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- Interview with the Oscar Nominee Documentarist: Raoul Peck
- I Am Not Your Negro: Film Review
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|Exclusive Interview With One of the finest psychiatrists in America: Dr. Alvin Poussaint, M.D|
|Written by Patricia Turnier LL.M|
|Friday, 01 March 2013 00:00|
Dr. Alvin Francis Poussaint MD was born in East Harlem (NY) in a family of eight children. His ancestors were from Guadeloupe and New York City. His parents were Harriet Johnston Poussaint, a homemaker, and Christopher Poussaint, who worked as a printer and typographer. Dr. Poussaint is a renowned authority, an eminent dedicated psychiatrist and teacher, part of the American intelligentsia. He is also a prolific author. In addition to co-authoring Come On People, Dr. Poussaint is co-author of Raising Black Children and Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans. He closely collaborated with Dr. Bill Cosby Ed.D on several of his best-selling books. Dr. Poussaint’s books should be translated into other languages (French, Spanish, Creole, etc).
He is a man of courage, philanthropy and a veteran of the civil rights movement. From 1965 to 1967, he was Southern Field Director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Jackson, Mississippi, selflessly providing medical care to civil rights workers and aiding in the desegregation of health facilities throughout the South. He is the former chair of the board of directors of PUSH for Excellence. He also served as one of Rev. Jesse Jackson's advisers in the 1984 presidential campaign.
Dr. Poussaint has authored widely cited articles in medical and lay journals. He is a highly respected consultant for the various medical institutions affiliated to Harvard Medical School in Boston and an honored speaker at a multitude of public forums. Thus, he joined the prestigious Harvard (the oldest and illustrious university of the United States) Medical School's faculty in 1969, where he remains today as a professor of psychiatry and faculty associate dean for Student Affairs. Dr. Poussaint is passionate about his work and is also currently director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston .
He is known for his numerous contributions to Ebony magazine. He has been a frequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He was one of the brains and a major force behind the sitcom The Cosby Show, one of the most-watched television programs in America. It was an extraordinary success which made history . This show helped propel NBC from third to first place in the primetime ratings. At one point The Cosby Show was viewed by 38.3 million people, approximately one third of the American TV audience. This sitcom was the most-watched television program in America from its debut in 1984 until the end in 1992 . It was the first time in television history that a sitcom had African-American parents with liberal professions. The Cosby Show changed the perception of the Black family worldwide. It was an educational situation comedy. For instance, Afrikaners began to view differently Black people and the sitcom was a hit in South Africa (it is important to note that at the time the masses of Black South Africans didn't have access to television sets). The Cosby's grandchildren (on The Cosby Show) were named Winnie and Nelson in honor of Winnie and Nelson Mandela. Today, it is the third anniversary of Mr. President Barrack Obama's election. Mega Diversities believe that The Cosby Show was instrumental in some way to pave the way for Mr. President Obama as the first African-American to hold the office.
Dr. Poussaint was a script and production consultant to NBC's The Cosby Show (from 1984 to 1992) and also to The Cosby Show’s spin-off A Different World (from 1986 to 1993). His contribution to these shows definitely raised a new standard to the current (at the time) and the following American sitcoms in terms of social consciousness programming. The world knows Dr. Alvin Poussaint as a tireless crusader in the campaign to increase parental and public awareness regarding the harmful effects of violence and the increasing commercial exploitation of young children through television. Dr Poussaint continues to share his expertise with the media and works as an advocate of more responsible programming . He has appeared on numerous channels such as CNN. Dr. Poussaint is an expert on race relations in America, the dynamics of prejudice, and issues of diversity as our society becomes widely multicultural. He lectures on many college campuses and also serves as a consultant to government agencies and private corporations. He has done pioneering research on African American related to psychological and social issues.
Dr. Poussaint is one of the most important and respected physicians of diverse interests in the United States. He was classed among the top America’s leading physicians in the July 2008 issue of Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Poussaint received several honorary degrees. In spite of the diversity of his huge successes and accomplishments, Dr. Poussaint, a legendary psychiatrist distinguishes himself by his admirable simplicity and his generosity to share his knowledge. He embodies the great spirit of America. Through his books and his influence in the media, Dr. Poussaint gave us a legacy and we are looking forward to his next contributions. By the Editress-in-Chief Patricia Turnier. She owns a master’s degree in law, LL.M . This article has been translated into the Molière language by the same author and published in the French media in Europe1 and Africa in 2008.
