Making “Black Psychoanalysts Speak”

by Basia Winograd

[Note: Director Basia Winograd’s 2014 documentary, Black Psychoanalysts Speak (which can be screened via YouTube, here), is required viewing in many of the undergraduate courses that I and my colleagues teach in the Psychoanalytic Studies program here at the University of Pennsylvania and in many such courses at other colleges and universities throughout the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Whether our students are interested in psychoanalytic theory or in the history of psychoanalytic practice, they find that this splendid film answers many of their questions about the changing face of the profession and the changing terms of clinical and metapsychological discourse. What is the place of race in analytic thought and practice? Why are there still so few African American psychoanalysts? And what do they have to say about their own professional formation and about the extent to which discussions of race and related sociopolitical, cultural, and intergenerational experiences have been, until recently, virtually excluded from the analytic consulting room? My own students continue to be both dismayed and encouraged by the stories they hear from the analysts Winograd interviews in the film—stories of institutional and personal racism, stories of patients whose experiences as African Americans are routinely ignored or dismissed, and stories of gradual but meaningful change. Because Black Psychoanalysts Speak features in so many contemporary undergraduate courses on psychoanalysis, I’ve asked Basia Winograd to tell the readers of Psyche on Campus a bit about the making of the film and about the relation between cinema and psychoanalysis from the filmmaker’s perspective. Happily, she’s agreed!  —Max Cavitch, editor]

As a documentarian, I’m often approached by someone convinced they know what my next film needs to be. Almost invariably, the project they have in mind is the moving portrait of an organization grappling with one of our civilization’s most pressing problems: climate change, poverty, gender inequality, racism, etc. I hate to sound cynical, but I’ve learned over time that such “films” rarely turn out to be more than vanity projects: fundraising videos disguised as art. I understand the need for fundraising, and I’m as terrified as anyone about all the world’s current and impending cataclysms. But let’s keep our categories clear. I went to film school. I know what a film is.

Thus, when I was approached in 2013 by a group of Black psychoanalysts searching for a filmmaker, I had my doubts about getting involved. At the time, I had only the vaguest notion of what a psychoanalyst was. Kind of like a psychologist, I thought, but maybe more eccentric? Maybe even a little perverse? I have plenty of admiration for mental health practitioners, but also a strong suspicion of anything that smacks of eurocentrism…like a universal theory of human behavior developed by a cigar-smoking middle-class doctor in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

Then again, these were Black psychoanalysts. Those two words, Black and psychoanalyst, suddenly so intimate with each other, intrigued me. I requested more information and a few days later got a note from Dr. Anton Hart, a member of the professional organization, Black Psychoanalysts Speak (BPS), in which he told me:

…this [documentary] will feature a good group of distinguished (and, I might add, charismatic) black psychoanalysts…Psychoanalysis has historically been viewed as a primarily white (and Jewish) discipline. Yet these analysts represent counter examples in a number of ways. [One] issue has to do with elitism. What does this expensive treatment modality have to offer those who might be in positions of economic struggle? Then there are issues pertaining to the various tensions that have arisen in the (racially diverse) group planning the conference: who is a black psychoanalyst? Who is black enough? Are there problems with white people presiding over a conference called “Black Psychoanalysts Speak”? And then there are the diversities that exist within the group of black psychoanalysts: some have dedicated their professional lives to work with underserved, largely black populations; others have practices and interests that might be found among non-black analysts…

This didn’t sound anything like a fundraising video. And there was a challenge implicit in the very nature of the proposed collaboration: Dr. Hart had mentioned that the role of white people in his organization was a matter of serious debate. I’m a white person, which meant that the very structure of the production would also be interrogated—the kind of meta-project that I could not turn down. It promised to be uncomfortable in a productive and unusual way.

Let me try to explain. The filmmaker on nearly any documentary production is safely ensconced behind the camera, while the subject is exposed, vulnerable, scrutinized. This lack of parity is exacerbated by the fact that so many of the documentaries that get funded in the United States treat social issues. So the filmmaker, who nearly always comes from a position of relative privilege, ends up acting as a sort of ambassador to the world of her subjects, whose misfortunes—whatever they may be—are precisely what makes them camera-worthy This dynamic feels increasingly uncomfortable as the important question of “who gets to make art about what” gets asked with increasing frequency and urgency.  The truth is that documentary filmmaking poses ethical challenges I’ve struggled with for a long time.

