Alvin F. Poussaint : Psychiatry Goes Prime Time to Shape Persona of Blacks

<i> David Dante Troutt, a writer who grew up in Harlem, is a student at Harvard Law School. He interviewed Poussaint at his office in the Judge Baker Children's Center</i>

For more than 10 years, Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint has been the Huxtables’ psychiatrist, although the consultant to “The Cosby Show” would deny that projecting the model family to millions of weekly viewers is a therapeutic role. Instead, Poussaint might say that his journey from Harlem to the Harvard Medical School deanship has never veered from his goal of expanding the types of positive black images in American culture. If change must come by any means necessary, Hollywood is one obvious avenue.

Poussaint has been applauded and criticized as a rare, modern-day generalist, a man who has spent more than two decades commenting on everything from interracial relationships to homicide to self-esteem. But few deny that, in a time when some of the nation’s most influential black image-makers are no older than Spike Lee and Arsenio Hall, the 56-year-old Poussaint has become a potent, reflective force off-camera. If the success of “Cosby,” its spin-off show, “A Different World,” and two PBS series that Poussaint also consults on is any measure, his advice has lasting effect.

But Poussaint is more Harvard than Hollywood. His office is packed with books and journals, his calendar filled with student conferences and faculty meetings. Like many academics, he is drawn to the sinews of social issues--and as a black academic, he has volunteered to fill a void as clinical spokesman. His lay articles exalting the traditional role of African-American fathers or heralding the emergence of upper-middle-class black families have provided black readers with palliatives for hard times. Yet Poussaint’s credits include an equal number of studies on black suicide rates, reports of deteriorating mental health and monographs on bed-wetting.

As a scholar constantly checking the black community’s pulse, Poussaint has worked in civil rights and advised the State Department, the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare and even the FBI long before his work with Bill Cosby. He is a founding member of Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH and co-directed Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign in Massachusetts. Few psychiatrists have tread so near the national stage. While the divorced father of an 11-year-old boy has lived in the Boston area for more than 25 years, Poussaint’s generalist nature roams free.


Question: Do notions of “us” and “them,” black and white, influence the way communities view events? For instance, if you take press accounts of Marion Barry’s arrest and trial, do you think African-Americans as a group perceive events in a way that’s distinct from the majority?

Answer: I think, yes, there’s a difference in perception about a lot of events because of our situation as black people in America--and also based on what many of our personal experiences have been. In other words, we have the third eye when we look at some of these events. We know that many whites are capable of acting with racism even when they’re denying it, and that this frequently colors their analysis and their judgment when they act in other areas of life.

So the reaction, say to Marion Barry--which again is no means universal but enough split that you can say there’s a difference--is . . . there’s at least some level of suspicion that this is set up and has some racial undertones to it. It’s not just pure dealing with a mayor, with crime. There’s an extra dimension that they feel even coming from the media--maybe in the way they talk about Marion Barry, the way they say kind of this is another black criminal.

Now you certainly can find many black people who feel very negatively about Marion Barry and feel he should get his comeuppance in terms of his behavior. But another thing is going on beyond that.


Marion Barry represents defiance against the system to a lot of his black constituency. That has always been a phenomenon in the black community . . . . I think Marion Barry has some of that carrying him now with his constituency, who feel that he’s there and he’s sticking it to them and they deserve it. In a sense, it’s getting back . . . .

Also I think you have identification issues. People can see Marion Barry as their son, as their brother. You see a lot of lives ruined in the black community over what seem like relatively small things.

Q: Rap music is a powerful phenomenon of self-imagery, and it’s now an industry. What are its psychological effects on black youth?

A: I think it gives them a sense of seeing their own emerge into the big time. Even people like Ice-T and Schoolly D and N.W.A. and these other folks, it’s like they can see themselves more readily in these people who are making it. That’s why they do sell very well in the black community. They give these black youth a feeling--and not just the youth but the adults, too--a feeling that they’re being heard, that their message is getting out there and this is their thing. And the fact that some of them are successful probably does buttress the feeling that they can break out at some point by doing their own thing. They can be successful. And a lot of them are very young, too.


Then in school, you have all these examples of kids trying to use rap to teach. They even had a Cosby show that played off that a little bit. It has its strong positive effects.

Q: Let me ask about families in the context of “The Cosby Show,” because the Huxtables are often referred to as a role-model family. As a model, haven’t they become tragic? The eldest child proved a huge disappointment; Theo is still preoccupied with girls rather than academics, even in college; Lisa Bonet’s character is treated with palpable contempt by her parents. Is a family crisis brewing?

A: No. In fact, what Cosby, I think, tries to show is that in any family, there are ups and downs--where people are having trouble, where they don’t make it, where they don’t live up to parental expectations. They’re trying to send a message that there’s always a way to come back--not just to the family, but also back to yourself and back to your success or your achievement or your goals.

So, the eldest daughter, she’s already, in terms of society, a great success. She graduated from Princeton, a psychology major. It was always implied that she was very bright, got high grades. Then she gets out of college and instead of things going smoothly, you try to present what a lot of young people do, right? So, she wants to open a wilderness store with her new-found husband . . . . It would be perfectly fine if they wanted to do that for the rest of their lives, but he’s returned to medical school and she’s become a mother and stays at home and takes very good care of the kids.


Now with Theo, they don’t want to make him brilliant . . . . In fact, one of the messages of Theo is that if you do your work, even though you have trouble sometimes, you can make it. So even this year we introduced another more complex level to his problems--he finds out he has dyslexia . . . Even if he dropped out of college, it’s already a success story.

