Thursday, June 25, 2009

Anne Rose's "Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South"

Anne C. Rose is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at The Pennsylvania State University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South, and reported the following:
In modern times, the psychological sciences have struggled to explain mental illness and promote mental health. My book asks how psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis developed in a unique American environment: the segregated South. Here racial identity intervened by means of law and custom in every social situation, intimately shaping the experience of southerners. This was the American region where, in the decades after 1900, the exuberant new sciences of self-fulfillment faced cultural restraint and fear. The encounter tested psychology and the faith of Americans in its curative power.

On page 99, southern critics – black and white – condemn the abstraction of the psychoanalytic field study, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, by the Yale social scientist John Dollard. The year was 1937, and northern reviewers had praised Dollard’s interviews of African Americans in Mississippi, including questions about their dreams and sexuality, as pioneering. Southern book reviewers rose up in protest, although not in unison. One white professor claimed that Dollard’s hay fever, set off by the lush southern climate, distorted his senses. Dollard’s argument that the color line nurtured frustration and anger, this southerner fired back, was mere theorizing. A black sociologist agreed that Dollard was misled by his keenness for science. Analyzing segregation was fine, the reviewer insisted, but publishing a scholarly study was a weak response to a crippling moral dilemma.

Page 99 is typical in its emphasis on the regional migration of psychological concepts, the conflicts they stirred, and the sincerity of advocates with often tragically differing views. Regionalism deeply affected the development of American psychological theories and therapies, and the segregated South did not easily welcome self-exploration. Page 99 is not typical, however, because along with these contending intellectuals, ordinary southerners also played a role. Segregation conveyed one set of messages about selfhood, and psychology another. Put simply, segregation preached the limitations of distinctive racial natures, and psychology promised individual growth. The intellectual conflict was profound, the social stakes were high, and public discussion was cautious. In the restrained environment of segregation, southerners of both races made daily choices -- slowly informed by psychology -- that belong to the history of Americans’ continuing search for self-understanding.
Learn more about Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue