The Nature of MAMA: An Interview with Dr. Wade Nobles

cayley - Posted on 24 September 2010

Dee:  What is your current position at San Francisco State?

Wade Nobles: Full-tenured professor in Black Studies Department.

D: And you are a Ph. D.?

WN:  I have a Ph. D. in [experimental] social psychology.

D:  First, can you speak on the psychological notion of individuation and how it affects people, especially African-American people, and can you define individuation, as it is commonly defined in psychology?

WN:  As I recall, this notion of individuation had to do with people’s need or capacity to find something unique about themselves that separates them from other people.

D:  To separate from their people?

WN:  Other people, that’s the difference, its all people.  So it’s a kinship to this notion of individuality, but it’s seen more as a process wherein people strive to heighten – and the belief is that they benefit from  - having this sense of individuation.

D:  …and it’s similar to individualism, but it’s not exactly the same.

WN:  I don’t recall any of the theorists, who talked about it, but I believe that it’s grounded in the philosophy that comes out of the Euro-Western tradition and to that extent it may not be applicable to all people who are not Western or who are not European people.

D:  At one point you made a comment, something to the effect that black folks do not believe in individuation.

WN:  Look at the way African people live, the way they conceive of themselves, it’s all rooted in their own cultural deep structure.  And African people, particularly African-American people have been an oppressed people and as an oppressed people have never been given full license to embrace or to adopt Western Standards.  Consequently, we’ve simply retained our old African, even though it’s unconscious, we’ve retained our old African belief systems and philosophical orientations.  And those as I understand them are antithetical to this notion that what is most valuable about you is what makes you unique and distinct from everybody else.

D:  So you’re saying that individuation would apply to white families in the US or any family that incorporates these traditional white society values?

WN:  My total response would be that that’s something for a white psychologist to determine, but being separate and distinct is not a driving force for African people.  Even when we distinguish ourselves from other people, like when you do something great or special, like a great ball player like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordon or a great scientist, if you look at those people, they are driven by the desire to represent the best of their people, not driven by the desire to show how they are different from everybody else.

D: Why do you think, though, that white psychologists and teachers of psychology promote this idea of individuation?

WN:  I believe that it’s more political than scientific or psychological.  That in societies that thrive on the basis of exploiting people, then you have to have people believe that they are separate from each other so that when they see the exploitation of someone else or some other group, they are satisfied that it is not happening to them so they don’t have to do anything about it.  If you keep a society full of individual, you can exploit the whole population individually, and each individual believes that it’s happening to the other guy and not happening to me.

D:  Would you say this concept promotes capitalism?

WN:  I think that capitalism and much of the constructs in Western psychology emerge out go the same philosophical grounding, and that philosophical grounding is based upon the idea of separateness, distinctness, domination, fear, and exploitation.  So, capitalism is just the economic system that parallels individuation as a psychological system.  So it’s not that it promotes it, it certainly does reinforce it and allows for it to exist, because individuation would never challenge some of the precepts of capitalism.  Capitalism says I’ve maximized my profits, minimized my loss; in order to do that others and I have to exploit others.  I won’t exploit others if I believe that others are the same.  So if I believe in individuation, then I certainly have a free license to exploit others.

D:  So individuation reinforces capitalism?

WN: Yes.

D: Okay.  Does psychology that promotes individuation cause a problem for African-Americans or other people when they’re caught in the mental health system?

WN:  Absolutely, a great deal of the psychological problems that African people and people of color experience are associated with their oppression and their exploitation- so if their psychological trauma is associated with exploitation and oppression and you have them believing in individuation then they never challenge the oppression or the exploitation then they think their problems are intrinsic they think something that happened in their individual family systems are the cause of their psychological problems, as opposed to being systematic, which is; problems are caused by the nature of the society not the nature of your mother.

D:  The nature of mama! Yes I like that.

Tiny enters…

Tiny:  Can you speak to the fact that Western or Euro-centric psychology critiques the multigenerational family house where you have adult children living with the mother or the father, i.e., critiques this family structure by pathologizing it.

WN:  Well, you see, it becomes problematic in the therapist’s eyes because to them the problem with the client is they’re not being independent of that web of influences that are the multigenerational family, so they cast it as a negative environment, because you’re not independent, you don’t have volition, your own self-volition as opposed to viewing it with the notion of collectivism in the African family that is complementary and not oppositional.

