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Poussaint, Alvin F.

Alvin F. Poussaint

1934—

Psychiatrist, educator, writer

Alvin F. Poussaint is a psychiatrist and Harvard academic who is often consulted as an expert on a wide range of issues involving the black community. He has written extensively in books, academic journals, and popular magazines on childrearing, violence in schools, substance abuse, suicide, and aspects of racism. As a production consultant for the hit television program The Cosby Show, Poussaint oversaw the formation of one of the first images of an upper-middle-class black family as a role model in America.

A bright and studious child, Poussaint grew up in Harlem, where he excelled in school. After junior high he was able to enroll in the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, a school for gifted students in Manhattan. He was interested in many subjects, including math, science, language, and music. Poussaint remembered his insatiable desire for knowledge in George Metcalf's Up from Within: "I was very active in school, wanted to learn everything about everything. A lot of things I just took up on my own. I taught myself to play the clarinet, the saxophone, and flute. I started writing, too. I became associate editor of the literary magazine and received the creative writing award upon graduation."

After high school Poussaint was accepted at Yale University but acceded to his father's wish that he attend a local school. He enrolled at Columbia University, an institution he found academically challenging but socially disappointing: "Social situations were awkward, there being a prevalent feeling among whites that blacks shouldn't come to social events," he told Metcalf. "They didn't expect you to show up at the dance."

Studied Effects of Racism

After graduating from Columbia in 1956, Poussaint entered Cornell Medical College as the only African American among eighty-six students. The racism he encountered there—as well as his past experiences at Stuyvesant and Columbia—led him to study the psychological effects of racial bias. He chose to specialize in psychiatry, and from 1961 to 1964 he interned at the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center. He was named chief resident during his final year at the institute.

In 1965 Poussaint joined the civil rights struggles in the South, becoming the southern field director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a division of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). His experiences in the South taught him much about the dynamics of racism. The Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote in his introduction to Poussaint's book Why Blacks Kill Blacks: "Dr. Poussaint is no ivory-tower psychiatrist…. He is no armchair academician espousing theories and reaching conclusions from afar."

Poussaint developed some of his most influential theories during his time in the South, but, disillusioned by problems within SNCC, he resigned from his post with the committee in 1966 and accepted a position as assistant professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. In 1969 he moved to Harvard Medical School, where he continues to work as a professor of psychiatry and faculty associate dean for student affairs.

Dr. Poussaint has investigated the complexities of racism and has written extensively on the psychological effects of discrimination. In articles such as "Why Blacks Kill Blacks," published in his 1972 collection of the same name, and Black Children: Coping in a Racist Society, published by the University of Michigan in 1987, he addresses not only the blatant forms of racism but the more subtle and insidious forms as well. In essays like "Black Parents: What Shall I Tell My Child" and "White Parents: How to Raise your Child Free of Prejudice," both included in Why Blacks Kill Blacks, he discusses fighting racism through early education. His 1993 publication Raising Black Children—an update of 1975's Black Child Care, written with noted child psychiatrist James P. Comer—stresses the importance of instilling black pride and self-esteem in children of color.

Revolutionized Existing Theories

Through his writings Poussaint has prompted experts in psychiatry to rethink existing theories of racism. In articles such as "A Rap on Self-Hatred with Jesse Jackson," published in Why Blacks Kill Blacks, he debunks racist psychological theories made by whites in the field. Instead of subscribing to the theory of racial self-hatred, he developed the "aggression-rage" theory to explain the various psychological issues that challenge African Americans: "Much of black self-hatred is in reality repressed rage and a manifestation of being conditioned by fear to be docile and self-effacing," he wrote in the essay. "[The theory of racial self-hatred] allows whites to feel that [blacks] are psychologically deranged while [whites are] posing as models of mental health. In fact, it must be whites who are insecure and filled with self-hatred, since they are the ones who need to oppress blacks in order to cope with life."

At a Glance …

Born Alvin Francis Poussaint, May 15, 1934, in New York, NY; son of Christopher and Harriet Poussaint; married Ann Ashmore, 1973 (divorced 1988); married Tina Young, 1993; children: (with Ashmore) Alan; (with Young) Alison. Education: Columbia College, BA, 1956; Cornell University Medical College, MD, 1960; University of California, Los Angeles, MS, 1964.

