BALM IN GILEAD: Journey of a Healer

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I have this rear view visual of myself on a secluded white sand beach; the clear Caribbean Sea slowly extending the fringe of land & water 10 yards in front of my bamboo lounge chair, with a plush over sized beige beach towel overflowing from the sides, slowly swaying with the light bilateral breeze. A quaint end table is to my right, nestled next to my chair with a clear tall glass of water. An identical glass of rum punch sweats next to the glass alongside a wooden plate filled with seafood, fruit & vegetables. The one item, vying for space on the end table is the book in which I am writing about now: Balm in Gilead!

I was gifted this literary piece by my neighbor during my 3 year stint as a Harlem resident. She was moving to Oregon & remembered one of our brief talks about my love of reading, then handed me 20 of her favorites. I had not recognized this biography on my shelf until this month. The timing put me in a state of wonderment as the book lay in my hand after an extended conversation with 2 of my peers concerning the history of psychoanalysis & our take on intersectionality being [for the most part] unaddressed concerning race, class, religion & gender. Published a few years after my birth, I am appreciative that Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot put into words 4 generations of her family's history, & in particular the life of her mother Dr. Margaret Cornelia Morgan Lawrence, the first African-American psychoanalyst.

I do not find myself compelled towards leisurely reading biographies, but with my knowing that one of Dr. Lawrence's titles are "psychoanalyst" how could I not read? My intrigue w/Dr. Lawrence began before I even opened the book. Dr. Veronica Abney wrote a thorough 17 page paper, a sliver from her dissertation about Black Psychoanalyst in the United States, which I came across in May 2018. After scribbling down all of her references, Balm in Gilead was quickly on my "Must Read" list; adding to the synchronicity of the book waiting to be found in my very real bookshelf.

The Harvard educator, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, was intentional about weaving in as many aspects of her mothers experiences as possible while also capturing the 2 year interviewing process that she conducted for the book; a process her mother deemed as being similar to a second analysis. I must say I was under the impression that her actual analysis at Columbia Univ. Center for Psychoanalytic Training & Research would pour through the pages in detail concerning its transformative impact on her life & career, this was a 5x/week analysis! Despite putting into words what the experience concretely & symbolically meant to Dr. Lawrence it was merely a morsel of her life story as a black woman born & raised in the deep south of Vicksburg Mississippi with a preoccupation to help "her people". Of all things to be preoccupied with, I can relate concerning an unyielding determination towards servicing my community, my family & myself. The aspect of service is on a continuum that I can trace back via 4 generations, while comprehending as Dr. Lawrence did so eloquently in the biography, the relevance of being able to integrate in ego strengths intergenerationally, not solely the trauma. 

One of the stark themes within Balm in Gilead was the consistency of racially influenced discriminatory foreboding that never left the text; keep in mind this is a successful & significant black woman from a successful & significant family who raised successful & significant children. There are no aspects of victimization or strife in the literary text, I go as far as to say I'm pretty certain that they'll be a movie made in her honor. The complexity of how and why she forged paths for future generations of women of color to succeed within directly working with other people of color was clearly no easy feat. I question now what success means, within the read pages and present day. When she was not discriminated against (overtly) due to her otherness pertaining to her skin color there were threads of sexism. When those 2 aspects were not explicitly named as being present she was still left to fend off her otherness as a southerner being educated at all white Ivy League Universities not too long after the end of Jim Crow Laws. I dare to ask how the hell she did it even though I read the book lol. 

I circle back to the theme of race, identity, family lineage & all that remains ineffable within the experience of people of color as it relates to current psychoanalytic theories that were comprised in their entirety by affluent white individuals, far removed from claiming their own racial otherness & privilege. That reality does not negate the importance & proven value of those theories whether a person identifies as being Classical Freudian, Kleinian to the bone, Jungian, or Rogerian (to name a few), but it highlights the [overall] resistance & blind spots of the white collective unconscious as it pertains to addressing racism. Marshall Mcluhan has a poignant quote that captures what I have just scribed, "One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in". I have sat with that quote and allowed it to resonate juxtaposed with the current political climate in the United States. I ponder what role I am comfortable claiming as an activist. 


Dr. Lawrence, at the enamored age of 103, is still living. Not only is she the first black psychoanalyst, but a living breathing historical icon. I am drawn towards her being an iconic female (Oprah as well) from Mississippi, a state which currently has the largest black population in the US. She inspires me to write about race & identity, to write about the experience of the black person on the couch, the black person across from the couch, the black person being taught in institutions not originally designed with their growth in mind, & with my exact words within those experiences as both subjective & objective. I am also inspired to collect data within all in which I just described. I wrap my thoughts together with this abbreviated quote from Hattie McDaniel:


I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry