February: Let’s Celebrate Black History Month!
Linda Woolf, STP President"Won't it be wonderful when Black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of US history is taught from one book. Just US history. I am trying to work myself out of a job by being so active extolling the virtues of African Americans." Maya Angelou (cited in Muir, 2012)
Often discussions of the history of Blacks in the United States (US) have focused on the destructive harms committed by privileged Whites against Africans forcibly brought to this country and enslaved. It is an essential history to learn, as is learning about the far-reaching legacies left behind from the eras of enslavement and racist eugenic ideas of human hierarchies to today with the ongoing fight for social justice. Certainly, the American Psychological Association (APA) has been grappling with this history and has begun the processes of apology, reconciliation, and reparative justice. STP also has been wrestling with its own history and legacies, issuing the Statement on Addressing Systemic Racism and Inequity in STP and looking at structural processes affecting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Moreover, STP is working actively to increase diversity related resources, blog posts, publications, conference offerings, and more. Important work but is there anything else we should be reflecting on during Black History Month? The answer is “Yes!”
What is often omitted from Black history discussions are the legacies of resilience, accomplishments/triumphs, inspired communities, rich cultural tapestries, and soaring spirits of African-Americans, who not only survived but also thrived under systems of exclusion. I think it is this history that forms the basis for celebrating Black History Month, which sets the stage for greater inclusion throughout the year.
I’m sure that many of you are like me, and when psychology was first introduced to you, you were taught about the “fathers of psychology”—a bunch of White men. Gradually, over the years, I was introduced to women pioneers in the field, who previously had been written out of history. However, I still was not exposed to the breadth of Black pioneering psychologists, who have shaped our discipline. There is an amazing history for us to explore, learn, and celebrate. So for this Black History Month, I want to recognize the work of a few of these Black pioneer psychologists and call on everyone to learn more.
Many psychology textbooks today include the story of Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark. Kenneth Clark became the first African-American President of APA and both are remembered for their pivotal work before and during the Civil Rights Movement. Most notably, they are recognized for their groundbreaking Doll Study research, which paved the way for their expert testimony before the Supreme Court in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education, ending mandated segregation of schools.
However, how many of us have learned about Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD, “the first Black women to earn a doctorate in psychology”? Her dissertation, “The Non-Academic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools,” helped form the basis for early arguments against school segregation and was also cited in that 1954 Supreme Court case. Of course, I should also mention Ruth Winifred Howard, PhD, “the first African-American women to earn a doctorate in psychology,” who worked with troubled girls as well as students with special needs. As to who really was “the first,” it appears to depend on whom you read and your definition of what should count as a psychology doctoral degree at the time.
Of course, we know that desegregation did not simply end segregation. Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD. in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria And Other Conversations About Race, wrote, “Our public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1980, as measured by the percentage of all Black students who are attending schools that are ’90-100% non-White” (2017; Prologue). Dr. Tatum’s examination of the effects of racism on Black children’s identities in school and problems with the educational system earned her the 2014 APA Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology.
Some other early educational leaders:
Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD, is often referred to as the “Father of Black Psychology.” He was the first African-American to earn a doctorate in psychology. He helped found the Psychology Department at Howard University and served as a teacher and mentor to individuals such as the Clarks.
Albert Sidney Beckham, PhD, is often cited as the first Black school psychologist. He also worked to found the first psychology laboratory at Howard University. His research examined a range of topics such as artistic and musical abilities in Black children, IQ testing, the role of the environment in juvenile delinquency, and racial attitudes of Black adolescents.
George Canady, PhD. was the first psychologist to study bias in IQ tests by examining the role and effect of the test administrator on the IQ results for non-White children.
Robert Lee Williams, II, PhD, challenged the idea that IQ test results were equitable and is remembered as the creator of the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity. He demonstrated that differences in IQ often cited by eugenicists to falsely claim White superiority failed to address differences in the environment and culture.
Joseph White, PhD, wrote and advocated for the creation of Black Psychology. He argued that the application of White psychology defined as normal created the illusion of an inferior Black Psychology. In his writing he focused on a strength-based approach and description of Black psychology and culture. He is one of the founders of the Association of Black Psychologists. As such, he also has been described as the “Father of Black Psychology.”
Of course, there are too many individuals to celebrate in this short column! I do want to mention two others as their work and legacies are remarkable beyond the university and are just personal favorites of mine.
Carolyn Robertson Payton, EdD, was the first psychologist, first female, and first African-American Director of the US Peace Corps. A pioneer in the field of multi-cultural psychology, Payton (1984) asked, “Who must do the hard things?” (p. 391). She stressed that psychology has an important role to play in understanding and addressing social issues. As an educator, leader, mentor, scholar, and policy-maker, Payton confronted issues of social inequality and justice exemplifying her belief that psychology is not just about research but also direct action to improve the lives of others.
Olivia Hooker, PhD was originally rejected by the Navy but challenged the Navy’s decision and won. Nevertheless, she decided not to join the Navy and went on to become the first African-American woman to enter the U.S. Coast Guard and served towards the end of and after WWII. Later, Dr. Hooker became a school psychologist. It also is important to highlight that she was a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
Of course, I could write about so many other Black psychologists who have shaped our discipline and our understanding of psychology. But more importantly, how can we help our students learn this history and include Black psychology into our work today?
One of the projects that I do with my History of Psychology class is something I call the “Lost in History” project. I give them a basic instruction: “You will be responsible for creating a one-page infographic highlighting the works of an early psychologist who has been lost in history due to their status within a marginalized group.” I also tell them that they cannot select a person who is already presented in their textbook. I provide them some basic resources such as APA’s I Am Psyched and Ethnicity, Race, and Cultural Affairs Portfolio (ERCA) Featured Psychologists. I have these students provide each other feedback about their work with opportunities for revision. Then (during non-COVID times), we place these infographics around the department as a way to celebrate these psychologists’ accomplishments through the entire year.
In my Introduction to Psychology class, I open the class by highlighting the work of a range of psychologists with various intersectional identities. I want my students to see individuals who look and identify similar to themselves—individuals who have gone on to amazing careers in psychology and related fields. A quick look at recent Black APA Presidents includes: Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD., first Black woman President of the Association, Rosie Phillips Davis, PhD, Jennifer F. Kelly, PhD, and current APA President Frank Worrell, PhD. You can read about Dr. Worrell and then explore links to previous Presidents on the governance webpage. You will find brief biographies but also links to videos and publications. In addition, I like to have my students look online for research and publications by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) psychologists, neuroscientists, etc. related to the various topics we cover in class. I want them to not only learn about the research and accomplishments but also to see their own possible futures.
As we progress through Black History Month, let us work with our students to highlight the work of Black Psychologists and other leaders, celebrating their lives and accomplishments. If you learn about a BIPOC scholar that got “lost in history” or someone who everyone should know about today, share what you have learned on the STP Facebook page, via Twitter, or other social media. Let us all learn and celebrate together.
For more information about Black History Month, see:
Muir, H. (2012, February 15). Maya Angelou: 'Barack Obama has done a remarkable job.’ The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/15/maya-angelou-barack-obama-remarkable-job
Payton, C. R. (1984). Who must do the hard things? American Psychologist, 39, 391-397.
Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria and other conversations about race (Kindle edition). Basic Books.