Career: Medical Committee for Human Rights (a division of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), southern field director, 1964-65; Tufts University School of Medicine, senior clinical instructor, 1966, assistant professor, 1967-69; Harvard Medical School, associate dean for student affairs and professor of psychiatry, 1969—; health consultant to the Congressional Black Caucus; production consultant, The Cosby Show, 1984-92; chairman of Select Committee on the Education of Black Youth, beginning 1985; Judge Baker Children's Center, director of media center, 1994—; author.

Memberships: National Medical Association; American Association for the Advancement of Science, fellow; American Psychiatric Association, fellow; American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; American Orthopsychiatric Association, fellow; Operation PUSH, founding member and former chairman of the board of directors.

Awards: Honorary degree from Wilberforce University, 1972; American Black Achievement Award in Business and the Professions, 1986; John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement, 1987; Medgar Evers Medal of Honor, Johnson Publishing Company, 1988; New England Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Special, 1997, for serving as co-executive producer of Willoughby's Wonders.

Addresses: Office—Judge Baker Children's Center, Harvard Medical School, 53 Parker Hill Ave., Boston, MA 02120-3225.

Poussaint has also fought for professional equality within the field of psychiatry. In the late 1960s he was instrumental in forming the first Black Caucus of the American Psychiatric Association and electing the first black officer of the group in 1969. He has loudly attacked studies and treatments with racial biases, such as the outrageous suggestion in 1973 that psychosurgery be used to curb urban violence. He told Ebony magazine that this frightening idea "assumes … black people are genetically damaged—that they're so animal and so savage that whites have to carve on their brains to make them into human beings. The whole concept is vicious."

In addition to writing about issues specific to African Americans, Poussaint has explored national issues and their impact within the black community. For instance, in "An Honest Look at Black Gays and Lesbians," published in Ebony, he discusses the problems of homophobia and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and their impact within the black community in the United States.

As Poussaint's writings and lectures brought him national recognition, he became a prominent consultant for government agencies and private initiatives. In 1976 he became the health consultant for the Congressional Black Caucus. He has also advised the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Poussaint's political reach extended into the presidential arena in 1984, when he codirected Jesse Jackson's Massachusetts presidential campaign. That same year, he became a pivotal figure in the effort to dismantle racial stereotypes on television, becoming a production consultant for the long-running series The Cosby Show. As Poussaint explained in Ebony, The Cosby Show "dramatically altered the image of blacks as poor, downtrodden, yet happy-go-lucky clowns. The Huxtable family [the fictitious clan headed by Cosby] help[ed] to dispel old stereotypes and to move its audience toward more realistic perceptions. Like whites, blacks on television should be portrayed in a full spectrum of roles and cultural styles."

Dedicated to the Black Community

Poussaint's work in television did not interrupt his continued efforts to address the more difficult issues facing African Americans. In Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans, Poussaint and his coauthor, journalist Amy Alexander, discuss aspects of suicide particular to the African-American community. Further exploring mental health issues, Poussaint, in the 2002 article "Is Extreme Racism a Mental Illness?", published in the Western Journal of Medicine, argued for the inclusion of extreme racism on the American Psychological Association's official list of mental disorders. He maintained, "Clearly, anyone who scapegoats a whole group of people and seeks to eliminate them to resolve his or her internal conflicts meets criteria for a delusional disorder, a major psychiatric illness."

