Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South

Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South

Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South

Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South


In the American South at the turn of the twentieth century, the legal segregation of the races and psychological sciences focused on selfhood emerged simultaneously. The two developments presented conflicting views of human nature. American psychiatry and psychology were optimistic about personality growth guided by the new mental sciences. Segregation, in contrast, placed racial traits said to be natural and fixed at the forefront of identity. In a society built on racial differences, raising questions about human potential, as psychology did, was unsettling.

The introduction of psychological thinking into the Jim Crow South, however, produced neither a clear victory for racial equality nor a single-minded defense of traditional ways. Instead, professionals of both races treated the mind-set of segregation as a hazardous subject. Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South examines the tensions stirred by mental science and restrained by southern custom.

Anne Rose highlights the role of southern black intellectuals who embraced psychological theories as an instrument of reform; their white counterparts, who proved wary of examining the mind; and northerners eager to change the South by means of science. She argues that although psychology and psychiatry took root as academic disciplines, all these practitioners were reluctant to turn the sciences of the mind to the subject of race relations.


The sciences of the mind arguably served Western culture in the twentieth century as the chosen means of self-knowledge. Inquiries into human nature stretching back to the Bible, filled with insights about motivation and behavior, bore a kinship to modern psychology, and beginning with the Enlightenment, philosophical debates about cognition and scientific investigations of racial temperaments offered secular terms for reflection about identity as well. These enduring conversations converged around 1900 in a fascination with the self, newly conceived. This person was individualized and indeterminate. Not wholly fixed by a God-given or racial nature, every human being seemed to possess an elusive subjectivity affected by circumstances. in their own ways, the era’s medical psychiatry, experimental psychology, and psychotherapy acknowledged a malleable personality.

Early optimism that the psyche might be explained and repaired by means of these premises, and society restored in the process, has faded. the thought that we might adjust our social environments to secure private well-being seems almost quaint. Nonetheless, the psychological disciplines as we know them began precisely with excited attention to a self in flux and in context, and the passing of this mood was no simple matter of scientific progress. Social outcomes tested psychological ideas, and in America, the struggle between the new mental sciences and regional mores was unusually tangled in the segregated South.

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