[This interview is the 2011 version which was posted previously on our webmag]
Patricia Turnier, LL.M. talks to Dr. Alvin Poussaint, M.D.:
P.T Can you share with us your medical professional journey? In other words, when did you discover your passion for medicine? How did you overcome the obstacles as an African-American to become a doctor during segregation era in the US and to teach later in the top university of the world? Did you have a mentor to help you?
Dr. A.P. I discovered my passion for this field when I was about 9 years old. At the time I became ill. I had a rheumatic fever and was hospitalized for about three months. I then spent two months in a convalescent home. I admired the doctors who saved my life. I had no choice at that time to take up quiet activities like playing the clarinet and reading. This really influenced me later academically. So when I got back home, it became a fantasy of mine to be a doctor. It was my goal even if I did not know at that age what the first steps were to make it happen. I knew however that I had to excel at school until college.
When I was in college, there were very few African American doctors. Most of them attended Southern medical schools, such as Meharry Medical College in Tennessee and Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C. I wanted to study in the North where there was no segregation. I stood a chance to succeed with a good record as an African American male. I received my BA from Columbia College in 1956. After, I enrolled in the medical school of Cornell University in New York City. I chose Cornell because I was born there. Symbolically, I wanted to return there where my mom gave birth to me. I received an M.D. from Cornell in 1960. I completed my residency at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and in 1964 I received a Master’s of Science degree in this same institution.
From 1967 to 1969, I taught at Tufts Medical School faculty. I served there also as director of the psychiatry program in a low-income housing project. All these professional and clinical experiences helped prepare me for my duties at Harvard Medical School. So, in 1969 I joined this institution. I served from 1975 to 1978 as director of student affairs and I was an associate professor in the psychiatry department at Harvard. Now I am a Professor of Psychiatry and Faculty Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Harvard Medical School.
I knew discrimination existed. To overcome the obstacles, I said to myself that I would work as much as I could. The best deterrent for discrimination is excellence. I had to do everything to make sure it would be difficult to refuse my admission with an excellent record. I applied to Columbia and NYU medical schools, but I hoped that Cornell would take me. I was the only African American who was admitted in my school year and when I graduated there were no African American students after me for a while.
P. T. You were a trailblazer.
Dr. A.P. Not really. Even if it was not easy at the time there were other people before me who made it. They paved the way.
You asked me if I had the opportunity to have a mentor. I didn’t have one; it was my own motivation which helped me. I can say though that my sister-in-law lent me books which definitely shaped me intellectually.
P.T. How important has activism been for you throughout your life?
Dr. A.P. Activism has been a big important part of my life for a long time. As a teenager, I started to fight for justice. In college I was involved in the civil rights movement during my studies in medicine. I was part of the NAACP College Chapter . In fact, I believe that activism was always part of me. When I finished my training in psychiatry, I was employed from 1965 to 1967 by the Medical Committee for Human Rights which worked closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC ) in Jackson, Mississippi . There I provided medical care to civil rights workers and helped desegregate Southern health facilities. When I studied at UCLA, the activists and I wanted changes . Later I was engaged in Operation PUSH. Throughout my life, I also used writing to criticize and challenge the status quo. I spoke to community groups to raise consciousness among people and tried to bring changes.
Dr. A.P. Some TV executives were skeptical because they thought the country would not respond to a black family headed by two professional parents: a lawyer and a doctor. The sitcoms from the mainstream American society historically portrayed African Americans as burlesque buffoons or as stereotypical characters. With the situation comedy The Cosby Show we wanted to dismantle, dispel and overcome old negative images of African Americans on Television with positive ones. It was important for us to avoid any inappropriate, subtle, demeaning, hostile, racial messages or humor. The show was very funny without vulgarity or derogatory comments. We wanted to give the American audience a more realistic perception of Black America by crossing racial, economic and social lines. This formula worked. The American audience immediately took to it. It became a great success. The roles were played very well with the plot. The actors played their characters brilliantly. All these factors contributed to the success of the show. The American public was ready in the 80s to accept the show.
P.T. You were one of the brains and a power behind The Cosby Show. What does the worldwide success of this sitcom mean to you?
Dr. A.P. Yes, I was one of the people behind The Cosby Show, but I think the credit goes really to Bill Cosby himself. I backed him up. I gave suggestions on scripts and he accepted most of them. I was sending him messages, advice and ideas on good parenting, dealing with family problems, educating, showing love to their children. This sitcom was about teaching parenting and negotiating conflicts. Many people used The Cosby Show as a model for their own family. It had a very positive effect on White America and Black America who were proud of the show. People regardless of their origins and their ages could relate to the sitcom.