With Bill Cosby, Poussaint generated controversy with the 2007 publication of Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. While acknowledging the complex burdens bestowed upon black Americans by a history of racial discrimination, the authors called upon blacks to take personal responsibility for their lives. Come On, People quickly became a best seller and generated heated debate. In the magazine In These Times, supporter Laura S. Washington wrote: "Few can object to the book's core propositions: Cherish your children. Get an education. Speak standard English. Listen to the elders. Banish gun violence. No more excuses…. It's a no-brainer." Many, however, did object to the book, which they saw as blaming disadvantaged blacks for problems whose causes are institutional rather than personal. Critics included Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, who said in an interview on National Public Radio that was quoted by Amy Alexander in the Nation: "[Bill Cosby] puts his colossal foot on the vulnerable necks of poor people, and as a result of that we don't have a balanced conversation." Similarly, Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote in the Huffington Post: "Cosby says that he does not mean to slander all, or even most blacks, as derelict, laggards and slackers. Yet that's precisely the impression he gives and the criticism of him for it is more than justified. Even the book title, Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors (a hint they're all losers) conveys that smear."

Such criticism of Cosby and Poussaint's book has done nothing to diminish the latter's stature or cast doubt on his years of service to the black community. His coauthor Alexander spoke for many when she wrote in the Nation: "Among the ranks of big-ticket black intellectuals, those who hold jobs at prestigious universities or who command prime media real estate, Poussaint stands alone…. I can safely vouch for the intellectual brilliance and large, generous heart of the good doctor." In 2005 Poussaint was honored at Harvard University by hundreds of luminaries and students who gathered to celebrate his accomplishments and the establishment of an annual lecture fund named in his honor. Student Risha Irby noted that Poussaint was hired to head Harvard's Office of Recruitment and Multicultural Affairs after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As quoted by Rebecca Tinkelman in Focus, Irby stated, "The greatest feat is not only that a rainbow of colors now exists within Harvard Medical School, but that you have fostered a spirit of cultural respect and understanding that has made us all one step closer to Dr. Martin Luther King's dream."

Selected writings

Why Blacks Kill Blacks, Emerson Hall, 1972.

(With James P. Comer) Black Child Care: How to Bring Up a Healthy Black Child in America, Simon & Schuster, 1975, published as Raising Black Children, Plume, 1993.

(Author of introduction and afterword) Cosby, Bill, Fatherhood, Doubleday, 1986.

Black Children: Coping in a Racist Society, University of Michigan School of Social Work, 1987.

Single Parenthood: Implications for American Society, Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, 1997.

(With Amy Alexander) Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans, Beacon Press, 2000.

(With Bill Cosby) Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, Thomas Nelson, 2007.

Contributor to many additional books and periodicals, including the International Journal of Psychiatry, American Journal of Psychiatry, Essence, Ebony, New York Times, and Boston Globe.

Sources

Books

Metcalf, George R., Up from Within: Today's New Black Leaders. McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Thomas, Arthur E., Like It Is, edited by Emily Rovetch, Dutton, 1981.

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 27, 2000, p. E1.

Black Scholar, May-June 1987.

Boston Globe, January 13, 1989; July 30, 1989; November 23, 1989; January 31, 1990.

Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1991.

Detroit Free Press, February 16, 1993, pp. B1, B8.

Ebony, February 1973; November 1992, pp. 202-205; February 1993, pp. 86-89; January 2008, p. 32.

In These Times, November 15, 2007.

Jet, September 26, 1988.

Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1990.

Newsweek, January 25, 1993, p. 55.

New York Times, July 17, 1990.

Time, May 17, 1993, pp. 48-49.

Online

"Alvin F. Poussaint," National Visionary Leadership Project, http://www.visionaryproject.org/NVLPmemberTier/visionariesT1/VisionaryPages/poussaintalvin/index.asp (accessed February 22, 2008).

"Come On, People," Nation, November 14, 2007, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071126/alexander (accessed February 22, 2008).

"Come on People, No, Come on Cosby," Huffington Post, October 18, 2007, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/earl-ofari-hutchinson/come-on-people-no-come-_b_68990.html?load=1&page=4 (accessed February 22, 2008).

"Fund and Lectureship Honor Poussaint," Focus, February 25, 2005, http://focus.hms.harvard.edu/2005/Feb25_2005/honors.html (accessed February 22, 2008).

Other

"‘Come On, People’: Cosby's Plea to Black Communities," Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio, December 6, 2007.