With Lisa--Denise in the show--we wanted it more complex. These are real types of people--they’re not make-believe--who want everything to come too easily without hard work. She can’t take her schoolwork seriously, she wants to be able to get an A without studying. That’s been a theme around her, and it doesn’t work. So you keep saying it doesn’t work.

So then she goes away to Africa, and she comes back, and in a way we could say she’s a success story. She comes back, she has a stepchild, she’s more settled, she’s married to an ensign in the Navy. She comes back to be a mother, she’s more stable. But she still hasn’t kind of figured out her own life in terms of what you have to do to make it . . . .

So there’s a message throughout the show for young people to feel that even with failure, even with messing up, they can come back and still achieve . . . .


Q: You’ve written at length about strengthening the traditional role of the African-American father. At the same time, however, at least half of black families are female-headed. In our quest for positive black male role models, do we do a disservice to black motherhood?

A: I think a lot concerns the poverty level and the issue becomes what are the mix of ingredients you need overall to have children who are balanced and have the right kind of images. I think males need to be around.

If I had to respond to that question myself and someone gave me choices and suggested that the main problem is we don’t have enough black males around and we should put all black males into the homes and let them remain poverty homes, I wouldn’t go for that. I’d rather go for single-parent homes that I could make middle class. In other words, if I could take single-parent black mothers, give them enough money not just to survive but so they could live decently and buffer themselves with child care and the other kinds of things that middle-class women do, I would go that way.

Q: You’ve studied black-on-black homicide. How do you square the fact that murders of blacks by whites, say in Howard Beach or Bensonhurst, evoke a great unity of rage among blacks--yet black-on-black rage is the leading cause of death among young black men?


A: I think when whites do it, particularly in a racist context, it’s a reminder of our situation and oppression and we get angry at the white world and feel abused by it. When we do it to each other, we don’t see the racist factor, although a racist factor may be there in terms of how we have been indoctrinated to see each other.

Frankly, I think a lot of it is racism. That is because it is a lack of value for black life. It’s sometimes a projected self-hatred going on all over the place. It’s a lack of respect for the black community--caring and so on--which to me is internalized racism. We’re not pulled together when we kill each other against the outside enemy. So, we don’t know how to respond to the inside enemy, what to do about that or even how to control it.

It’s so complicated now by the issues surrounding being poor, being segregated still, not by choice segregation, living in the worst parts of the country, still being shut out in many ways, and still having reminders of the racism in the society from the Bensonhursts . . . and other incidents that continue to fuel a lot of the sale-image problems, the pride problems. If you say black is beautiful and they look around and all they see is ugliness, what does that mean?

The other thing is . . . self-esteem in a child comes from the way they’re treated by their family, before they even know anything about race . . . . There’s a whole serious child-rearing issue in the black community that if you get parents and others to give the children what they need in love and caring and so on from birth to four or five years, before they talk about race, they will have self-esteem. But that’s very hard to do . . . The more children are abused with violence, the more they’re going to be likely to kill. The more they witness violence, spouse batterings or whatever, the more likely they are to commit violence.


Q: When confronting the problems of the black community, how important is the participation of “buppies"--middle-class blacks who have moved out of poor areas?

A: The more you can get people, the black community, concerned with helping itself and caring about itself, the better. So everybody who flees and says “I’m out of here” and “I’m not going to do anything to help my brother or sister,” or “I made it on my own,” is a loss to the potential well-being, productivity, success and survival of the black community.

Now, we’re up against other values in society that we’re not always promoting. Americans generally are kind of an individualistic society, a society of individuals, so you’re always fighting against that in trying to create more of a feeling of community and responsibility to each other as citizens. That’s a problem for American society in general.

Q: And the involvement of buppies?


A: I think buppies, many of them, have a lot of race consciousness. I would say most of them do. I would think a minority of them don’t . . . . (Buppies) could contribute more and have much more of a major impact than they have if they got not just a consciousness--I don’t mean the stuff at cocktail parties--but if they actually contribute. I’m talking about simple things like money--to political candidates, to civil-rights organizations.

They’ve never been big givers. I don’t mean big givers. I mean small givers, $5 or $10, which sometimes gets translated again into lack of respect for their own institutions and so on. If you consider the relatively meager support that the NAACP gets, very little support the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) gets--and that was Martin Luther King’s organization--it’s a disgrace. The organizations that helped to liberate us, we don’t give money to.

Q: How is that behavior, that withholding from those who helped to create your passage, how is that different from the projected self-hatred you described in the low-income context of murder?

A: There are some similarities and differences. These folks may feel successful, and even feel a sense of personal pride, but may not feel a lot of racial group pride. So that they may not have a lot of personal self-hatred. They would have some insofar as they relate to their group. But they may not have enough group self-esteem, even in their success, to support or give to things that are black. Particularly if it means that they’re taking something away from themselves.


Now this again may not be all a black phenomenon, it may be a cultural phenomenon of the society and its values about what you do with your money.

Q: What secrets about family health could the Afro-American culture teach mainstream society?

A: I think the black family has been a mixed situation . . . . Probably the strongest strength we have is adaptability, that is making do with the situation that is foisted on us.

I think still, to some extent, the extended family of people calling on each other. I mean the extended family beyond the extended family. Black friends still help each other out a lot with child rearing, that type of thing. Expectations to participate, I think that’s a strong positive. It would work much better if we had more economic strengths.


Also there’s still a certain, just as we hear in rap musicians, a certain positive sense of struggle going on. It’s not like we’re passive and asleep. It’s like we’re struggling. There’s noise, there’s movement. Not always coming out in the constructive ways that it should. But it’s not quiet. That’s an important ingredient to have. What we have to do is harness it and steer us in the right direction.