But having BPS approach me to film them changed the nature of the collaboration in an important way. The tables were, if not exactly turned, then at least angled slightly differently. I would still be behind the camera, but this time not quite as safely, not quite as comfortably, because my subjects had creative power. This kind of partnership would have been an anathema to me in my film school years, but now it seemed a promising way to resolve some of the ethical quandaries inherent in the work that I love.

A few days before production started, a question came up among the members of Black Psychoanalysts Speak: should one of them be on set to oversee me as I conducted the interviews? Or, better yet, should an analyst be the one conducting the interviews, leaving me to direct the technical and aesthetic matters? I didn’t like this line of questioning one bit. “My practice,” I told my collaborators, “is to keep my crew small.” More to the point, I was scared that Black Psychoanalysts Speak had discovered how ignorant of psychoanalysis their filmmaker actually was—that she didn’t even know what transference was, not to mention its shadowy sidekick, countertransference, and that while she’d certainly heard of projection she secretly thought it a rather baroque explanation for why people are sometimes assholes. But the analysts agreed to let me conduct the first interview on my own, and I must have passed muster, because the question of whether I was equal to the task didn’t come up again, and  I conducted all the interviews myself.

I felt many things as we filmed—above all, lucky. Several of the people I was interviewing had been active in the Civil Rights era; all had dedicated their lives to studying human behavior; and race continued to be a central issue in the analytic work they did. I’d been given free license to explore an issue that, as Dr. Kirkland Vaughans puts it in the film, “so prompts excessive anxiety that it blocks off our capacity to think.” The interviews took place in 2014, and in some important ways the conversation around race has evolved since then. For example, many people seem less hesitant to admit that race is “a thing.” I also think that part of my pluck in 2014 was due to the fact that there were fewer rules governing such conversations than there are today.

Whenever the camera starts rolling on an interview, one experiences an exhilarating departure from the banality of everyday discourse. In this case, the dialogue was also a kind of balm—a reprieve from the stress and frustration of tip-toeing around the elephant in liberal America’s room. Nevertheless, despite my excitement and relief during those first days of filming, a form of imposter syndrome overtook me. One analyst expressed dismay upon realizing I didn’t know what she meant by “psychodynamic.” I stayed up late, Googling “transference,” Franz Fanon, and Winnicott. What kind of hubris was this, thinking I was the right person to be asking these questions? I liked the idea of venturing beyond my comfort zone, but what if I said something glaringly wrong? Maybe, after all, they should have found a Black filmmaker—or one of those brainiacs I remember from film school, always going on and on about Lacan this, Guattari that.

Some documentary directors describe good interviews as being “full of usable sound bites.” And it’s true: well-formulated, short snippets simplify the editing process and give the final project a polished feel. But the interviews for this film were not full of “usable sound bites.” My questions were often long-winded and halting, and some of the answers were several minutes long. I didn’t feel I knew enough to cut in, or to skillfully redirect my subjects’ replies. I worried that the material wouldn’t come together in a meaningful way, that I was missing something vital, that there was something important I’d forgotten to ask. Indeed, as it turned out, I was missing a lot. Much of what the analysts were telling me was going right over my head. Luckily, everything I would need was there in the footage. But it would take months, as I read the transcripts and edited the project, for the full import of the interviews to take shape for me.

The primary question with which I began was at once simple and formidable: why are people racist?  And, by “people,” I meant chiefly liberal white folks like me who often have a tremendous amount at stake in seeing themselves as non-racist. (Self-proclaimed racists are horrifying, but less confusing.) What, I wanted to know, is this terrible trap we’re caught in? As I worked with the interview footage, I had some mini-epiphanies about the subtle ways in which well-meaning white people fall into racist behaviors despite their best intentions.

One came while I was editing Kirkland Vaughans’ interview. Dr. Vaughans described using a psychoanalytic approach in his work as a school psychologist. He spoke of teachers in an inner-city school, who complained to him about a student who was so aggressive and intractable that “it takes four of us to hold him down.” Pointing out that this was just a little kid they were talking about, Dr. Vaughans translated the teachers’ statement: “four of you to hold your fantasy of him down.” Vaughans elaborated: “Sometimes [the teachers] can’t think about the kid because they’re enraged, and then they defend against the rage. I let them know: rage is normal. Anger is normal…Right? So once we can normalize that, they don’t have to defend against it. And we can get into their fantasies of who this kid is.”