—Robin Armstrong and Paula Kepos

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Poussaint, Alvin Francis

Alvin Francis Poussaint

Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint (born 1934) is so widely known in the United States for his psychiatric and child-rearing expertise and his groundbreaking consulting role on The Cosby Show that John Koch of the Boston Globe once told him, "Your name is like a sound bite." His advice is sought on a wide range of topics, including child rearing, the unique challenges faced by African American families, and the effects of racism on African Americans and African American males in particular. In addition to his work in television program production, he writes and speaks and participates often in radio and television talk shows.

Poussaint was born in East Harlem, New York, the next to last of eight children. His mother was Harriet Johnston Poussaint, a homemaker, and Christopher Poussaint, who worked as a printer and typographer, was his father. Alvin Poussaint graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York, finished Columbia College in 1956, earned an MD from Cornell University in 1960, and received an MS from UCLA in 1964. He interned in 1964 and 1965 at the University of California at Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Institute, was selected chief resident in 1965, and led the institute's intern training program. He worked in the Civil Rights Movement from 1965 to 1967, serving as Southern Field Director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Jackson, Mississippi. In this capacity, he advanced the desegregation of various Southern health facilities as well as serving the medical needs of civil rights workers. He also chaired the board of PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). In 1967 he left Mississippi for Massachusetts to become a member of the Tufts University School of Medicine faculty and director of a community mental health center at Columbia Point housing project. He married Ann Ashmore, and they had a son, Alan.

Poussaint joined Harvard in 1969 and was director of student affairs at Harvard Medical School between 1975 and 1978. In 1984 he became production consultant for The Cosby Show, a weekly television situation comedy. Divorced from his first wife, Poussaint married Dr. Tina Inez Young on December 5, 1992, and on November 16, 1999, Poussaint and his wife, an anesthesiologist and neuroradiologist, had a daughter, Alison. Poussaint is presently professor of psychiatry and faculty associate dean for student affairs at the Harvard Medical School and senior associate in psychiatry at Children's Hospital, Boston. He is also director of the media center at Boston's Judge Baker Children's Center, where he is involved in shaping for the better the powerful influence of media on children. He writes, appears on television and radio, and serves on numerous boards. He has received numerous awards and honorary degrees.

Nicknamed "The Brain"

A very early factor in Poussaint's successful life was his mother. "My mother told me I was intelligent," he told a Boston Globe reporter. "She nicknamed me 'The Brain.' She made me feel I had something special." When his friends started using the nickname too, "I felt that I had something to live up to."

Other significant threads in his life began when he was 9 and suffered a case of rheumatic fever so severe he was hospitalized and then placed in a convalescent home for several months. In the hospital, he read almost constantly, and, he told one reporter, "I became a study because my case was classic. When the doctors came in with residents and interns, I listened to what they said, the medical phrases they used." To another reporter he related that "when I came out …, I wanted to be a doctor, because of my association with the doctors and nurses in the hospital. I felt they had saved me from dying."

Encountered Racism at Age 9

Poussaint's experience in the convalescent home was also energizing, but in a very different way. "I was the only black kid there," he told a Boston Globe interviewer. "The white kids got together, pointed at me and sing-songed: 'Nig-ger! Nig-ger!' I was so upset I started to cry and went to the head nurse sobbing. I told her that I wanted to get out of there." But the 9-year-old Poussaint was in for an even more devastating jolt. When the nurse asked why he wanted to leave and he told her what the children had called him, "She said, 'Well, aren't you a nigger?' I was shocked to discover she felt the same way [that the children did]. I cried even more. I also felt trapped. I felt a terror. Up to that moment I thought the adults in charge of the place would protect me. At that moment, I lost my faith in adults."

The effects of the incident were far reaching. "That was a motivator. I decided to prove to everyone that I was an achiever. Maybe it was a streak of stubbornness. But I decided not to let anything defeat me."

Another significant event came while Poussaint was in junior high school, and he later recalled it with a Boston Globe journalist. "A teacher who knew I wanted to be a doctor put a hand on my shoulder and said: 'Have you ever thought of applying to a special science high school?' … This quick conversation in a school hallway propelled me to go right into the principal's office to ask for an application form."