P.T. I could add that what is amazing about The Cosby Show phenomenon is the fact that an all new generation is discovering it now. It became a classic.
Dr. A. P. Yes, that is correct.
It is said that young black people are not aware enough of the victories of their ancestors and that might have an impact on the negative image they can have of themselves.
For example, very few people in the American society know that the first woman law professor of a chartered school in the US and also in the world was the African American Lutie A. Lytle, in 1897 . Black America has a very rich history.
Do we need a more inclusive education system where we would recognize and acknowledge the contribution of every community in the building of the US nation?
What solutions do you see to make young African American people feel that they can accomplish anything?
Dr. A.P. We definitely need a more inclusive education system and American history has to be corrected. Black stories have not been entirely told. And it should start at preschool. It is important also to include in American history, the pre-Columbian period regarding the Natives, the contribution of the Latinos, etc.
It is also the responsibility of the parents to start the education in the home. They should teach their kids black histories, their accomplishments, etc. They have to instill in their children the pride of their African- American heritage. This will give them a stronger sense of self-worth and will strengthen their self-image. All these factors will reinforce the spirit of excellence and achievement to fulfill their potentials. The whole of mainstream society should also read those books because it is part of American history and it will develop linkages between the different communities. In other words, I believe in the concepts of cultural pluralism which emphases the fundamental equality among different cultures and the usefulness of identifying commonalties among cultures. This would create a transcendental approach to interactions in which differences of “race”, culture, and ideas would be respected, appreciated and valued. By improving the lives of every minority groups, this country can become as powerful as it really can be.
P.T. What sort of bridges can be created between the black intelligentsia and the African-American youth to transmit their knowledge about their history, their professional experiences and how they overcame the odds? In other words, how can the African American elite help empower and give tools to the younger people of their community?
Dr. A.P. There are a number of approaches which can be used. For example, the media can invite African-American from many fields (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc). The media should also call on Natives, Latin-American professionals and so on. This would give opportunities for the kids to relate to them. I think it is also important that the black intelligentsia be involved in schools where they can visit and talk to the kids. They can be life coaches to the youth. The black elite can expose the children to art, literature, music, travels, etc. Mentorship, tutorship, Big Brothers Big Sisters programs represent other useful tools for the youth. There are already a lot of things going on but it is not enough.
Local businesses, work offices, summer camps, medical clinics, law firms, carpenters or people from any fields should hire young people from the African American community. This would give them the exposure and experience they need. These learning experiences would help them realize the importance of work ethics, etc. These measures will give tools to the youth for excelling in academic and social settings. They need guidance to face the difficulties they might encounter. They definitely need these opportunities to grow on a personal and a professional level. This is how the black intelligentsia can pave the way for the current and the next generation. The African-American elite must pass on their knowledge, experiences and information to the younger generation. This will encourage the youth to keep their goals in mind and to keep working to achieve them. They must not accept any limitations by achieving excellence and living up to their inherent and real potentials. They have to stay focused.. All these means will help young people to function well and to face the different challenges in wider society.
P.T. The American Psychiatric Association has never officially recognized extreme racism (as opposed to “ordinary” prejudice) as a mental health problem, although the issue was raised more than 30 years ago. After several racist killings in the civil rights era, a group of black psychiatrists sought to have extreme bigotry classified as a mental disorder. The association's officials rejected the recommendation, arguing that because so many Americans were racists (at the time), even extreme racism in this country was seen as normative—a cultural problem rather than an indication of psychopathology (until the 1960s). In 2002, you wrote an article called: “Is extreme racism a mental illness?” for the Western Journal of Medicine. What is your position about this issue? Do you think that social ills like racism or any other bigotry such as anti-Semitism should be included in the D.S.M. IV2? Do you think that clinicians need guidelines for recognizing delusional racism in all its forms so that they can provide appropriate treatment?
Dr A.P. Right now the DSM IV does not include an index on racism, anti-Semitism, prejudice or on any other social ills. This situation gives no tools to the clinicians to classify them or to allow them to give a diagnosis on the manifestations. For example, for an individual who has paranoia symptoms about Blacks and Jews with deadly ideas the DSM IV offers no descriptive terms to classify this condition as a disease. The clinicians need guidelines for recognizing extreme delusional racism, anti-Semitism or other forms of bigotry. This would raise consciousness in the psychiatric profession and in the general public. These conditions are not normative and those people need mental health care.
