmth and care that was all black and welcoming. I could be reunited with my brother, whom I rarely saw in our white schools. Black males who had been gifted students in our black schools were usually not selected to be in the gifted classes in the white schools because their presence might be a threat to white womanhood. All the smart black boys that surrounded me in grade school and in junior high vanished with the integration of high schools. Their "disappearance" was political. And it generated fear in me. Often I would lay my head on the desk in history class and weep. I wept for the world that had been taken from us, schools where our teachers loved us, where we were together, where no one doubted our capacity to learn or called into question our interest in learning.
Too late we learned that while much might have been substandard in those segregated schools (that is, buildings, textbooks, equipment, etc.), what was first-rate was the expectation that we would all be learners, that there existed geniuses and slow learners among us, but no one thought that to educate oneself to the fullest would alienate you from blackness. In predominantly white schools, set apart from African-American peers but never accepted fully by white students, smart black kids often began a journey into the abyss of self-doubt. Now self-doubt has practically become the norm among black children of all classes. Segregation is clearly not the answer. Yet it is easier to segregate children than to make the fundamental changes in our educational system that would make it possible for everyone to have faith in their capacity to learn, to excel.
When I was a college student most of the black students I knew were striving hard to excel. At times crippling self-doubt, often engendered by the way we were treated by unenlightened professors, white and nonwhite, chipped away at self-esteem, and students who had once worked hard to overachieve began to falter and fail. More often than not failures were seen as solely a consequence of racism. It was easier to highlight racism than to examine holistically the construction of our self-concepts and self-esteem. It was not that racism was not an issue, it was the reality that it was not the only issue that was often obscured. Certainly, many of us had been given the skills in our all-black subcultures to stand strong in the midst of racial assault, but rarely did anyone speak to the issue of low self-esteem among the best and the brightest, of the psychological problems that beset us that had nothing directly to do with race or racism.
The assumption that African-American overachievers have positive self-esteem is so deeply implanted in the minds of most people that it is difficult for us to identify the problems successful folks may face with self-concept or self-regard. And of course when anyone looks at black folks who are not materially privileged it is just assumed that poverty leads to crippling self-esteem. While there have been a spate of books recently that seek to explain "self-sabotage in black America," insisting that the problem is not racism, there is still little discussion of the role self-esteem plays in self-development and overall well-being.
Teaching at Oberlin, Yale, and at public institutions like City College, I encountered a broad spectrum of brilliant young black students from varying class backgrounds and social circumstances. Yet they seemed to have in common low self-regard. Whether they came from materially privileged homes, where they had access to everything money could buy and seemingly doting parents, homes where Mom and Dad were both present, or from working-class and poor single-parent homes, they seemed to share a grave sense of self-doubt. Many of them saw the problem of crippling low self-esteem in their lives as stemming from the expectations that they should be high achievers, that they should excel always. It was easier for these students to call attention to the ways racism had been a factor in their self-doubt than it was for them to look at other issues in family life that might have affected their self-concept and self-esteem.
A few years ago I bgan to think about the place of love in African-American life, to look critically at the way success for black people has been increasingly measured by a limited yardstick, one that primarily looks at material wealth and acquisition as the sole sign of well-being. As King had prophesied, black folks of all classes seemed to be most concerned with money and the things that money could buy. Discussing racism was often deemed important only to the extent that racism was perceived as blocking access to material well-being. Care of the soul was simply not a priority on the agendas set by public figures and political leaders who claimed, and claim, to be concerned about saving the race.
The one place where individual black folk were raising questions about our being was in feminist-based black women's organizations and organizations that focused on issues of black women's health. As was the case in the early part of the twentieth century, individual black women more than black men were calling for a holistic evaluation of our self-concepts, one that would place psychological well-being above status and making money. In 1993 I published Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery, including in it a chapter called "Living to Love" wherein I attempted to link issues of self-esteem with progressive antiracist, anticlassist political resistance. I argued:
This work was the catalyst for me to begin a more intense exploration of lovelessness in American life, which culminated in the work All about Love: New Visions. In this work I talked about the growing cynicism in our nation about love and the way in which materialist greed and the yearning for wealth have become the order of that day. My next work, Salvation: Black People and Love, was a closer examination of the particular way in which the absence of a love ethic impacts on the social welfare and emotional well-being of African Americans. In the chapter "Moving Beyond Shame" I state: "The practice of self-love is difficult for everyone in a society that is more concerned with profit than well-being, but it is even more dificult for black folks, as we must constantly resist the negative perceptions of blackness we are encouraged to embrace by the dominant culture." Again and again when I spoke with individual black folks about why they were finding it difficult to practice self-love, we would find ourselves focusing on the issue of self-esteem.
Without a core foundation of healthy self-esteem we cannot practice self-love. In Salvation I did not emphasize enough the importance of creating healthy self-esteem. Folks with positive self-esteem know that there are a number of factors that shape and inform our emotional well-being. We know that while race and racism may overdetermine many aspects of our lives, we are still free to be self-determining. Many young black folks who are full of self-doubt and lacking in self-esteem fixate on race in a way that is demoralizing and dehumanizing. To a grave extent they project all their problems onto the landscape of racism because it is the easy target. Though race is a vital aspect of our identity as African Americans, we cannot know ourselves fully if we look only at race. Looking at ourselves holistically, seeing our emotional well-being as rooted both in the politics of race and racism as well as in our capacity to be self-defining, we can create the self-esteem that is needed for us to care for our souls. In the black church of my youth we would sing the lyrics "is it well with your soul, are you free and made whole." Our continued survival as African-American people, in solidarity with nonblack allies in struggle, demands that we care for our souls so that we can be whole and complete. If we begin with self-esteem our success is assured. Well-being will be our destiny.
Copyright © 2003 by Gloria Watkins
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