Profoundly Influenced by Brother

A uniquely important influence in Poussaint's life was his brother Kenneth. "Athletic, witty, and gifted with an intuitive nature that made him a whiz at sports and card games … Kenny was also a leader among his peers," Poussaint writes in the prologue to his most recent book, Lay My Burden Down. Poussaint's brother became addicted to heroin at 15. He was eventually able to overcome his addiction, but he also suffered from mental illness, and "He went from being hospitalized to being in prison to being homeless," Poussaint told the Boston Globe. Kenneth Poussaint died of meningitis in 1975 at the age of 42. "My brother's situation definitely influenced me to go into psychiatry," Poussaint said in 1986.

Racism Influenced Career Direction

The devastating incident at the convalescent center was not Poussaint's only salient encounter with racism. In college and medical school, he was isolated in predominantly white classes. Later, in Mississippi, a policeman stopped him, addressed him as "boy," and refused to accept that his name was Dr. Poussaint. Pressed by an associate to let the officer call him by his first name, Poussaint felt "demeaned, demoralized, publicly humiliated and powerless." But with the humiliation came a flash of insight: "It was at this moment that I also understood the psychological depths of racism.… [and] resolved to fight harder to change the system," Poussaint recalled to an interviewer.

The one-on-one practice of psychiatry hasn't figured prominently in Poussaint's professional life. He once explained to newspaper reporters that "when I left psychiatric training, I realized that one of the most important ways I could help the mental health of black people was not oneon-one therapy. All the segregation and discrimination was damaging their mental health more than anything else, and it was important to fight that. I understood that I had to be political and try to influence the larger society." In his professional life, Poussaint has exerted that influence in several arenas.

Identified as "the preeminent expert on black child-rearing" by the Boston Globe, he has written many articles and coauthored Black Child Care with James P. Comer, MD, in 1975 (revised and republished in 1992 as Raising Black Children: Two Leading Psychiatrists Confront the Educational, Social, and Emotional Problems Facing Black Children). Recognizing that racism in America prevents African Americans from experiencing "a oneness with society and the security that comes from this feeling," the authors say, "Many black parents … have mixed feelings about passing on the values and ways of a society that says in so many ways, 'We do not value black men and women, boys and girls, as much as we do whites.'" In addition, Poussaint favors a nonviolent approach to parenting and promotes education in parenting.

Advised The Cosby Show

The Cosby Show, starring comedian Bill Cosby, was one effort to overcome negative images of African Americans on television and in American society with positive ones. The show revolved around a physician and a lawyer and their five attractive and talented children. According to Ebony magazine, Poussaint "helped make history by advising Bill Cosby on what a father should do and not do on his long-running television show." Poussaint told the Boston Globe he edited the scripts to ensure "reality grounding" and to remove "'subtle but demeaning' humor." He also consulted for A Different World, the spinoff of The Cosby Show, and has developed a children's program called Willoughby's Wonders, fostering teamwork and interaction with stories about an urban, multicultural, coed soccer team. More recently he was a script consultant for Cosby's Little Bill, designed for preschool children.

Declared Racism a Mental Disorder

Poussaint is also described on his Harvard Web page as "an expert on race relations in America, the dynamics of prejudice, and issues of diversity." In January 2002 he published an article in the Western Journal of Medicine making the case for including extreme racism in the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Poussaint says the association views racism as normative in the United States, in other words, as a cultural problem. "To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy," he argues. "Clearly, anyone who scapegoats a whole group of people and seeks to eliminate them to resolve his or her internal conflicts meets criteria for a delusional disorder, a major psychiatric illness."

He has written articles about dealing with the challenges facing black men and women; black suicide, especially among males; and violence among African Americans. For a 1981 collection of interviews with black leaders titled Like It Is: Arthur E. Thomas Interviews Leaders on Black America, he commented that "black men are in a lot of trouble," noting their rising suicide rate, unemployment rate, and disproportionate rate of drug addiction, alcoholism, and incarceration. He pointed out a connection between suicide and the hopelessness that follows from being arrested and jailed and said a similar connection exists between despair and homicide.