P.T. Do you think that by not including these issues, it is a way for society to refuse to take any responsibility collectively to treat or prevent dangerous acts from individuals or a group of people who can create oppression, pogrom, genocide, massacres or any other forms of exterminations and crimes? Otherwise how can we stop extreme delusional racists or bigots to continue to fall through the cracks of the mental health system, and stop them from exploding and acting out their deadly delusions?
Dr. A.P. By including in the DSM-IV social ills like extreme racism or anti-Semitism it would support the idea that those conditions are unacceptable and not tolerated. The symptoms and manifestations of those social ills need to be studied as a mental disorder. If psychiatrists took extreme racism -- resulting in paranoid delusions -- more seriously, than they would have to treat those conditions. It is imperative to make sure that no dangerous bigots fall through the cracks of the mental health system. Prevention is the key. We must stop people before they act on racist delusions with violence. Unfortunately people have been hurt already because of it in this country and around the world.
P.T In your book Lay my burden down you expose with co-author Amy Alexander the mental health problems that some African-American people face. As a psychiatrist, do you think they suffer from post traumatic slave syndrome which could explain the presence of atavism?
Dr. A.P. Slaves were brought through middle passages and boats. They were beaten, killed with impunity, many jumped of the ships, all kind of diseases manifested themselves. They were raped, hunted, persecuted and so forth. They experienced physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuses. They were dehumanized. There was an emotional damage suffered by the enslaved. The question is how many slaves were suffering, 100% maybe and this pain, which could not be expressed freely most of the time, was transmitted from generation to generation. Without making a general diagnosis, we are still suffering from it and remained un-healed. Any other individuals such as abused women or ethnic groups like the Jewish people still suffer. The trauma is still there even if the holocaust happened over 60 years ago. Many African-Americans are still struggling with all the feelings of inferiority which were instilled in them historically.
P.T. We could call this an unmeasured injury. Black people can internalize all this negativity.
Dr. A.P. Yes, exactly, they can definitely internalize all the negative feelings which are susceptible to create self-hatred. This condition represents a manifestation of post traumatic slave syndrome. This negativity can also lead to behavioral and societal problems.
P.T. In an interview with Tavis Smiley you said that only 2.3% of African American were psychiatrists. You explained that situation might prevent some people from the community to ask for help for several reasons: lack of cultural competence, pervasive stigma, language barriers, etc. What solutions do you see to improve this situation?
Dr. A.P. We should have more black psychiatrists and psychologists. But for now, we have to make sure that all psychiatrists and physicians have cultural competence. They need to have a broader understanding of cultural factors and the effects on mental health. It is a must for the professionals to have knowledge of the techniques which work with ethnic communities. Black psychiatrists or culturally sensitive physicians can reassure the patients about their fears regarding the stigma attached to mental health problems. I think that it is very important to possess knowledge in the field of differential cross-cultural diagnosis among the mental health professionals. Cultural competence is a requirement for them, especially in the multiethnic, pluralistic and linguistically diverse society in which we live.
P.T I guess it is very important in our pluralistic society to further develop the ethnopsychiatry field.
Dr. A.P. Exactly.
P.T. As a psychiatrist again and as a media advisor what do you think about the negative images regarding misogyny, verbal or physical violence that we see in some videos or movies? It is seldom in videos that we see people in a working environment. We often view people partying all the time in the clips which worship hedonism. What impact these factors can have on the youth psyche? How can we improve this situation?
Dr. A.P. My concern is about gangsta rap. I can say that I have no problem with regular hip hop. This beautiful artistic musical form originates from poetry, blues, jazz, funk, soul, etc. But gangsta rap glorifies misogyny, violence, casual sex or promiscuity, usage of vulgar or derogatory language such as b* and h*. When the youth watches violence, they can become more vulnerable and they can be tempted to imitate what they see. I definitely don’t approve of too much violence or any musical forms that worship aggressiveness particularly among vulnerable and easily influenced young black males because it can create more problems. It is hurtful in particular toward black women. You can do hip hop and it can be positive. Unfortunately gangsta rap is destructive and it sells. If children behave poorly it is a reflection of adults. It is imperative that they hear good messages or watch positive images in the media.