D: …. But the psychologists who believe in individuation would say…

WN:  You’ve got to break free from our family, you’ve got to break free from the influence of your grandmamma, from the influence of your uncle, that you have no independent agency because in their minds you are submitting to the thinking of or the feelings of or the ideas of these other individuals, which you are just as independent as them so why do you let them influence you?  So they have you fighting with your kinfolk for the independence as opposed to fighting with a system that is dominating and exploiting human beings and human life.

Tiny: - Does that approach of pathologizing that family structure also occur for instance, in Africa or in other countries?

WN:  The thing is African mental health professionals have been trained by Western theory, they’ve embraced it and they bring it into the African continent, just as black psychologists in America, who have not challenged the thoughts and idea of Western psychology, will use what they have been trained to do to try to medicate or to help black families, and what they do is they introduce factors to the family that are alien and cause in my opinion as much destruction as it does healing.

T:  And how does that play out? Does the culture answer back?

WN:  Well, the culture answers back but what the Western world does is compartmentalize everything. And so what happens is that people believe in the cultural realm or in the spiritual realm or in the religious realm or in the family realm that we can do these things, but in their professional life or their educational life or in their economic life they have to do other things.  And so if they don’t see there’s a holistic notion or a holism, if you will, with human beings, i.e., I can’t be interdependent in my family and then be independent and domineering and exploitative in other arenas.  But that’s what this society tries to have – black people especially, but people of color in general – do to decompartamentalize their lives and their live-spaces.

WN:  It is bad for human wellness, I believe, but for people of color you almost have to do that in order to survive in this society.  From generation to generation, and across generations you’ll see that one of those are going to become the dominating theme of one’s lifestyle.
D:  So what you’re saying is that compartmentalization is necessary in order to remain interdependent in the family as well as economically independent?

WN:  You have to do that, but then everything is valuated.  Then people start putting value on what’s most important.  What’s most important in life is not playing libation to my ancestors or giving deference to my grandmother.  What’s more important is that I’ve got to get a job and live in the white world.  So people start putting down or making less important those indigenous cultural values and start consciously trying to fit in and be like whatever the dominant society says is a successful human being.

D:  And I’ve noticed when you go to Third World cultures that there is interdependence in the family and the rule of the mama, or in African-American families such as Joe’s (Joseph Bolden) grandma, he didn’t call her grandma, he called her mama and his own mother he called mother.  And neither his mother or him could cross grandma, or else.

T:  Can I just ask… we were taught by Pamela George at one point about the notion of transubstantiation and she gave the illustration of [Daniel Moynihan] in the sixties, and interestingly enough one of our staff writer’s mother wrote to Daniel Moynihan expressing to him how wrong his deduction was. Could you describe what the notion of transubstantiation is?

WN:  The idea of transubstantiation is that in looking at the surface behaviors of a people, you can draw conclusions about the meaning and values of behaviors, but the meaning and the value comes from the deep structure of a people’s culture and values.  And so you have African people behaving in a certain way, based upon the African deep structure, but you have a person like Daniel Moynihan looking at that behavior and trying to interpret it from his own European culture deep structure.  He draws the wrong conclusions.  And so in the black family at eh time that Daniel Moynihan was examining it, there was this whole notion of families with women without husbands raising children, which he deemed, a broken home and that the broken home would cause negative things to occur in the development of children.  The mistake he was making was the installations of values in the development of children is not tied to the mother-father linkage, it is tied to a system of eldership.  And you have older brothers, older cousins, older uncles, older aunts, older mama, grandmamma, big mama, great mama, almost in this hierarchy of eldership, and all of those layers are what improve the development of children. So if you take one piece our, i.e., the father, it is not a devastating as it would be in the European family.
T: You mean the nuclear family?

WN:  Yes the nuclear family.  Moynihan made a transubstantive error because he was judging the black family based upon the value system of the European culture.

D:  What do you mean by eldership, can you be a little more specific?

WN:  Eldership really says that everyone older than you is responsible for your well-being and welfare.  So it makes no difference whether it’s your sixteen-year-old cousin and you’re nine years old, that person is responsible for looking out for you.  And then there’s somebody above her and someone above that person, so there’s a hierarchy of age grades, and everyone that is younger than me I’m responsible for looking out for, and they have to be obedient to me, and everyone that’s older then me looks out for me and I have to be obedient to them.  So I’m a 60 year old man, if see a 70 year old in my family, I give deference to that 70 year old, because they are my elder.