Redeems Brother's Suffering

That theme received fuller development in 2000, when Poussaint and journalist Amy Alexander, who lost a brother to suicide, published Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans. In it, Poussaint returns to the story of his brother Kenneth, detailing his decline and speculating that it might be viewed as a long, slow suicide (although Kenneth Poussaint died of meningitis, Poussaint writes that "his vital organs [were] defeated by years of drug abuse" as well as his disease). The authors note that "on several levels, [Alexander's brother] Carl Burton and Kenneth Poussaint fit the profile of what has become a growing phenomenon in the United States since the late 1970s: young blacks who self-destruct." They also note that the common lists of suicide warning signs don't always apply to African Americans and speculate that the "high rate of homicide among blacks might be viewed as evidence of a peculiar kind of communal self-hatred, an especially virulent form of anger, self-loathing, and lost hope that leads to a devaluation of the lives of fellow blacks." They also posit that "similar dynamics … may account, in part, for the high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction among black people in this society." It is American society's racism, with its message of African American worthlessness, that fosters this self-hatred, and the society's blindness to racism impedes remedies.

At the same time, Poussaint's trajectory reveals that the same society that overwhelmed his brother spurred his own resilience and success, and it is a similar determination and drive in others that Poussaint has sought to foster over the full arc of his career. With his son grown and a young daughter in his life, Poussaint told Ebony magazine that as he approaches 70, he is cutting back a bit on his professional activities and enjoying doing some child rearing, and no doubt plenty of esteem building, of his own.

Books

Comer, James P., and Alvin F. Poussaint, Raising Black Children: Two Leading Psychiatrists Confront the Educational, Social, and Emotional Problems Facing Black Children, Plume, 1992.

Poussaint, Alvin F., and Amy Alexander, Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans, Beacon Press, 2000.

Thomas, Arthur E., Like It Is: Arthur E. Thomas Interviews Leaders on Black America, Dutton, 1981.

Online

"Alvin F. Poussaint," Biography Resource Center,galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/VioRC?vrsn=2.0&OP=contains&locID-broward29&… (December 23, 2003).

"Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D.: Biography, Publications, and Titles," www.hms.harvard.edu/orma./poussaint (January 2, 2004).

Beggy, Carol, and Beth Carney, "A Good Start for Baby Girl; From Sam to Bill," Boston Globe,nl.newsbank.com/nlsearch/we/Archives?p_action=list&p_topdoc=31 (January 4, 2004).

"Biography, Alvin Poussaint, M.D., and Susan Linn, Ed.D.," familyeducation.com,familyeducation.com/bio/0,1379,0-22151,00.html (January 2, 2004).

Christy, Marian, "Bill Cosby's Unflappable Adviser," Boston Globe Archives,nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_action=print (January 6, 2004).

Koch, "Alvin Poussaint," Boston Globe Archives,nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_action=print (January 6, 2004).

McCabe, Bruce, "An Off-Camera Psychiatrist," Boston Globe Archives,nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_action=print (January 6, 2004).

"The Media Center," Judge Baker Children's Center,www.jbcc.harvard.edu/media.htm (January 6, 2004).

Norment, Lynn, "Fatherhood at 65," Ebony,web4.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/342/175/44980592w4/purl=rcl_ITOF_0… (December 23, 2003).

Poussaint, Alvin F., "Is Extreme Racism a Mental Illness? (Point-Counterpoint)," Western Journal of Medicine,web7.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/990/544/40860498w7/purl=rcl_ITOF_0… (December 23, 2003).

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Poussaint, Alvin F. 1934–

Alvin F. Poussaint 1934

Psychiatrist, educator, writer

At a Glance

A Psychological Approach to the Study of Racism

Gained Nationwide Recognition

Offered Solutions to Youth Crises

Selected writings

Sources

Alvin F. Poussaint is considered an expert on a wide range of issues involving the black community. As a young medical school student, he was captivated by the study of the psychological effects of racism. As a psychiatrist and academic, he has fought to have the unique social and emotional needs of African Americans recognized.