I’d always thought fantasies were like pleasant dreams—me on a beach right now holding a fruity cocktail instead of sweating over my keyboard in a grimy Queens apartment. Could “fantasy” also mean something ugly and insidious, a preconceived notion that distorts the way I see and behave toward another person? Old news to psychoanalysts, certainly; but, to me, a novel concept! Dr. Vaughans went on to say that “most whites see black boys as four or five years older than what they actually are,” which tells us a lot about why little black boys are treated as if they were adolescents, even by those whose job it is to care for and educate them.

I also learned that psychoanalysts do, in fact, spend a lot of time poking around in their patients’ dreams. I never doubted that dreams could be interesting. But, before I considered this anecdote, provided by the late Dr. Cheryl Thompson, I had no idea how revealing of racial attitudes our dreams could be:

One of my favorite analysands, whenever she was angry with me, she would have a dream about taking me to look for real estate on Long Island. Race was very much a part of our conversations. She had great difficulty with conflict. But she said, “you know, I had a dream that we were in Roslyn Heights, and you were looking for a house. And no one would sell you a house, and I was your realtor.” So I would say, “Gee, it sounds like you’re a bit annoyed.” And she’d say, “Well, you know what you said yesterday…” And she was willing to work.

In the United States, we often talk about our own “brand” of racism, indelibly marked by our history of slavery. Longstanding forms of institutional racism are part of our national inheritance, yet it’s an inheritance than many Americans still refuse to acknowledge (viz. the pushback against the New York Times’s recent “1619 Project”). Yet, as someone who has lived in six countries on three different continents, I’ve seen firsthand that vile racial attitudes and systemic racial inequalities are by no means confined to the U.S.

In a sequence twenty minutes into Black Psychoanalysts Speak, under the title-heading “Othering,” the psychoanalysts begin to pull back the curtain on what it may be in the human psyche that makes us so fear “the other.” Dr. Kathleen Pogue White begins:

Forever, it seems to me, we’ve had a problem about self and other. When you think about really back in the day, when we lived in family groups in the caves, others were people who could take your food, or take your whatever, space…

The analysts tend to speak more softly in this part of the film, and they don’t make as much eye contact with me:

ANTON HART: Human beings are inherently insecure and have reasons to be anxious in the world. We start from a position of absolute dependency. Safety is a project that every human being is engaged in.

JAMA ADAMS: We’re all afraid of dying. I mean the ultimate human fear is that I will not be here. So I’m here for a short while. And how do I make myself special? And therefore you create an “other” who you project into it all your fears, all your anxieties.

CHERYL THOMPSON: If the group, even though they look odd to you, can function and be competitive with you, then what power does that leave you with? So it really becomes an issue of the person who has the power needing desperately to hold onto it. Because it’s that power that is the pretense of immortality.

DOROTHY E. HOLMES: There’s a tendency for people to cast outside of oneself those things you do not like and put them into other people. That’s what I mean, in general, by “othering.”

ANTON HART: Freud talked about it in terms of projections.

And there it was, that word I’d originally scorned—projections—proving itself more useful than I’d suspected in explaining why people with a lot at stake in seeing themselves as liberal, enlightened, and non-racist can so easily slip into racist attitudes and behaviors.

Looking back now on the making of Black Psychoanalysts Speak, I’m struck by the fact that my ignorance of psychoanalysis was, at least in some ways, beneficial to the project. My naïveté, my not-yet-knowing, lent urgency to the dialogues. The interviewees, consciously or not (ha! I’m getting the hang of this now!), sensed how little I knew, and that motivated them to slow down and simplify, to push past psychoanalytic terminology and out of the realm of abstraction, and to adopt the kind of concrete language that evokes both emotional and intellectual responses and that gives stories heft and form. Had I been an analyst in full possession of the field’s conceptual language, the interviews might have been more polished—full of those “usable sound bites”—but I suspect they’d have lacked some vitality. In a similar way, my being white—my not having the lived experience of being Black in racist America—compelled the analysts to break their experiences down for me in a way they wouldn’t have needed to for an interviewer more like themselves.

I’ve gone on to work with psychoanalysts on a handful of other projects in the seven years since we made Black Psychoanalysts Speak. There’s always a moment of doubt as a new collaboration begins. What can someone without psychoanalytic training bring to the project? How will she know what questions to ask? But I continue to believe that the world at large would be well served by the wider dissemination of psychoanalytic ideas and techniques, and have come to see my role as that of a translator. I use my skills as a documentarian to help new audiences understand psychoanalytic concepts and their often complex social contexts.