Dr. James Jones: Surviving while Black

"The BHM view of Black history is an antidote to an historical narrative that made Black people out to be what White people wanted or needed them to be. BHM has, for nearly a century, provided a Black counter-narrative of strength, courage, brilliance, resilience and opportunity, talents and accomplishments."

The Opening Ceremony of McGill’s Black History Month will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 1, from 5 – 7 p.m. on Zoom. The keynote speaker is Dr. James Jones, the Trustees’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Black American Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Diversity at the University of Delaware.

As Director of the Minority Fellowship Program, Dr. Jones was awarded 25 million dollars in training grant funds from the National Institute of Mental Health to support the professional development of some 1,500 students of colour who otherwise may not have been able to attend graduate training programs in Psychology and also Neuroscience.

Dr. Jones is a social psychologist whose research has focused on racism, temporal orientation and its influence on personality and the personality orientations of Black Americans that evolved from African origins and which represent adaptations to the challenges of oppression, marginalization and discrimination in the United States.

In advance of his keynote address, Diversity Within Psychology, Dr. Jones has written the following op-ed entitled Surviving While Black.

We hope you will join us for Dr. Jones’ keynote. Please register here.

Surviving While Black

Without the enslavement of Africans, there would be no United States of America! Slaves built colonial America and made the wealth of the Nation possible. DESPITE, or perhaps because of their importance to the development of the United States, African slaves were dehumanized, stripped of all basic freedoms, and treated as commodities with no human rights. Black history chronicles the best and worst of America.

James Jones is an internationally recognized scholar in the areas of prejudice, racism and diversity.

Black History Month (BHM) was conceived in 1926 by the Black Historian Carter G. Woodson as Black History Week – the second week of February which coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (the 12th) and Frederick Douglass (the 14th). The BHM view of Black history is an antidote to an historical narrative that made Black people out to be what White people wanted or needed them to be.  BHM has, for nearly a century, provided a Black counter-narrative of strength, courage, brilliance, resilience and opportunity, talents and accomplishments.

My focus on this narrative is grounded in my training as a social psychologist and my decades of living as a Black man in America. How did Black people get from their arrival in America in 1619, to their significant and consequential presence in 2022?  Two principal obstacles had to be overcome. First, massive dehumanization was a racist design to strip Africans of their human worth, and provide a narrative that they were subhuman, infantile, and ignorant souls who were only suited for the oppressive conditions to which they were subjected.

The second was the White supremacy narrative and edifice of domination and control that deprived Africans – and Blacks in future generations – fundamental human rights to liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness. I argue that Africans drew upon their African cultural roots and adapted them to combat these oppressive and dehumanizing circumstances and forged a psychological and spiritual resilience that has supported the evolution of the race over the past four centuries.

I propose two ways in which Black resilience has been achieved.

The first is an integrative set of five African cultural characteristics with their associated psychological attributes that contribute to distinctive and strategic approaches to survival. They are Time – focusing on the immediate circumstance and attending to every nuance that it holds for both threatening possibilities and meaningful moments; Rhythm – a synergy and flow between people and their environment, creating a flow that maximizes creativity and efficiency; Improvisation – the ability to conceive different means of reaching one’s goals when obstacles, seen and unseen, block them.  It also creates a self-defining style that expresses creativity and unique personal value; Orality – ability to communicate in personal and public ways in order to share knowledge, express emotions, and erect boundaries of meaning that keep others out and lets kindred spirits in; Spirituality – acknowledges the interconnectedness of all things, and puts ones well being in the hands of powerful forces for good or bad.

These five cultural characteristics and their psychological attributes create TRIOS.  They comprise attitudes, abilities, beliefs and a behavioral repertoire that is strategically suited to for vigilance in a threatening and uncertain world, and a powerful form of self-expression and personal and collective fulfillment.  Our research shows that highly TRIOSic people are more psychologically healthy, more resilient in the face of adversity, and more flexible in how they approach challenging racial situations.

The second is the vigilance and self-awareness that arises from living in a racialized world that brings a negative focus on you because you are Black. I call this the Universal Context of Racism (UCR).  The likelihood and nature of sorting out the relevance and impact of race in any situation has three basic features: Salience – my race is socially significant and historically stigmatized. It is a salient feature of my world, and while it may not always be the cause of how I am treated, it aways could be.  Transcendent – my race is a source of pride, and despite obstacles and challenges, I am secure in who I am, and work all the harder to reach my goals; Racelessness – I do not see race as an obstacle, or racial discrimination as a problem because I value myself as a person beyond my race.

Our research shows that the more salient one’s race is, they experience more racial hassles, more anxiety, and the lower self-esteem. Conversely, when black students adopted a transcendent view of race, they reported fewer racial hassles, had higher self-esteem and greater psychological health. A racelessness orientation lead students to reject race as a defining characteristic and to see it as irrelevant to their life experiences.

TRIOS and UCR consciousness describe ways in which Black people have confronted and conquered racism and oppression. They motivate activism, energize creative expression, and fuel hard work and determination.  The crucible of oppression and racial discrimination has forged a psychological strength, creativity and passion that elevates the race and makes the world a better place.