Poussaint is dedicated to the eradication of racist myths. His writings for both specialized audiences and the general publicincluding articles in Essence and Ebony magazines and the books Why Blacks Kill Blacks, Raising Black Children, and Black Children: Coping in a Racist Society effectively bash racial slurs and stereotypes. And during his years as production consultant for the hit television program The Cosby Show, Poussaint oversaw the formation of one of the first positive images of an upper-middle-class black family as a role model in America.

A bright and studious child, Poussaint grew up in Harlem, where he excelled in school. After junior high, he was able to enroll in the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, a predominantly white school for gifted students in Manhattan. He was interested in many subjects, including math, science, language, and music. Poussaint remembered his insatiable desire for knowledge in George Metcalfs Up from Within: I was very active in school, wanted to learn everything about everything. A lot of things I just took up on my own. I taught myself to play the clarinet, the saxophone, and flute. I started writing, too. I became associate editor of the literary magazine and received the creative writing award upon graduation.

After high school, Poussaint was accepted at Yale University but acceded to his fathers wish that he attend a local school. He enrolled at Columbia University, an institution he found academically challenging but socially disappointing: Social situations were awkward, there being a prevalent feeling among whites that blacks shouldnt come to social events, he told Metcalf. They didnt expect you to show up at the dance.

After graduating from Columbia in 1956, Poussaint entered the Cornell Medical School as the only African American among 86 students. The racism he encountered thereas well as his past experiences at Stuyvesant and Columbialed him to study the psychological effects of racial bias. He chose to specialize in psychiatry, and from 1961 to 1964 he interned at the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center. He was named

At a Glance

Born Alvin Francis Poussaint, May 15, 1934, in East Harlem, NY; son of Christopher and Harriet Poussaint; married Ann Ashmore, 1973 (divorced 1988); children: Alan. Education: Columbia College, B.A., 1956; Cornell University Medical College, M.D., 1960; University of California, Los Angeles, M.S., 1964.

Southern field director, Medical Committee for Human Rights (a division of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]), 1964-65; Tufts University School of Medicine, senior clinical instructor, 1966, assistant professor, 1967-69; associate dean of students and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, 1969health consultant to the Congressional Black Caucus; production consultant, The Cosby Show, 1984-1992; chairman of Select Committee on the Education of Black Youth, beginning 1985; author.

Member: National Medical Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science (fellow), American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Child Psychiatry.

Awards: Honorary degree from Wilberforce University, 1972; American Black Achievement Award in Business and the Professions, 1986; John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement, 1987; Medgar Evers Medal of Honor, Johnson Publishing Company, 1988.

Addresses: Office Judge Baker Guidance Center, Harvard Medical School, 295 Longwood Ave, Boston, MA 02115.

chief resident during his final year at the institute.

In 1965 Poussaint joined the civil rights struggles in the South, becoming the southern field director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a division of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). His experiences in the South taught him much about the dynamics of racism. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote in his introduction to Poussaints book Why Blacks Kill Blacks: Dr. Poussaint is no ivory-tower psychiatrist. ... He is no armchair academician espousing theories and reaching conclusions from afar.

Poussaint developed some of his most influential theories during his time in the South, but, disillusioned by problems within the SNCC, he resigned from his post with the committee in 1966 and accepted a position as assistant professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. In 1969, he moved to Harvard Medical School, where he continues to work as an associate professor of psychiatry.

A Psychological Approach to the Study of Racism

Dr. Poussaint has investigated the complex issues of racism from several different angles and has written much on the psychological effects of discrimination. In articles such as Why Black Kill Blacks, published in his 1972 collection of the same name, and Black Children: Coping in a Racist Society, published by the University of Michigan in 1987, he addresses not only the blatant forms of racism, but the more subtle and insidious forms as well. In essays like Black Parents: What Shall I Tell My Child and White Parents: How to Raise your Child Free of Prejudice, both included in Why Blacks Kill Blacks, he discusses ways of fighting racism through early education. And the 1993 publication Raising Black Children an update of 1975s Black Child Care, written with noted child psychiatrist James P. Comerstresses the importance of instilling black pride and self-esteem in children of color.