T:  So that would be the actual construction of the village that is always talked about.

WN:  That’s how the village operates.

D:  And why do you have to be obedient?

WN:  Why do you have to be obedient?  Obedience is… be careful with the transubstantive mirror, because obedience is not the individual being somebody who is ruling you, obedience is listening to somebody who is guiding you.  So the reason why you’re obedient is because you’re getting guidance from this person to become a better person.

D:  Okay, and that’s just sort of built in, that’s the assumption, that’s been the tradition forever.

WN:  Everyone in the village is responsible for guiding, for directing, and for making sure that the next generation advances to the next higher level, the person of good character.  The goal here is not obedience that you will obey someone, the goal here is for your good character to evolve.  Well, how do I as an elder help other people evolve their good character?  I give them challenges, I give them assignments, I evaluate them, I give them feed back to them on what is good and bad about their decisions they’re making, the choices they make, ect.

D:  So for example, if you are one of the people of the “village”, and you caught a young person doing something they weren’t supposed to do like smoking for instance, and you take them behind the school and you “whoop” them and then you tell them that you’re going tell their parents if you see them doing it again and then they’ll whip them.  How does corporal punishment fit into all that?

WN:  It’s a technique.  Corporal punishment is just a technique of child rearing; just as loving and hugging is a technique of child rearing.  You have a whole arsenal of techniques, and it becomes problematic if all you do is whip and spank children.  A lot of people look at corporal punishment in African families as this bad thing because we are beating children or something, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t look at the fact that children are incorporated in celebrations and parties and they’re given responsibilities and they’re identified to the larger group as having done something of excellence and they’re praised and they’re honored for their achievements.  And when they stray into something wrong, they are chastised.  Sometimes it’s a verbal chastisement.  A lot of times if you commit an offense and every time your mother or father comes around other adults they will say, “Well, tell Aunt what you did last week,” and you will have to repeat this same old thing you did to every adult as a way of internalizing that… and they’ll be astonished and shocked and oh, you shouldn’t have done that, you’ve got every adult saying you did something wrong.  And then when you do good, the same thing happens. Tell Aunt Mary what you did, how you got an A or whatever, and you tell that and everybody will stop that they’re doing to praise you. So it’s a balancing of different strategies of child rearing that were not looked at when non-African scholars tried to examine black family life or black psychological processes.

D:  That’s true.  You hear about it a lot.  And that’s where, for example, my question about poor people, poor families, single parent families, and people of color get caught in the mental health system.  I’m thinking Child Protective Services (CPS) in particular, because Mom was caught yelling at the kid a whole lot and maybe spanking the kid or something like that and oh, that’s a terrible things they’ve done and they’re judged by these people in CPS who have absolutely no knowledge of any of the things that you’re saying.  And I think that fits in to what you’re saying right now about the “village”.

WN:  A village around them, other sisters or kinfolk or play kin.  There are all kinds of people that go into the mix of raising a child. So what Mrs. Clinton stole from the African culture belief system about it takes a whole village to raise a child, that’s absolutely true, because all adults, it’s not just adults, it’s age grade.  It’s anyone older than you is responsible for making sure that no harm comes to you and that you benefit and develop in life.

T:  How do you fell about the relationship between Child Protective Services and Black Families who may believe in corporal punishment as one of their parenting strategies?

WN:  It’s very important that people who work in Child Protective Services take courses in black studies, so that they understand black reality grounded in a black perspective, in fact, when I was in graduate school I worked in the summers in Child Protective Services, and one of the things I had to do was to write up all these little case studies to demonstrate that some family was either neglecting or abusing their child.  But because I has already started my career training and understood that there’s a difference between African reality and European reality or white reality and black reality, I was able to point out things like I’m pointing out to you now about the family system that did not qualify or justify the removal of the child or for the charging of the family for abusive behavior or neglectful behavior.  People have to know about the culture and the belief system and the values of the community if they’re going to work in that community.  And unfortunately, a great deal of people in social welfare, social work and Child Protective Services have been educated but not educated to the degree that they understand the real culture of the community that they’re working in.

Dr. Wade Nobles is the author of many books on African psychology.  He is a tenured professor in Black Studies at the San Francisco Stare University and the Executive Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Black Family and Culture in Oakland, California.  For more information on how to purchase his books please contact Yolanda at (510) 836-3245.  



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