P.T. I could add that a lot of young kids don’t know what they really glorify. They are not aware that baggy pants come from prison where it is forbidden to have belts. They are imitating others without knowing the root of this trend.
P.T The media often portrays the African American community as a monolithic group where three areas of success are presented as options to the youth: becoming an athlete, a rapper or a singer without giving nuances or explaining the difficulties which might occur (abusive record contracts, problems with royalties, etc). As a psychiatrist and as a media advisor, what solutions do you see to change this situation?
P.T. Do you have a message for young people about how to succeed in general and advice to give to those who are interested in the medical profession? What is the best way to make a mark as a physician?
Dr. A.P. The message that I want to give is addressed to young people but also to the parents. To succeed it is important to teach the value of education. The parents need to demonstrate an interest in their kids by reading to them, by encouraging them, by building libraries for their children and by taking advantage of the schools for expanding their knowledge. Parents have to reach out more often to schools, tutors and mentors. It is important also for parents to use positive reinforcement with their children. This will give the opportunity to the youth to do well in every branch. More specifically concerning the medical field, one of the ways to make your mark is to conduct medical research, write and publish specialized articles that can be highlighted in your resume.
P.T: Dr. Poussaint, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your rich store of experience. It was an honor and a privilege to interview you.
Dr. Poussaint married an accomplished African-American physician, Dr. Tina Inez Young on December 5, 1992. She is a specialist in neuroradiology. Dr. Poussaint and Dr Young Poussaint have a daughter, and a son from Dr. Poussaint’s previous marriage.
1956 BA Columbia College (four year New York State Regents Scholarship)
Internship and Residencies:
1960-1961 Intern in Medicine, UCLA Center for the Health Sciences, Los Angeles, CA
Hospital or Affiliated Institution Appointments:
1967-1969 Senior Staff in Psychiatry, Columbia Point Health Center, Boston, MA
Selected Major Committee Assignments where Dr. Poussaint was involved:
National and Regional:
1968-1969 National Treasurer, Medical Committee for Human Rights
Harvard Medical School:
1969- Main Admissions Committee
Judge Baker Children’s Center
1988- Camille Cosby World of Children Awards Committee
Selected research, teaching and clinical contributions of Dr. Poussaint
1967-1969 Principal Investigator, Student Health Organization, HEW Grant
Some of the many Editorial Boards where Dr. Poussaint was involved:
1970- The Black Scholar
Selected Professional Positions and Major Visiting Appointments of Dr. Poussaint:
1965-1967 Southern Field Director, Medical Committee for Human Rights, Jackson, Mississippi
Some of the many Dr. Poussaint’s involvement in National Television/Educational Media:
1979- Consultant for various television stations and film projects, including a variety of PBS programs such as NOVA, Seasons of Life and Childhood
Awards and Honors:
Dr. Poussaint received numerous awards and many honorary degrees for his outstanding contributions to the medical field. We listed some of them:
Michael Schwerner Award for contribution to Cause of Civil Rights, New York, NY (1968)
He is a life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and a fellow of the American Orthopsychiatric Association.
Some of the many Dr. Poussaint’s articles:
Clinical Manifestations and Diagnosis of Amyloid Polyneuropathy
A Controlled Study of Imipramine (Tofranil) in the Treatment of Childhood Enuresis
The Effect of the Physician's Smoking on the Treatment of Smokers
The Stresses of the White Female Worker in the Civil Rights Movement in the South
A Negro Psychiatrist Explains the Negro Psyche
Black Power: A Failure for Integration within the Civil Rights Movement
The Black Administrator in the White University
Interracial Relations and Prejudice
Black on Black Homicide: A Psychological-Political Perspective
An Honest Look at Blacks Gays and Lesbians
Black Children: Coping in a Racist Society
Psychology and Psychiatry
Prostate Cancer: Male Killer Hits Famous & Not-So-Famous
Racial Issues in Medicine: A Psychosocial Perspective
Is Extreme Racism a Mental Illness? Point-Counterpoint
Books by Dr. Poussaint:
Why Blacks kill Blacks (1972), (introduction by Rev. Jesse Jackson) Emerson Hall Publishers, Inc.; 1st edition
Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the mental health crisis among African-Americans, by Alvin F. Poussaint, MD and Amy Alexander, Beacon: Boston, 2000.
Come On, People: On the path from victims to victors, by Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2007.
2 The D.S.M. is the Bible of psychiatrists. The latest version is the D.S.M. V now.