Through his writings and his activities, Poussaint has prompted experts in psychiatry to rethink existing theories of racism. In articles such as A Rap on Self-Hatred with Jesse Jackson, published in Why Blacks Kill Blacks, he debunks racist psychological theories made by whites in the field. Instead of subscribing to the theory of racial self-hatred, he developed the aggression-rage theory to explain the various psychological issues that challenge African Americans: Much of black self-hatred is in reality repressed rage and a manifestation of being conditioned by fear to be docile and self-effacing, he wrote in the essay. [The theory of racial self-hatred] allows whites to feel that [blacks] are psychologically deranged while [whites are] posing as models of mental health. In fact, it must be whites who are insecure and filled with self-hatred, since they are the ones who need to oppress blacks in order to cope with life.

Poussaint has also fought for professional equality within the field of psychiatry. In the late 1960s, he was instrumental in forming the first Black Caucus of the American Psychiatric Association and electing the first black officer of the group in 1969. He has loudly attacked studies and treatments with racist biases, such as the outrageous suggestion in 1973 that psychosurgery be used to curb urban violence. He told Ebony magazine that this frightening idea assumes ... black people are genetically damaged that theyre so animal and so savage that whites have to carve on their brains to make them into human beings. The whole concept is vicious.

Gained Nationwide Recognition

In addition to writing about issues specific to African Americans, Poussaint has explored national issues and their impact within the black community. For instance, in An Honest Look at Black Gays and Lesbians, published in Ebony, he discusses the problems of homophobia and AIDS and their impact within the black community in the United States.

Poussaints writings and activities have garnered him national recognition and, in turn, afforded him further opportunities for remedying racial injustice. In 1976, he became the health consultant for the Congressional Black Caucus. He has also advised the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And Poussaints political reach extended into the presidential arena in 1984, when he codirected the Reverend Jesse Jacksons Massachusetts presidential campaign. That same year, he became a pivotal figure in the effort to dismantle old racial stereotypes on television, becoming a production consultant for the long-running series The Cosby Show. As Poussaint explained in Ebony, The Cosby Show dramatically altered the image of blacks as poor, downtrodden, yet happy-go-lucky clowns. The Huxtable family [the fictitious clan headed by Cosby] help[ed] to dispel old stereotypes and to move its audience toward more realistic perceptions. Like whites, blacks on television should be portrayed in a full spectrum of roles and cultural styles.

Offered Solutions to Youth Crises

Poussaints influence as a psychiatrist and educator crosses racial, economic, and social lines. With the election of Bill Clinton as U.S. president in the November 1992 elections, Poussaint saw an opportunity for change among the nations disadvantaged youth. As he stated in the Detroit Free Press, we need to find ways to teach parenting [and] conflict negotiation. Id put it in the junior high and high school curriculums, he added, suggesting that informed parents can better battle the ills of violence, drugs, and discrimination in society and therefore contribute to the physical and psychological health of their children.

Selected writings

Why Blacks Kill Blacks, Emerson Hall Publishers, 1972.

(With James P. Comer) Black Child Care: How to Bring Up a Healthy Black Child in America, Simon & Schuster, 1975, published as Raising Black Children, Plume, 1993.

Black Children: Coping in a Racist Society, University of Michigan School of Social Work, 1987.

(Author of introduction and afterword) Cosby, Bill, Fatherhood, Doubleday, 1986.

Contributor to additional books and to periodicals, including Psychology Today, American Journal of Psychiatry, Essence, and Ebony.

Sources

Books

Metcalf, George R., Up from Within: Today s New Black Leaders. McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Thomas, Arthur E., Like It Is, edited by Emily Rovetch, Dutton, 1981.

Periodicals

Black Scholar, May-June 1987.

Boston Globe, January 13, 1989; July 30,1989; November 23, 1989; January 31, 1990.

Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1991.

Detroit Free Press, February 16, 1993, pp. B1, B8.

Ebony, February 1973; November 1992, pp. 202-205; February 1993, pp. 86-89.

Jet, September 26, 1988.

Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1990.

Newsweek, January 25, 1993, p. 55.

New York Times, July 17, 1990.

Time, May 17, 1993, pp. 48-49.

Robin Armstrong

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